On a mild night in early May last year, Asma boarded the metro for her daily ride from the residential neighborhood of Agios Nikolaos to downtown Athens. She’s a trans refugee from the Middle East whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
Before she could get off at her stop, however, she was assaulted by a passenger. “He was maybe 20 years old and with his girlfriend,” says Asma, 24, who asked us not to reveal her nationality. During the short 15-minute ride, the man continued to look at her aggressively and started yelling in Greek. Finally, just before her stop, the man approached her. “He was very angry and tried to hit me.”
“I feel like here is the same as the Middle East — Greece is not the paradise we imagined” -Asma, 24
Asma’s everyday life in Greece has been punctuated by verbal and often physical assault, and Asma now goes to great lengths to avoid the metro, often walking for hours to reach her home. Though using the metro would mean a much shorter travel time, it leaves her unable to escape a potential attack.
Asma is not the only transgender refugee in Greece who has been assaulted recently. That same month in 2017, two were attacked on the island of Leros, an incident that left one woman hospitalized in critical condition.
Since 2015, more than 1 million refugees fleeing war, persecution, and economic devastation have migrated from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to Europe. Most enter the region through Greece and Italy before heading to central Europe within days or weeks of their arrival. Greece’s shaky economic situation, lack of job opportunities, and poor camp conditions left few refugees wanting to make Greece their new home.
But in March 2016, the closure of the Macedonian border that divides Greece from Central Europe disrupted the migrants’ path out of Greece. Now, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 50,000 refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa remain stranded in Greece, struggling to survive, their vulnerability increasing with each passing day.
A number of these refugees also belong to the LGBTQ community. These people fled their homes not just to escape the war but to flee persecution for their sexual orientation or gender identity. In their home countries, trans individuals face the threat of lengthy jail terms, torture, rape, and even murder.
“Being queer in this world is lonely,” says Moira Lavelle, a founding member of LGBTQI+ Refugees Welcome in Greece, an organization based in Athens. “Being an LGBTQI+ refugee in Europe, in Greece, is dangerously lonely.” The exact number of trans refugees in Greece is hard to estimate — many are uncomfortable identifying themselves to refugee organizations.
For transgender men and women, their arrival in Greece should mean they are finally able to express their true identity. In early October, the Greek parliament passed a new law that eliminates the requirement that trans people undergo gender-affirming surgery before their gender is legally recognized. This was a victory for trans rights, making everyday chores that require an ID accessible to trans people who might not be able to afford or access surgery, or who might not want it.
Still, this new law was passed amid much opposition, and, according to one poll, more than half of Greeks remain opposed. Many trans refugees are encountering a culture far less accepting of their gender identity than they were expecting.
Over the course of more than six months, we interviewed and documented the lives of several members of the trans refugee community in Athens, including five trans women from the Middle East and North Africa. All names have been changed to protect their safety.
Asma, 24, nationality withheld to protect her identity
Asma has been in Greece for just over one year, and the metro attack in May was not the only abuse she has faced. Spat at and verbally harassed almost whenever she leaves her house, Asma feels that every day she endures a new psychological scar. “I feel like here is the same as the Middle East — Greece is not the paradise we imagined,” she said.
From a very young age, Asma felt she was a girl, and she recalls resenting her parents for forcing her to wear boys’ clothing. As a minor, Asma became involved in a relationship with her male schoolteacher — a relationship that could have cost them their lives if exposed.
The danger of exposure did not lie in their age difference, which is not uncommon in countries in the region, though Asma would have been below the age of consent. The danger was in engaging in a queer relationship.
The couple fled to Syria, where Asma was able to register as an LGBTQ refugee with the UNHCR and received hormone replacement therapy to start her transition from male to female. Only two years after they moved to Syria, Asma found herself alone once again as her boyfriend left her to marry a woman.
She stayed in Syria another five years but returned to her home country in 2013 as the war began to intensify. Shortly after she returned, she was arrested by Shia military forces. “I was thrown in jail and raped for many days,” she says. “I thought I would die.”
With the help of family members, Asma was eventually released. But because she was sexually abused by another man while in jail, when Asma returned home, everyone believed she was gay. This led to her being ostracized and threatened daily by the community. Finally, Asma fled to Greece with money that her grandmother had saved and given her in secret. She still lives in fear that family members might discover her address in Athens and track her down.
Zahra, 42, Iraq
Zahra, a 42-year-old trans woman from Baghdad and Asma’s roommate in Athens, left Iraq for one reason: to live openly as a woman. In Iraq, Zahra worked as a waiter in a cafe in Baghdad, only wearing women’s clothing in the safety of her own home. Upon reaching Greece in December of last year, Zahra could finally express her gender identity as she saw fit.
