LGBTQ Syrian refugees forced to choose between their families and identity

“It broke my heart that my parents were the ones I was most afraid of,” said Fuad al-Essa.
Illustration of man sitting on the ocean's edge with a rainbow projected on the sand.
Many LGBTQ Syrians fleeing the civil war have lost their homeland, loved ones, careers and often hope itself. But many have also lost the little they had left over -- their families and communities.Jun Cen / for NBC News

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By Ammar Cheikh Omar and Yuliya Talmazan

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — A Syrian father of a gay man says he hopes his son will burn in hell. A woman says her once-loving father now wants her dead. And the day one young Syrian told his parents he was gay was the last time he spoke to anyone in his family.

Like countless fellow countrymen and women fleeing the civil war, many LGBTQ Syrians have lost their homeland, livelihoods and often hope itself. But many of them have also lost the little they had left over — their families and communities, who are unable to accept them.

The mentality they’re up against is uncompromising. One conservative Syrian imam confidently told NBC News that there are no homosexual Muslims and that the act was punishable by death.

Fuad al-Essa came out as gay after he fled war-ravaged Syria and settled down in Turkey in 2017.

“I was living a nightmare,” al-Essa told NBC News, sitting in a cafe in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, just 80 miles north of his native Aleppo in Syria. “It broke my heart that I was scared to death to talk to my parents about my identity. It broke my heart that my parents were the ones I was most afraid of.”

“They believe I have a devil inside of me.”

He says he eventually worked up the courage to call his parents who stayed in Syria from Turkey — where it is relatively safer to be openly gay — and “face them with the truth.”

“I told my father that I will always love him and the family, but this is my life and I will not hide myself anymore,” al-Essa, 27, said. “That was the last time I talked to him.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011 to escape the bloody civil war.

There are no exact figures on how many Syrian refugees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) have left the country devastated by years of war.

Their numbers are not widely documented as even human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have told NBC News they had been unable to do much work on LGBTQ issues in Syria due to limited resources on the ground.

OutRight Action International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works to defend human rights for LGBTQ people around the world, said they have found that Syria is one of 30 countries in the world where no LGBTQ organizations could be found, whether registered or unregistered — meaning there is no concerted advocacy for change.

It said it also means LGBTQ Syrians don't have any groups to turn to for advice, knowledge, information or support, making their lives that much more challenging.

Amira al-Tabbaa has been an LGBTQ activist since 2004.

The 35-year-old English literature graduate from Damascus who fled to neighboring Lebanon in 2014 said Syrian families typically do not even talk about LGBTQ issues.

“They will say — don’t talk about it, you are fine. Just don’t talk about it,” she said on the phone from Lebanon.

Women who reveal their nontraditional sexual orientation to their families often get beaten for “bringing shame on the family,” she added. Some are kept at home and not allowed to communicate with anyone, so their actions can be controlled.

“Some will be taken to a psychologist to fix them,” al-Tabbaa said, adding that while all LGBTQ individuals face discrimination in Syria, the social stigma is worse for women, because they symbolize “dignity of the home.”

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She said fleeing Syria is dangerous in general, but escaping as a LGBTQ individual can be especially perilous.

“I am hearing from men and women who are really suffocating in Syria and they really need to get out, but there is no way out,” she said.

‘No homosexual Muslims’

Syria is majority Muslim, a religion that prohibits same-sex relations.

According to Abo Abdulrahman al-Ansari, a conservative imam and member of the Shariah council in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, homosexuality is strictly forbidden.

“I can assure you that there are no homosexual Muslims,” he said. “Its punishment according to Islam is death.”

The religious and societal stigma surrounding homosexuality in Syria means that for many families, having a son or daughter who comes out after escaping the country can bring enormous shame.

Ahmad Hassan’s son Ammar came out as gay after he fled to Germany in 2015.

The 59-year-old broke down in tears talking about his son on the phone from Idlib in Syria, where he lives with his wife and other children.

“My son didn’t just break my heart, he broke my back,” Hassan said. “I’m no longer respected by the others. I can see that in their eyes. I feel their hatred and revulsion towards me.”

He said he hoped his son would burn in hell for what he did to the family.

“I feel stupid when I think about how much and how long we all cried when he decided to flee to Europe,” he said. “If only he sank in Mediterranean before he reached Europe, I would have cried, but he would have died as an honest, respectful man.”

But for at least some who flee, the pain of losing family is at least party outweighed by the newfound freedom they find in their new homes.

"I used to fight against who I am," Anas Qartoumeh told NBC News. Courtesy of Anas Qartoumeh

Anas Qartoumeh, who left Syria and settled in Canada at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, has found a community that accepts him for who he is.

On the phone from Kelowna, a small west coast community where he was the grand marshal at a pride march last year, Qartoumeh, 35, said he had to overcome an internal struggle.

“I used to fight against who I am, I tried to ignore who I was,” he said.

Originally from Damascus, Qartoumeh said he came out when he reached Canada.

And while he enjoys his new home and ability to be himself, he said he misses his family in Syria.

“My door is always open for them if they still want me and accept who I am,” he said. “I don’t think they are ready, not now and not in the future, because they’re very religious. They believe I have a devil inside of me.”

‘I broke her heart’

Sporting short black hair, no makeup and a white T-shirt with the words “live your life” written on it, Hiba said she always had an especially close relationship with her father.

That connection has now turned poisonous.

“The person who was once the closest to me wants to kill me,” said Hiba, 22, fighting back tears at a coffee shop in the southern Turkish port city of Mersin.

Hiba, who spoke on condition that only her first name be used out of fear for her safety, tells her story of love and heartbreak.

After the war broke out, her family left Aleppo due to airstrikes and moved to Atmeh, a small village on the border with Turkey.

In 2014, she met a girl named Aysha, whose family lived in a nearby tent. Hiba says the two decided to run away to “fight for their love.”

They made it as far as Turkey, but their parents soon started looking for them, eventually forcing them to return to Syria.

Hiba, who hasn’t seen Aysha since, says she was not allowed to leave home for weeks and her parents didn’t speak with her.

In March last year, she was forced to get engaged to a man. Days before the wedding, Hiba decided to escape again, making it to Mersin, a community on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, 140 miles northwest of her native Aleppo.

“I talked to my family and asked for their forgiveness,” she said. “But nothing had changed — my father threatened me on the phone. My mother told me that I’m dead for her and that I broke her heart.”

Hiba has lost more than one love — not only Aysha, but her family who cannot accept who she is. And now she is alone.