Marigona and Elisabeth departed at the beginning of this year from Kosovo and Mexico to enjoy their love for each other in Belgium. They told ZiZo about gross cases of LGBT-phobia in the asylum center in Kapellen. They believe that Fedasil, the government organization that arranges the reception of asylum seekers, does not adequately support them. ZiZo editor Rémy Bonny had a conversation with the young couple and visited the asylum center.
We met on a summery Thursday afternoon in the cozy Belgian village Kapellen. With a certain restraint, the Kosovar Marigona and the Mexican Elisabeth approached me. Our emails and phone calls in advance made me frown. This young lesbian couple has been living in the nearby asylum center for two months.
‘These are the two worst months in our lives’, the ladies emphasized very emotionally. The past few months have been very intense for them. They ended up in an asylum center with a lot of single men who don’t really get along with a lesbian couple. “We can not go to the shower in our hallway anymore. That is too dangerous. ”
Kosovo & Mexico
Goga did everything she could to get to Lisa. ‘Life in Kosovo became unbearable to me. Since my father knows that I am a lesbian, he wants to kill me.’ She could not go to local LGBT + organizations either. ‘They told me that my wish was impossible. I had to put Lisa out of my head. Psychologists could help me with that. Fortunately, I did not accept the offer. ‘
Her family has Albanian-Islamic roots. In this Kosovar community, tradition and family honor are very important. Unfortunately, it did not surprise me when Goga told her that her father wanted to kill her. Pro-European politicians in the capital Pristina introduced progressive legislation for the LGBT + community in the past decade. But introducing laws is one thing. Applying the law in a thoroughly corrupt country is something completely different. I truly believe that Goga, for her own safety, had no option but to move to Western Europe. And then we are not even mentioning the fact that it is made impossible by international quarrels to enter into a relationship.
Yet you would not wish them this life. Goga’s and Lisa’s love story is one out of a thousand. Four years ago they met through Facebook. Despite the lack of physical contact, the flame immediately skipped. “I wanted to call her immediately after the first evening. I wanted to hear her voice. And yet secretly checking if she was not an old man, “Gona chuckles. They tried to meet each other for three and a half years. But the political situation in which Kosovo was wrong put a stop to it.
After a bloody civil war, Kosovo unilaterally separated itself from Serbia in 2008. Many countries do not recognize Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state to this day. Mexico is, in addition to Spain, one of them. As a result, Gona could not get a visa for Mexico. Moving to the LGBT-phobic Kosovo was not an option for Lisa. ‘We had to look for a third country’. That third country was Belgium. The young ladies chose Belgium because of its reputation as a gay-friendly country.
With a tourist visa, both ladies entered our country. It was in Belgium that they could meet each other for the first time in real life. Asylum they did not ask immediately. ‘The first nights we slept at hotel. That cost us a lot of money, but after all those years, we wanted to be able to be together undisturbed, “says Lisa. When the financial pressure from the hotel costs became too high, they both applied for asylum. The proceedings started and they were assigned a place in the asylum center of Kapellen.
‘Belgium is a fantastic country for LGBT people. But the asylum center of Kapellen is not Belgium. I feel less safe than in Kosovo. We feel illegal here.’ What followed was a long description of the negative experiences of the young couple.
‘From day one we already got threats. In one way or another the news spread very quickly that a lesbian couple was staying in the center. Since then, we are being chased and people are spitting at our feet. Once they threw balls at us, which caused me to suffer scrapes. But it quickly became a lot worse,’ says an emotional Goga.
The couple say they feel unsafe. ‘Our first room was completely behind the asylum center, far away from the employees. If something went wrong, it took a very long time for an employee to come to us.’ They say it did not help that they were so far away from the employees. ‘In the evening only two staff members are present for the complete asylum center. If something goes wrong here, then all help will come too late. ”
‘We had been offered another room, but when we visited the new hallway the people living there blocked our entrance. Lesbians were not welcome in their hallway’
Now they can not even go to the communal shower in their hallway. “I was taking a shower and one of the other women staying in the center began to shout and pound me hard on my door. I feared and screamed for my life. I think it must have been the most horrible twenty minutes of my life, “Lisa said. After the incident, the ladies were allowed to shower in a closed shower on another floor. “But this should not be a solution.”
