The gay Syrian refugee forming a new life in the UK

By Alice Hutton
BBC News

Samar in the UK

Samar fled Syria fearing for his life, when his father discovered he was gay. Now, he is living in the UK, where he can finally be open about his sexuality.

Samar - not his real name - has two Facebook profiles.

On one, he is a proud gay man starting his life again in the UK after fleeing Syria following death threats.

He posts selfies wearing a rainbow scarf and attending gay pride marches.

On the other he keeps in touch with his worried mother, who asks when he will marry a nice Arabic girl.

'Always anxious'

As a teenager in the city of Aleppo, Samar knew he was living on borrowed time.

"I was always nervous, always anxious," the dark-haired and softly spoken 21-year-old tells the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme.

"I knew I felt good talking to boys. I found things on the internet about 'gay' and I thought: 'Yes, this is me'. And then: 'Oh, I live in a very dangerous country'."

Syria is one of 80 countries around the world where homosexuality is a criminal offence.

It is officially punishable by up to three years in prison, but Samar grew up listening to his father and their friends talking about killing gay men and knew that the law would not protect him.

Image source, Samar
Image caption,
Samar aged one, with his two brothers

But it was not until one of his brothers reported him to their father when he was 17, after overhearing him talking to a gay friend, that the danger became real.

It was 2013 and Samar now faced a life-changing decision - stay in a country at civil war, where he risked being killed for being gay, or flee his home and begin a journey into the unknown.

"I packed a bag, I told no-one and I left," he says. "My heart was breaking."

Image source, 'Samar'
Image caption,
Samar travelled from Turkey to Greece on an inflatable dinghy

Samar spent the next two years trying to start a new life in Turkey, before deciding to make the journey to Western Europe.

He saved up for a ticket to board an inflatable dinghy to Greece in late 2015.

As he travelled onwards, he crossed seven borders over two months - sleeping in the street and surviving on water, bread and dates. He was arrested by police trying to cross into Hungary, before being released.

At Calais in France, he stowed away inside a fridge on a truck and hoped that the air would not run out before they reached the UK.

Image source, Samar
Image caption,
Samar slept rough during his journey across Europe

The UK received more than 44,000 asylum applications, including for dependent relatives, in the year ending June 2016, with around 30% granted permission to stay for up to five years.

There are no official statistics on applications on the grounds of sexual orientation, because the data is not collected.

In 2015, a cross-party inquiry raised serious concerns about abuses of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) asylum seekers by staff in nine detention centres across England and Scotland, amid reports of self-harm and suicide.

An October 2016 report by equality charity Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) highlighted a "culture of disbelief", where some asylum seekers had been asked to "prove" their sexuality by going to embarrassing lengths, including being asked for videos showing them having sex.

New Home Office guidance banned this practice in August 2016.

Paul Twocock, from Stonewall, says the treatment was "unacceptable" and has called for more staff training and an end to detention.

Media caption,
Samar's journey in animations. Graphics courtesy of Anglia Ruskin University's animation and illustration department

He adds: "While there is no doubt the UK asylum system has improved for LGBT people over the past few years, there is still a long way to go."

Samar survived the ordeal. With a five-year right to remain visa, he now lives with a family in Cambridge after they volunteered their spare room via a charity that rehouses refugees.

The couple, a lawyer and retired academic, pay for his English classes. In the evenings they cook together, help him with his homework and even threw him a surprise birthday party when he turned 21.

His host mother anxiously texts him if he is running late.

"No-one has worried about me for so long," Samar says, "it's a really nice feeling. It's a lovely family, I really love them."

Few dates

Living in a liberal city in a country where homosexuality has been legal for 50 years this July, and where same-sex marriage was introduced in 2013, he is taking advantage of being openly gay for the first time.

"I went in a gay nightclub," he says. "It was amazing. It was my first time to see gay and lesbian people together dancing, kissing. The music was pretty terrible, but I loved the smoke machine."

He has been on a few dates, mostly arranged online. But while the majority of people are kind, his refugee status sometimes overshadows romance.

"They ask me a lot of questions," he says. "They want to know what happened to me in Syria, how I got here. It brings up bad memories.

"I want to make friends, because this life without friends, it's nothing. But love is different. For me love is necessary. I hope to find someone, if I am lucky."

'I can never go back'

Samar is under no illusions over what his life could have been like had he stayed in Syria.

He was sent a photo a few months ago showing what had happened to a school friend who criticised so-called Islamic State. The body had been tied to a lamp post and left out for dogs to eat.

"Even if the war ends I cannot go back," Samar explains. "My father will never accept a gay son.

"My mum worries about me. She sends me messages and asks: 'When will marry to a nice girl?' One day I hope I can tell her why I had to leave."

Watch the Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel.