Today we are sitting down with Elias Karam, who is an LGBTQI activist from Lebanon living with HIV. In 2015 he emigrated to the Netherlands because of his political activism. Since 2015 he has been active in the LGBTQI immigrant community in the Netherlands through his work with the Amsterdam-based Secret Garden. Elias is also a member of the Programmers Team and a Curator at the International Queer and Migrant Film Festival (IQMF) Amsterdam.
Elias, first of all, I want to thank you for sharing your story with us. Could you tell us about what brought you from Lebanon to The Netherlands?
First of all, I am very happy to be here and thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I am very happy to see WINGS paying attention to me and giving visibility to the Activision that I do. My work is about showing people the truth so that they learn from this truth and do not make the same mistakes. I hope people can learn from my experiences. It fulfils me to be an activist. It’s all volunteer work on my part, it is on top of my regular job, such as my work with Secret Garden, International Queer Migration Festival, and of course the sharing of my personal stories and experiences. As a day job, I work as a well-being coach.
Now about my Journey, I came to the Netherlands in 2015 from Lebanon. Back there, I also did activism work, so if you think about it, the work I do here in the Netherlands is a continuation of my activism work. In Lebanon, people are fighting for their most basic human rights, like electricity, water, free education, and equal education. These rights, people don’t inherently have in Lebanon, and they struggle daily. And of course, at the moment, Lebanon is facing the worst economic crisis in its history and the total collapse of its economy and its government.
And on top of this, we had the massive explosion at the Port, which completely destroyed half the city where I grew up. When I went back last time, I could not recognise the neighbourhood where I grew up at all. I also lost two family friends in the explosion. This country is failing, it is collapsing. Can you imagine how it is to be queer in such a place? Our queer people in Lebanon are barely surviving. The banks also stole the money from the people and are not giving it back. I’ll tell you about my sister, she is a teacher before her salary was 2000 USD, now it’s barely 2 USD! Can you imagine this? It really is a crisis there, and it’s important to keep talking about this. I still feel I belong in Lebanon, also in the Netherlands, but I hold strong to my roots and my family in Lebanon. My family gave me the care and attention and love that I needed. When I came out to my family at a young age, it was difficult at first, especially for my mom. My mom is my hero. She is a good example of a woman who is a second citizen in the country, she had to leave her education to support her parents, and my grandparents, and then marry my father. My father is also a really good man, he always let us be who we are and do what we want as long as we were happy. He gave us the freedom to explore ourselves
So, in 2015, I was infected with HIV. Besides this, my contouring activism work in Lebanon was gathering attention from the media as well as trending on social media. Because of this attention to my activism, I began to receive regular death threats. With this and my HIV-positive status, I began to feel unsafe in Lebanon, and why I decided to leave.
Luckily, I still have a Visa to come to the Netherlands, and I had a good friend living there, so I chose to go there. My friend, Martijn, was so good to me, he kept in touch daily in the last 6 months I was in Lebanon, he offered me a place to stay and to support me while I applied for asylum, I am very grateful to him. It was because of his support that when I finally did make it to the Netherlands, I did not have to stay in the Refugee camps there.
It saved me also a lot of struggle there. LGBT refugees struggle a lot in these camps here. They are often relocated with similar people, set aside as LGBT refugees coming from the same background as other refugees, who come from the same homophobic background, this can be unsafe even in the camps! I didn’t struggle during my first year here, for which I’m grateful to Martijn. After this year, my request was accepted and I was relocated to Amsterdam. Also through all this, I remained married to my now ex-husband, with whom I lived in Lebanon. (“So you were married in Lebanon?”) Well, the marriage certificate was issued here in the Netherlands, but we were living together in Lebanon. After several months of my being here after my asylum was accepted, my ex-husband was allowed to visit me as a family member and was ultimately able to join me living here. However, after two years, we decide to separate. I’m now living on my own for the first time in my life. When we met I was 17 and he was 35, I went from living with my parents to living with him at 19. I never before had an opportunity to be independent, until now here in the Netherlands, and I’m enjoying it. (“So is your ex-husband still living here as well?) He is yes, building his own life.
