Stories of Change

A map of the area. Yousef is from Syria and traveled through Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has attempted to enter Hungary and hopes to eventually reach the Netherlands.

“I only dream about living without shame and without fear.”

This story was written by Irena Abdelalem Abdelmaksoud, a protection officer who specializes in working with unaccompanied children at CWS partner Info Park in Belgrade, Serbia. All comments are the opinions of the author or speaker.

Yousef* is a 26-year-old who comes from Lattakia, Syria. He was a teenager when the Syrian war started. He said that at that time he still had hopes that war would soon be over. He dreamed of becoming a medical practitioner.

“Growing up as a gay person in Syria means growing up in shame and fear. In most cases, anything that stands out in our society, anything different from our rigid beliefs is cast away as something unnatural or wrong.” He adds that in Syria there are no opportunities for young persons from the LGBTQ+ community to learn anything about sexuality or sexual orientation, because that topic is strictly taboo and even asking questions about it can put you at risk of being labeled a “deviant” or “perverted”. He says that he struggled for years to accept himself. He tried to turn to religious books or religious classes, but he couldn’t find a place that would include or accept him. Instead, with every book and every class, he felt more ashamed and terrified of what would happen to him if anyone found out. This led to him suffering from depression, anxiety, substance abuse and self-harming in his early adolescent years.

As the years went by and the war and devastation in his country continued, his hopes further diminished. Yousef left Syria in 2018, fleeing forceful militarization. “I couldn’t participate in the killings. I couldn’t carry a gun or shoot someone.” He first volunteered for an NGO in a refugee camp in Turkey where he helped a translator. But since he was travelling as a “single man” he was not able to neither seek asylum there nor obtain any documents. Therefore he decided to leave Turkey in hopes of reaching Europe. He was forced to travel alone, without a smuggler’s assistance and avoiding larger group of migrants, all while fearing for his own safety. “Even though many people left their countries, they still carry their beliefs and even social norms with them. This means that LGBTQ+ refugees are in danger throughout their journey. I heard stories of people being brutally beaten when the word in camp got out that they are gay.” Yousef went through Greece, North Macedonia and Serbia following the migration routes he found online before reaching Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Bosnia he was stuck for over a year, residing outside official centers while trying to continue further. On several occasions he was intercepted by the border police who beat him and stole all of his personal belongings, including money, mobile phone and even clothes, before pushing him back to Bosnia. In February 2021, on another one of his attempts, Yousef and his friend hid in a luggage compartment of a bus for 12 hours, hoping that the bus would take them to the Netherlands. Instead they were arrested by the police in Budapest who took them to the border with Serbia and ordered them to walk forward. “I tried to ask for asylum there. I thought: it’s European Union; maybe I will have a chance to start my life over. But the police said ‘no asylum’ and took me to the border.”

After his push-back from the Hungarian border, Yousef was identified by the Info Park’s field team in Belgrade. Info Park provided him with a daily shelter, warm meal and NFI [supplies]. IP’s cultural mediator briefed him on the registration and accommodation procedures, as well as the services available to him with the official asylum and reception centers run by the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. However, Yousef refused to go to the official center fearing that it would not be safe for him. “People notice things when you’re different. They comment on the way I look or talk or walk. One comment can be enough to put me in danger.” Instead he decided to sleep rough [outside] in Belgrade and plan how to continue further irregularly. “My goal is to reach the Netherlands. I read a lot online about their country. Maybe after all this, I could still continue my education and find a job. I always felt passionate about helping people. Also, if I was a doctor, maybe my family would be proud of me. Maybe they would not care so much about other parts of me. You know what’s funny? Most people are dreaming about finding their true love, the love of their life. But I only dream about living without shame and without fear. Without pretending and without looking over my shoulder. To wake up and be able to be me. And to know that it’s okay.”

Yousef was last seen by IP’s team in March 2021 while he was still trying to go for a “game” (irregular border-crossing). Since then, there is no information on his whereabouts.

*Name changed to protect identity.