Gay residents in a Dresden refugee shelter have fled persecution in the Middle East only to face much of the same from fellow refugees. But help is at hand – from local gay rights groups, and also, paradoxically, from some quarters of the anti-foreigner organization Pegida.
Ahmad Suliman lays his head to one side and with his index finger makes a cutting motion across his neck. If Suliman had made public in Syria what he has in Germany – that he is gay – he says he would have had his head cut off.
The terrorist militia of Islamic State publicly executes gays in Syria and Iraq by beheading them or stoning them to death.
It was such a fate that the 20-year-old sought to escape when he fled his country.
He has landed in the eastern German city of Dresden, which is also home to the main support base of Pegida, an Islamophobic group whose demonstrations have attracted criticism for inciting racial hatred and intolerance.
But it is not Dresden citizens who have been throwing stones at Suliman. The abuse has been coming from other refugees.
Suliman sits in a local authorities building for foreigners in the district of Prohlis, where just a few days before people had hurled Molotov cocktails at a planned refugee shelter.
Ahmad has heard about Pegida, the anti-foreigner movement that meets in its thousands most Monday evenings, but he does not fear it.
Instead, he fears fellow Muslims in refugee accommodation.
He says that he and his friends, Rami Ktifan and Yousif al-Doori, were thrown out of the queue for the men’s toilets and sent to use the women’s instead. They aren’t real men, they were told.
They have been verbally and physically abused in homophobic attacks.
“They [our tormentors] wanted us to dance for the other men, like women,” said Ktifan, also from Syria. “They would keep us awake, sometimes until 5 in the morning.”
Al-Doori, a soft-spoken Iraqi, says the abuse started in their first shelter in the south of Germany, where rocks were thrown at them.
“Back home, I had to walk differently, change my voice,” the 25-year-old said. “I lived a double life, with two names, two cellphone numbers.” But in the refugee shelters in Germany, the torment started all over again.
When the three men were later moved to Dresden, their tormentors moved with them, and the abuse continued.
That is when the Dresden branch of Christopher Street Day (CSD), the organizers of an annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender celebration, stepped in. CSD boss Ronald Zenker was one of the helpers who arranged for the men to be rehoused.
Zenker says his group is currently sheltering 11 people living in fear of homophobic attacks. “New people arrive every day,” he adds, noting that the situation of gay refugees is worse elsewhere in Germany because there are no projects like CSD to help them.
The European Union classified persecution based on sexual orientation as grounds for asylum in 2013.
According to Germany’s Lesbian and Gay Federation (LSVD), homosexuality is considered a crime in 75 countries. Gay people face possible death sentences in countries such as Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Suliman and the other men are currently living in a apartment provided by the state. They now talk freely through an interpreter about their homosexuality, a taboo topic in Arab families. All three answer a resounding no when asked if their parents know about their sexual orientation.
They said they have not heard of any animosity towards gay people in Dresden. They are living under their true names, and move freely around the city. They also go to gay bars.
Nevertheless, they have seen how quickly the mood can change. In Istabul, where they first fled to and lived together for some months, Turkish police attacked a Gay Pride march with teargas and water cannons in June.
“We felt like we were back in our own countries again,” said Ktifan.
Some Pegida members have offered their support to the young men. In Boys, a gar bar in Dresden, a man tells of how there are gay people within the group’s ranks.
“Gay – but still pro-Pegida,” he says. As different as the two groups might be, Pegida is out to exploit the fear factor against foreigners, a fear that some gay people also buy into.
But CSD head Zenker notes that Pegida supporters have also been known to chant homophobic slurs.
Markus Ulrich of the LSVD group says that “the conservatives are suddenly very concerned about homosexuals.”
Zenker concurs, noting how “people who sympathize with Pegida are helping the gay refugees in our project.” He calls it their way of grouping the Muslims into “good” and “bad” categories and condemning the traditional values of Islamic culture.
Suliman said the reason he fled Syria was his sexuality, the war being the final trigger for his decision to flee.
The three friends had agreed on one thing before they came to Germany – if things didn’t go well there, they would move on.