Lewis* was a public figure in a republic in the Caribbean. Neatly clad in suite and tie, he was often seen on television as the right-hand-man and spokesperson for the prime minister. Beneath that suit, Lewis hid his tattoos – one of which is his ex. It’s only in the safety of his home, and on business trips that Lewis can be completely himself: Lewis is gay.
One election later, and Lewis’ world is turned upside down. The new prime minister doesn’t trust him, and blackmails him into handing in his resignation by threatening to leak shared emails between him and his ex-boyfriend. Lewis resigns from his position, but a few days later, the emails are leaked to the media. He becomes an object of mockery and hostility which threaten his safety, and he decides to seek refuge in the Netherlands.
36 years old Lives in the refugee center Delfzijl From a small republic in the Caribbean Has been in the Netherlands 5 months Has just received his residency status
Lewis’ story is extraordinary but not unique. Five different LGBT immigrants are sharing a dinner, each from a different country, and each with their own story. They are regulars at a monthly refugee meeting initiated by COC Groningen & Drenthe. Some have just arrived in the Netherlands, some have been here for many years. We eat, drink and we make plans to go to the gay party ‘Flirt!’, from which we’d received free tickets. With their heart on their sleeve, they talk about their dreams, love, life in a refugee center and life afterwards.
Priscilla: “When I was still living in the camp, I had a girlfriend. One night, when I thought that the whole camp was asleep, she kissed me. We were seen by a man from Afghanistan who was standing on his balcony for a smoke. He berated us in his own language and from then on, looked at me as if I was an animal.”
25 years old Lives in Glimmen From Burundi Has been in the Netherlands for 8 years Still doesn’t have a permanent residency status
Arash: “You can’t be gay in a refugee center. It’s a miniature version of the Middle East – I lived amongst the same people I was taking refuge from! I’m a big supporter of educating those living in refugee centers, so that newcomers are immediately expected to adapt to Western norms and values. The COA and COC still have a lot of work to do in this regard.”
Kunta: “But it is changing – it wasn’t even talked about ten years ago.”
Lewis: “The COA has advised me to keep my sexual orientation to myself, which can sometimes be a challenge. There’s a guy from Iran in my refugee center. He’s very attractive, but straight and a devout Muslim. He invited me to his home once, and took his shirt off to show me his muscles. I was quick to give any excuse to leave!"
31 years old Lives in Groningen From Guinea Has lived in the Netherlands 15 years Has a permanent residency status
Love and sexuality are often reasons to come to the Netherlands, and everyone is preoccupied with it in their own way. Kunta has an open relationship, Priscilla describes her love life as ‘complicated’, and Adaobi had recently become romantically engaged with a girl she regularly called throughout the evening. Adaobi: “But I have to wait and see if it’ll turn into something serious. I don’t really know her well enough yet. Kunta: “I don’t want a Dutch man. When you talk to them it’s like it’s an interview, it’s awkward.”
Arash: “I find it difficult to see if someone’s remotely interested in me, here.”
Priscilla: “I have that too. I was at a party for lesbians, and I struck up a conversation with someone who was washing her hands in the washroom. We danced all night. When the party was over she told me that she was dating another man, the DJ at that party. She even introduced me to him! I thought: you cockblocker! It’s happened more often than once; I attract girls who have boyfriends."
Arash: “I don’t go out a lot, I meet people on Grindr. But that’s not really a platform for building strong ties, it’s only about sex.”
Priscilla: “All they want is a hit & run”
29 years old Lives in refugee center Bellingwolde From Nigeria Has lived in the Netherlands for 1 year Has no residency status yet
Lewis: “The Netherlands is the first place I’ve ever sent a dickpic, haha! I like Dutch men – tall, nice eyes, interesting hair…”
Arash: “What I needed to get used to are the questions asked by Dutch people. In Iran, I had to be careful with wat I said: I said something once to a colleague about the Palestine-conflict, after which I was called in to have a talk with my boss. Here, everyone asks whatever they want. A neighbor asked me about my story, my opinion and my feelings – she meant well but it was difficult to talk about it so freely."
As the evening progresses, the group becomes ever more eager to go to the party. For some refugees, it’s difficult to go to a gay bar, not because they don’t want to, but because usually refugee centers are built in places like Bellingwolde and Delfzijl – not exactly the gay capitals of the world. Public transit costs money, and moreover, doesn’t provide services late at night. For this evening, however, tickets are reimbursed an overnight stay has been planned.
Priscilla: “It was eight years ago now that I first stepped foot in a gay bar. It was weird, and also very much a ‘wow’ moment: there were so many gay couples kissing each other! It was amazing!”
Kunta: “My first experience at a gay bar was really difficult. Everyone stared at me because I was the only black guy there!”
Lewis: “I haven’t really noticed much racism in the gay scene yet. What I have had to deal with, however, is people who call me fat.”
Kunta: “But in Africa, that’s a positive thing!”
Lewis laughs: “I do get positive reactions, don’t worry. I’m a bear, and lots of men like that!”
The plates, meanwhile, are empty, and the number of empty beer bottles has also grown to an impressive amount. We leave the mess as it is, and walk to the party together. Along the way, we not only talk about what the night holds in store for us, but also about the future as a whole – which remains uncertain for many refugees. They themselves often find it difficult to envision their lives in the Netherlands. One wants to study and build a career, the other wants to find love as quickly as possible, but everyone wants the same thing in the end; true happiness.
Adaobi: “I want to get my permanent residency status. I am happy here, and I could never go back to Nigeria.”
Kunta: “I don’t know yet. I just want to be happy.”
Arash: “I want to become a translator. I volunteer as translator for the police, and I’ve found it to be a talent of mine.
Priscilla: “I’m in school for entrepreneurship. I don’t have an exact plan, but I want to leave Groningen. There’s so much more going on farther south in the Netherlands!
Kunta: “I want to stay here. I really love Groningen.”
Lewis: “I want to be a journalist again, but I also want something on the side – working with people. And I want a relationship!”
Arash (not in pictures):
34 years old Lives in Groningen From Iran Has been in the Netherlands 3 years Has a residency status
Once in the club, the drinking continues. We get a round of dropshots and no one pulls a face – they actually love the liquorice taste! There isn’t much dancing. Adoabi: “I normally only dance to African music!”. There is much flirting, though. Adaobi takes a picture with a blond girl, and Lewis walks around before chatting up some guy. At the end of the evening, he asks me: “Can you make one thing clear in your article? I’m looking for a relationship!”