‘We need freedom’: Sehaq, the party space for Amsterdam’s queer refugees

As well as contending with racism, queer refugees face homophobia and transphobia – even from their fellow refugees. One Dutch group is trying to carve out a safe space

At the dinner table, conversations bubble around people as they tuck into a three-course meal. A plethora of different nationalities and identities have pulled up a chair and, here at Sehaq in Amsterdam, they welcome and make space for everyone.

Suddenly, someone is standing on the table dancing, and as more people join in, the meal becomes an exuberant celebration. Some of them have travelled for more than two hours to attend and they don’t want to waste a single second if they have to leave early. For those who can stay, after the meal there will be performances, DJs and partying until late into the night. Most of the people here are LGBT refugees, and this event is one of the few that provides a safe space to socialise and collaborate.

In 2017, indignant at the lack of space for them in Amsterdam’s male-dominated queer scene, a group of refugees and migrants founded Sehaq; a network of LGBT refugees run entirely by volunteers. Regularly meeting in members’ houses, they put on events specifically for queer refugees that range from dance parties to workshops. Where there is a cost or meal involved, all refugees attend for free and non-refugees pay a small donation.

Nisreen, one of the founding members, is a migrant from Lebanon who came to the Netherlands to study and take a break from life back home. As a person who comes from the global south, she felt alienated from the Dutch queer scene. “I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel welcomed or appreciated in those meetings and gatherings. Sehaq is a different scene. These people are not European, they have different experiences of reality,” she says.

While the group does not organise solely political activism, it is innately political. Even its name, a reclaimed Arabic slur used to insult lesbians, is a form of protest. The driving force is a desire to reframe the narrative around being a refugee and highlight that, while people do suffer at the hands of border police and immigration systems, the most degrading part of being a refugee is being reduced to a subject of suffering without a life, history and culture of one’s own.

Nisreen explained: “Asylum seekers who live in horrible conditions in the camps can’t enjoy life, and they are also stuck within this identity of victimhood, as if they just suffer. So for us, having fun, dancing, partying is very political. Our form of dancing, our form of socialising, is political in itself because we are creating a space that doesn’t exist. It is very subversive to gather and have fun, to not only ask for services. Asylum seekers don’t need services – they need freedom.”

Through the collective power of sharing in music and dancing, Sehaq transports refugees outside the boundaries that are imposed on them. Hajar, 27, arrived in the Netherlands in 2017 from Morocco. She applied for asylum in early 2018 and has yet to hear back, despite being promised an answer in October. However, refusing to “put her life on hold”, Hajar started DJing with Sehaq “as a joke, but people took it seriously”.

Mostly playing tunes from the global south, she says: “My idea was to play some of my favourite artists’ songs, to try and hear our music and to hold on to our culture in white western-dominated places. You can hardly hear our music [here] so when you do it’s like you’re shocked, you feel like you’re home.”

All refugees face dislocation and possible hostility, but Sehaq’s members also have to contend with homophobia and transphobia. Mohamad Hjeij, 25, was a public advocate for LGBT rights in Lebanon, before he fled his home country in 2018 when his family discovered his sexuality and began to violently threaten him.

At the AZC refugee camp in Weert, Mohamad found himself in starkly similar circumstances. He remembers one night as he sat in bed, a group of people from the camp hurled eggs at his window where he had hung a rainbow flag. “You’re coming from a country where no one accepts you there and you come to AZC full of cultures that don’t accept you, too,” he says. “They don’t accept me in many different ways, so you have to deal with everyone.”

After battling depression, Mohamad joined Sehaq and has since been able to help other new arrivals with simple things, such as how to use public transport and buying groceries. He says his positive experience with Sehaq made him realise what he had wanted when he arrived, but didn’t have, and so he hopes he can give back to others through the organisation.

Prejudice in refugee camps is not unusual, which is why the safety offered by parties at Sehaq is so crucial. Sometimes, events will only be open to queer refugees of colour, or will not be open to men, giving trans women and lesbians a space to breathe. “There is no safe space for lesbian or trans people to be there and just be how they feel,” Hajar says. “At Sehaq they can be naked and no one will be touching them or staring at them.”

As the organisation grows, these activists hope to start making an impact on policy by collaborating with other anti-racism groups. After only two years, Sehaq have already created a successful organisation that allows queer refugees to party and live outside the narrative of victimhood. “I’m very proud of what we have done,” Nisreen says. “It’s a hopeful event.” It’s not just about dancing – it is about going beyond the rules imposed by hostile immigration laws, and taking up space in the face of adversity.

by Noah Martin
Source – The Guardian