United Nations

First Person: I am a woman, a refugee, ‘I am who I am’

The UN migration agency, IOM, is running migrant centres across six provinces in Turkey as part of its refugee response, which provide migrants, refugees, and host community members, with education, social services, law, vocational guidance, and community support. One of those who has benefited from the centres is Leyla Al Darazi, originally from Lebanon, who although born male, has identified as female since a young age. To coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, marked on 17 May, Leyla told her story to Begum Basaran, a communications assistant with IOM Turkey. 

“What makes people flee their homes? People flee from war, hunger, violence, extreme poverty, and even adventure or love. I left Lebanon. I was in real danger of being killed because I was born into the wrong body, and wanted to talk about it.  

When I was nine, I looked at myself in the full-length mirror, and I couldn’t understand why I didn’t have a girl’s body. I identified with my five sisters. I thought I was one of them. I liked to play with them; I wore my mother’s clothes when I spent time with them. I barely spent any time with my brothers. 

Beaten and rejected 

When my father saw me like this, he beat me. He beat me so hard with a stick that I fainted, blood pouring out of my ears. Another time he stabbed me in the arm, and I still have that physical scar.  

He never accepted me. Though, I was girl. I knew it then, and today even though I am a father, I still don’t feel male. I am trapped in my body. I don’t want to have a beard. What you see isn’t who I am: I’m Leyla.  

It hasn’t been easy, this choice, this life. I was bullied mercilessly at school. My father even tried to have me expelled. He kicked me out of the house, and I had to work for a living just to finish school. 

Then it was university. You’d think I’d find some tolerance there. I did not – the same story: bullying and discrimination, bullying and discrimination. I know that education is the key, to success and tolerance. And education was like the forbidden fruit for me. The more they tried to obstruct my development, the more eager I was to use it to pursue my goals. 

Covering up 

After university, I worked in the media and kept my identity a secret. Little by little, I started to recognize more people like me. We communicated through secret signs in the daytime, but at night I concealed my beard, put on a wig and enjoyed the feeling of being free, being me. 

Despite some precious moments, life was still complicated. Very complicated. I married a lesbian to appease my family and we had two wonderful children during our seven-year marriage.   

Finally, I decided to stop denying who I was and work for our LGBTQI+ rights. I connected with other people in that community and became an activist, blogging and running an LGBTQI+ website. 

So, there I was. Despite all the difficulties, the double life, and the taboos, I had a really good life in Lebanon: I had a home, a nice car, a good job, friends, and wonderful, beautiful kids…and trouble was coming my way. 

‘Men were coming to kill me’ 

One night I was at home when I heard shouting from outside and knew men were coming to kill me. My life was a sin and deserved to die, in their eyes. I jumped from the balcony and ran away. 

I didn’t take anything because I just wanted to avoid being caught and killed. I arrived at the airport at 3AM, and was in Istanbul before dawn.  

When I arrived in Turkey, I felt inspired by the freedom that LGBTIQ+ community members enjoyed in society. They gave me hope that I could be the woman I am. I made new friends and began dressing up in beautiful dresses, doing my make-up, and going out in the city with them.  However, even though there was solidarity in our community, in wider society, I faced the same discrimination and hate speech here that I had faced in Lebanon. 

© IOM Turkey/Begum Basaran
Leyla with her twelve-year-old son and thirteen-year-old daughter.

‘Mummy and daddy’ 

Then two good things happened. First, six months ago, my ex-wife helped with all the documents for children and my sister brought them here, and now they live with me. I’m mummy and daddy to them.  

Second, I got in touch with a migrant centre run by IOM, which helped me with legal issues, like getting my kids into school and getting regular healthcare. They even helped me get a job in an Arabic restaurant. 

Life is stable, the panic is over, and I have my children with me.  However, this isn’t the end of my journey. Turkey has been good to me, by and large.  I want to live as who I am without worry. And again, I have to thank IOM for helping me get a foot on that road.  

I went to the provincial migration office for an interview, and after two days, I was granted conditional refugee status. I haven’t received any further information on resettlement. 

Standing by 

I’m standing by. I’m not sure where I will end up.  I think it would be good to move to an English or French-speaking country because those are the languages I speak. 

I want to finish by saying that discrimination is utterly futile. There is no benefit to it. It achieves nothing. It just damages people, and it damages society. 

For me, it made me stronger, and now I have a new family: the LGBTIQ+ community. It’s not just my community and my family, though. It’s my life, and it’s a symbol of my identity. And I know one thing for sure, we are all born equal, and we all deserve to be treated that way.”  

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