Zahra dreams of the day when, together with her boyfriend, who still lives in Iraq, she will be able to live without fear in a more trans-friendly country than Greece. But for now, that’s impossible. For the time being, Zahra focuses on what she can control — her appearance.
Over the summer, she started laser hair removal for her face and chest, and, despite the steep cost, hormone replacement therapy. To pay for these procedures, she began working as an escort for the first time in her life, something she never thought she would have to do — especially in Europe. She prefers not to discuss her work.
Sabah, 27, Iraq
Moving to Greece meant that 27-year-old Sabah, too, was finally able to express her gender identity. Originally from Basra, Sabah had pretended that she was gay. Last year, homosexuality was criminalized in nearly half of the provinces in Iraq — the same provinces that were under ISIS control. But being trans carries even greater risks. While gay people face their own stigmas, trans people, she says, are considered aberrations of nature.
Sabah’s family did not accept her trans identity. “When they found out about me, my father and uncle tried to cut my legs,” she says. The damage from the large machete-like knife was so severe, “the neighbors had to take me to the hospital.”
Sabah’s ordeal did not end there. Arrested and thrown in jail twice for being trans, once by Islamic groups and once by the Iraqi government, she was tortured and raped both times, she says. The second time, after five months in jail, the judge gave Sabah a choice: either stay behind bars forever or leave the country immediately. She chose the latter. In May 2017, Sabah arrived on the Greek island of Chios.
Sabah was looking forward to reaching Europe — she had an aunt in Sweden who knew her secret and accepted her for who she was. Greece, however, was not the progressive country she was expecting. In Chios, Sabah says, she was beaten and verbally abused regularly by locals. She wasn’t sure “if it was because I am trans or because I am a refugee.” After three months, she left for Athens, where she still largely conceals her trans identity because of her experiences in Chios.
Rabia, 20, Iraq
Rabia, at 20, was forced to flee Basra because her family — particularly the men on her mother’s side of the family — attacked and threatened to kill her for being trans.
“My mother’s brother saw me walking on the street with one guy,” she says. “When they saw me they followed me and they came back to my house to beat me. They beat me over the head with a metal bar, and I had to get surgery.” Leaning forward in her chair, she parts the hair around the scar, a thick white line running along the side of her head.
“I don’t feel safe here” -Rabia, 20
Still, Rabia did not leave Basra until her mother’s brother and his two sons killed her mother when they discovered she was saving money for Rabia to leave the country. Rabia fled to Baghdad, where she lived with friends and worked as an escort. When she found out that her cousins and uncle were still looking for her, Rabia immediately left for Greece, arriving on Chios in the early spring of 2017.
Having spent all of her money on the journey to Greece, Rabia again worked as an escort. But work conditions were much worse. In Baghdad, Rabia received the equivalent of €100 to €300 per client ($123 to $370). In Chios, given the stigma of being a refugee, she could only charge €10 to €20 ($12 to $25).
Even though she is now living in Athens, Rabia is too scared of harassment to present as a woman outside the safety of her home. “I don’t feel safe here,” she says.
She hopes to escape Greece and undergo gender-affirming surgery.
Nadia, 28, Morocco
In her early teens, when she realized she was trans, Nadia started hormone replacement therapy with the support of her mother and two younger brothers. The treatment softened her facial features before she could develop a more masculine bone structure.
But life in her home city of Marrakesh was not easy. Though starting hormone treatment early protected her from unwanted attention in public, family members and neighbors who knew she was assigned male at birth shunned her and her parents.
“We all did this because we know we don’t have any future in our country” -Nadia, 28
Before she reached her 20s, Nadia chose to move to another city in order to protect her mother and younger brothers from the stigma of having a transgender person in their family. After several years of being unable to find work — her ID cards and official documents were still under her male birth name and had photos of her as a boy — Nadia chose to make the dangerous journey to Europe.
“We [trans people] all did this because we know we don’t have any future in our country, and also because we know we will die alone in our country,” she said.
“That’s why we try to go in these boats even though we don’t know our fate — we might die, but we also might not.”
Despite the difficulties, both physical and emotional, that the LGBTQ refugee community continues to face on a daily basis in Greece, they still a deep sense of hope in the community. “I still have hope for a better future,” Asma said, smoking hookah in her living room with a group of trans refugees — a group she now calls family.
Fahrinisa Campana is an independent multimedia journalist and a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School. She is currently based in Athens, covering stories about gender, migration, and human rights in developing countries and post-conflict environments.
Demetrios Ioannou is a Greek photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Athens. His work focuses on humanitarian issues, conflict, and the Middle East.
Correction: Moira Lavelle is a founding member of the organization LGBTQI+ Refugees Welcome in Greece.