July 3, 2017

For Any Abused Gay Iraqi in Turkey, U.S. Refugee Freeze Is the Cruelest



 Istanbul Police attack Gays at Pride March 6 days ago




In Istanbul — For Mohammed, an Iraqi civil engineer, the cruelest experience of his life was not when his father tortured him for being gay.

It was not when Islamic State extremists took over the 26-year-old’s hometown in northern Iraq, forcing him to flee to Turkey. Or when he says he was almost raped at knife point and later laughed out of a Turkish police station when he tried to report the crime. Nor was it in January, when President Trump first tried — unsuccessfully — to bar refugees from entering America.

As Mohammed tells it, the cruelest blow instead came this past week, when the United States Supreme Court agreed to reinstate Mr. Trump’s 120-day freeze on refugee resettlement.

Tens of thousands of applicants for resettlement in the United States are affected by the freeze, and Mohammed is among the unluckiest: His application has been accepted for months, and he was simply waiting for the American government to give him an arrival date. 

“That is the one that destroyed me the most,” he said on Saturday, as he compared the many challenges he has faced in Iraq and Turkey. “I still had some hope before. Now I have none at all.”

Mohammed’s full name and current location are being withheld because of the dangers he faces in Turkey.

He is, ironically, fleeing much of the very extremism that Mr. Trump says he wants to wipe out. Mohammed left Mosul soon after Islamic State militants seized control of the city, when his sister warned him that their father had told the extremist group that he had a gay son.

But Mohammed’s persecution had started much earlier. In 2009, when he was 18, his father, a former officer in the army of Saddam Hussein, caught him during a sexual encounter with male friends. So began half a decade of torture and abuse. As punishment for his sexuality, Mohammed’s father beat him with metal, and sometimes burned him with a hot skewer. His legs and feet still bear the scars.

He was effectively kept under house arrest, allowed out only to complete his engineering degree, and later to work at a local engineering firm. If he was late arriving home, his father would increase the intensity of the beatings. Once, he says, his father punched his head so hard that Mohammed was hospitalized for two days with internal bleeding.

“Torture,” Mohamed said, “was a constant thing.”

With the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, closing in, Mohammed finally decided to escape, taking a bus to Turkey, Iraq’s northern neighbor.

Here, he applied for asylum, beginning a long and often byzantine process during which he was screened by the United Nations refugee agency; the International Catholic Migration Commission, a nongovernmental group that has for decades been involved in the resettlement and vetting of refugees to the United States; and at least three American government agencies, in what United Nations officials have described as the world’s most rigorous refugee-screening system. In the meantime, Mohammed’s life has been neither safe nor stable.

Turkey currently has more non-Palestinian refugees than any other country in the world. But unlike in Western nations, refugees in Turkey are not given the same rights as the indigenous population. The vast majority do not have the right to work, and many resort to exploitative conditions on the black market. 

Mohammed found odd factory jobs, but was always paid around half the legal minimum wage and never received the social security payments that Turkish workers get.

His employment was also easily terminated, as he found out late last year, when a factory manager fired him for developing a friendship with a gay colleague, Mohammed said.

That left him almost destitute, with no income to pay for the tiny room he shares with four strangers whom he does not trust. To keep afloat, Mohammed began to sell his clothes, then his camera, then his watch.

In January, after he was finally approved for resettlement in the United States, Mohammed hoped the windfall from hawking his possessions might tide him over until his departure was confirmed. But then Mr. Trump was inaugurated, and confirmation never came. Instead, the president suspended refugee resettlement, a move that was upheld by the Supreme Court decision this past week.

Now Mohammed is thinking of selling his last remaining valuable, his cellphone. He said he was down to his last 20 Turkish lira, less than $6.

With no family to call on for help, he feels afraid and abandoned, and ostracized because of his sexuality. While homosexuality is legal in Turkey, gay people face frequent abuse and discrimination. Istanbul’s pride events have been banned for the past three years, and people trying to march have been tear-gassed and arrested.

One gay Syrian refugee was murdered in a particularly brutal fashion last summer, and Mohammed himself has been subject to abuse. He recalls being spat on for being gay, and was nearly raped at knife point last year before managing to call for help.

When he reported the episode to the police the next morning, “they started laughing at me,” Mohammed recalled. “They said: ‘You’re not a girl so you can’t be raped.’”

Jobless and friendless, Mohammed, who is represented by the International Refugee Assistance Project, a New York-based refugee rights group providing him with pro bono legal assistance, now feels “on the edge between life and death.”

“I’ve been wronged all my life — by my father, by my family, by Iraqi society, by Turkish society,” he said in an interview.

“And now,” Mohammed added, “by the U.S. resettlement system.”


Follow Patrick Kingsley on Twitter @PatrickKingsley.
A version of this article appears in print on July 2, 2017, on Page A13 of the New York edition 

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