A tall, muscular man walked across the lobby wearing large earrings, generously applied make-up and a light blue dress.
“Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” said Abdel, a transvestite from Iraq.
Welcome to Germany’s first shelter for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite and intersex migrants.
It is hidden away on a quiet, leafy road in Berlin, where dozens of migrants are kept under round-the-clock security to protect them from fellow migrants hostile to homosexuality.
“I wouldn’t want to be in a shelter with straight refugees,” said Bashar Taha, an ethnic Kurd from northern Iraq. “It’s too dangerous. Many people from the Middle East are very homophobic — people get beaten and even killed.”
Stephan Jakel, a therapist and the centre’s manager, said: “Many of our residents are traumatised.”
Their plight highlights the difficulties Germany faces in integrating the 890,000 registered migrants it took in last year, some from places where homosexuality can be punished by death.
Most gay migrants coming to Germany hide their sexuality for fear of being attacked by compatriots, says Jakel. Others face such danger the state of Berlin has qualified them as people with “special reception needs”, along with children, disabled people and pregnant women.
Shocked by the violence, including stabbings, suffered by gay people at the hands of their compatriots in refugee camps, German authorities initially offered separate accommodation in hotels and private apartments but this proved too expensive. Now specifically designed shelters have caught on.
Once at the shelter, new residents get free medical care including, if requested, specialised treatment such as hormone therapy for transsexuals. The shelter, run by Schwulenberatung, Europe’s biggest gay help group, is luxurious compared with facilities in other parts of the country. Ultraliberal Berlin has invested heavily: annual running costs approach £900,000, not including therapy and legal aid.
Security guards, including a veteran of the Berlin nightclub scene, have been chosen with care; only those showing sensitivity to gay issues are accepted. With double bedrooms and spacious common areas fitted with designer furniture, the atmosphere is relaxed, reminiscent of a university hall of residence.
Migrants are offered language lessons. Among the phrases recently scrawled on the blackboard in German one day recently were: “I am gay” and “I want to have sex”. “The first thing they want to do is to start a normal life,” said Jakel with a smile.
Getting a job is not the “first priority” for them, he added. Even so, some of the shelter’s residents have acquired work as DJs and bouncers in gay clubs.
Taha, 25, was a successful make-up artist and pop star in his homeland. He decided to flee after being exposed as a homosexual and receiving threats on social media. “I Googled the situation for gay people in Berlin — and that’s why I came here,” he said.
Since fleeing to Germany, he is no longer in touch with his family. They had always objected to his work and lifestyle as “haram”, forbidden in Arabic.
“My parents don’t accept me as I am,” he said. “But I’m not going to change.”
Refugees at the shelter can join the karate club to learn self-defence. It may serve them well. Even among this community of the persecuted, fights over politics and religion have erupted — residents include Christians, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims and atheists from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Some have had to be forcibly evicted for aggression or drug use.
“We’ve set an iron rule: no talk of religion or politics,” said Jakel. “This might be a more open-minded group but in reality we also face the same challenges as any other refugee centre, or rather society as a whole.”
THE SUNDAY TIMES