Wow, that’s quite a journey. Could you now tell us about how you experience living here in the Netherlands? How you’ve been received? How it is to build a life here? What kind of challenges have you faced as a refugee here? How was your activism developed here?
Well, I already mentioned a bit earlier, I was privileged in many ways in my journey coming here, such as with my friend Martijn. This experience is not shared with all refugees, for others, it can be much more difficult. I would say yes, I was privileged, also because when I arrived, I did not have to stay in the camps (aka AZC). I can tell you with confirmed reports, hundreds of cases, of the problems and hardships faced by refugees forced to stay there, and in particular LGBT refugees. We’ve documented hundreds of stories of hardship and presented these stories in many public and political events.
We’ve also written an open letter and sent documents to the ministry. The COA is the organisation responsible for welcoming and hosting refugees in the Netherlands. They are tasked with making sure refugees have a bed, food, and money, though a very minimal amount, which is difficult to survive on. There is also Secret Garden which provides social and legal support to refugees. So, we’ve requested many times from the COA to provide safer and healthier residences for refugees, but this has not yet been fully addressed. One of the major issues is that, as I mentioned earlier when LGBT refugees are so publicly housed separately in these AZC Camps, which they call “Pink Houses” among other refugees from similar homophobic cultures, which I believe is a horrible idea!
It leads to attacks on LGBTQ+ refugees, as they are so publicly labelled in this system. It puts the lives of these LGBTQ+ refugees at high risk, who are the most vulnerable of all refugees. What’s more, after an attack, they are not safely removed from their attacker, who also largely goes unpunished in this legal limbo, so they largely remain in danger in these camps! It is a very difficult situation to be in and makes LGBTQ+ refugees continue to feel unsafe even when here in NL. And sure, so many refugees come here without knowing much about the culture here and need time to integrate, but this should not be accepted or go unaddressed! And on that thought, another major problem is, given the slow bureaucratic system here in NL and in Europe, refugees are not even given the opportunity to integrate, as they are forced to stay in these AZC camps and are not allowed to work. Such a waste of time which could be spent on the Dutch “Inburgering”.
I believe, if given the chance to integrate when they arrive here, refugees feel happier and safer, and the experience in these camps would be much better than it is now.
Could you tell us more about the activism you’re doing here now, in the Netherlands? I.e Secret Garden, International Queer Migrant Festival?
My work with the International Queer Migrant Festival started already in 2015 when I was still in Lebanon. We work internationally with filmmakers to try to give visibility to filmmakers of a queer and migrant backgrounds. We also organise exhibitions and workshops with these artists. The festival itself is one week in December where we screen films of such artists and host talks with invited political leaders. It’s a wonderful event in bringing people together. I’m also now a program manager with this organisation, supporting similar events around the world. The work I focus on here is related to HIV awareness and activism.
Overall, I try to fight societal expectations of queer people. What I mean is most heterosexual people, even if they say they are accepting of LGBTQ+ people, do so on the notion that the act is “normal” i.e have a family, and one single partner, where they are like hetero people as much as possible. But this is not the case for many queer people. I want to see a society more tolerant of different lifestyles, living situations, and relationships. I feel that even if we take one step forward, we overall go back 2 steps in terms of visibility and acceptance. Just think about the recent enormous rise in attacks on LGBT people.
Another area where I’m active is in bringing attention to the issues that arise from the slow bureaucratic systems here. Think also about what I said before about the AZC camps. The government is not willing to pay money where it is needed in order to keep people safe, especially LGBT people! Just look at Rose in Blauw, I’m constantly being told that there isn’t enough money to follow up on cases of a homophobic attacks. I myself was attacked outside a gay bar in Amsterdam, and still waiting for a follow-up.
Finally, do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
There is still a lot of work to do, and i am happy to be a part of this work. I believe we need to increase visibility and awareness, so we need to keep bringing attention to these problems and continue talking about them. As a solution, I believe we need to humanise the bureaucratic systems in place here in NL. We need to be treated not as numbers but as people.
Thank your time and for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us, and best of luck in the future with all your activism, we’re grateful to you.