Suddenly Goga gets a bag full of medication. According to Lisa, she now has to take ten pills a day. “I can not eat properly anymore, because a visit to the kitchen is too dangerous. And the amount of stress that results from this situation does not make me healthier either. ‘
Goga’s health deteriorated when she suddenly had severe stomach pain. “Lisa called for a doctor, but no one came off. The pain was so intense that I thought I was going to die. After 15 minutes our social worker came and referred me to a doctor’s office. There I had to wait a long time in a waiting room. ‘
The situation for the ladies deteriorated rapidly when they filed their first complaint against their fellow residents. “At the reception we asked for some hot water. A group of boys immediately came to us and started to threaten us. If we did not withdraw our complaint, they would tackle us harshly. All this happened before the eyes of one of the employees of the asylum center. He stood there and looked at it. ”
‘We really understand that we do not get a five star hotel, but this is just a terrible situation.’
The asylum center
After our interview we take the bus to the asylum center together. An old army barracks have been converted into an asylum center between cabinets of villas. Today, 350 asylum seekers are accommodated.
When we arrived at the housing units, it seemed to me that it was not too bad at first glance. But as soon as you looked at the details, it became clear that there were structural problems. There was no window and very little ventilation. For example, there is no roof between the various housing units. An agile person can climb over the wall in your room.
“A few weeks ago we had a neighbor who had pyromane tendencies. We were really afraid that suddenly everything would be ablaze. ”
‘In the morning we leave the asylum center to hang around in Kapellen. At least we feel safe there. We try to return to the center as late as possible. “Is this the only solution for the ladies? Their request for transfer has already been refused twice. Fedasil apparently have said that there is a lack of space.
“I fear that we first have to get badly injured before they really respond,” says Lisa.
Belgium was the second country in the world to introduce gay marriage. We are an example in the legislative field for the rest of the world. What does the government do for safety in the reception centers? “‘The assistants in the asylum center do their best, but it is the system that fails. They can not handle the amount of work and our complaints simply do not get a hearing in the higher ranks’, according to Goga. The reception center organizes information sessions for residents to inform them about Belgian values and standards. The policy is aimed at detecting discrimination and taking actions against the perpetrators. That Lisa and Goga are a couple, however, is known by several residents, which of course complicates the situation.
Residents who so wish, according to Fedasil, can always file a complaint, which is what Lisa and Goga say they have done on several occasions. After a while they wondered what happened to it. ‘We recently asked for copies of the complaints we filed and the employees refused us. Such a thing is not possible in a constitutional state? That way, we really can not check whether anything happens with it. ‘
In the closet?
“Then why do not you go back in the closet for those few months? You were in it for most of your life? ” I asked them naughtily. I knew that this question was inappropriate, but their answer to it would be instructive.
Goga and Lisa say it was suggested that they are better off pretending to be sisters, while the choice should actually be made by them. “I do not do this. We knew it would be a difficult situation, but not that we would be left to our fate, “Gona said.
Straight couples that fly to Belgium can often present wedding certificates. That way they are not separated. Goga and Lisa fear to be separated from each other. They fear that the one will get asylum and the other will not. That is why they have to prove at all costs that they are a couple. It is all or nothing for them.
Fedasil reports that it is unable to respond to individual cases. The policy is aimed at ‘detecting, condemning and sanctioning’ LGBT-phobic behavior ‘, says Lies Gilis (deputy spokesperson for Fedasil).
‘We consciously choose to provide an open reception for every asylum seeker and not to segregate on the basis of faith, ethnicity, nationality or sexual preference.’
In order to make this policy work in practice, the asylum center organizes information sessions on the values and norms that prevail in Belgium. They also deal with how sexuality and gender relations are dealt with here.
Fedasil is evaluating the e-learning modules on LGBT+ asylum seekers and refugees that were developed by Çavaria during the Safe Havens project in 2016 and 2017. These modules have already been followed by a number of reference persons, but the roll-out to the entire reception network still has to be done.
Kenneth Mills, who follows the situation for the Flemish gay and transgender umbrella organization Çavaria, believes that it’s time for the government to act. ‘It is up to the government to ensure that employees are also LGBT + sensitive and have the necessary knowledge by rolling out the e-learning modules. In the short term, Kapellen should primarily speak to the residents, but if that does not produce results, Marigona and Elisabeth must be transferred. ‘
‘At the moment, Fedasil is making an inventory of reception centers with facilities for LGBT + persons, based on a number of criteria. For example, the proximity of LGBT + associations, the training of the employees, etc. can be taken into account. In addition, Fedasil has set up a working group with both employees of the head office and reference persons in the field. That working group would have already met a number of times. These evolutions give us good hope, although the effect will only be felt after a while. It is now important that these efforts are maintained and that LGBT associations are permanently involved. ‘