There are two single stud earrings sparkling in the lobes of Al-Asmar. He puts them on only after leaving the asylum seeker reception center, where he lives. In the evening, before returning, he has to quietly take them off again, hiding them in his pocket. Life inside the reception center is hard, as Al-Asmar is afraid of the reactions from other Iraqi refugees. There is no way for him to present himself as openly gay there.
“The person you see in front of you, he is just a shell. I feel so bad inside the reception center. I lived 20 years in constant fear in Iraq. The police, the society and everyone was against me. Now I still have to be afraid. I still don’t know who I am.”
Born in the Southern part of Iraq, Al-Asmar hoped to move to a country where he could live openly as himself. But since he has to live among other Iraqis in the reception center he is still far from free.
“In Iraq even animals are respected more than homosexual men”, Al-Asmar says quietly.
26 year old Al-Asmar arrived in Finland November 2015. His first application for a permanent residence in Finland was declined. He appealed, and second verdict has not arrived yet. He has been waiting for more than eight months. All the time he has lived in Finland, he has been in a sort of limbo, living in the reception center, without possibility to plan his future.
“The LGBT peer support group here in Helsinki has saved me. From the group I have found people like myself, they understand what I am going through, even without words.”
New experiences with art
At the Harju Youth Center in Helsinki, an art exhibition presents art created by young LGBT asylum seekers. HeSeta Community art project group has met weekly since last autumn and results are abundance: paintings, drawings, clay work, jointly created installation and colorful masks. Member of the group, Imma from Baghdad, describes the experience as therapeutic.
Funded by The Finnish Cultural Foundation, the group has been guided by artist Mimosa Puumalainen. Through the art project approximately 50 asylum seekers have been given the opportunity to create. Members came from very varied art backgrounds, says Mimosa Puumalainen.
“Most of them had not done art before”, Puumalainen describes. “There were some members who had not had the opportunity to do art in school, and had not done a lot of drawing for example. For some, they did not know what to do with glue.”
One of the fbeginners was 21 year old Imma. He reminds, that art and artists don’t have the same status in Iraq than in Finland.
”In Iraq the artist is not respected like here. For me this is all new, I see a piece of art but I do not always understand what the artist is trying to tell me.”
Through his own creative process Imma has developed his thinking. He now can understand that a piece of art can be seen as a message from the artist, wanting to express his ideas. He has also used his own art in expressing his feelings.
“Life inside the reception center is really not easy at all”, Imma says. “There are many days when I feel I cannot even breathe there. But this art group has relaxed me a lot, and helped me sort things out in my head.”
Little help from my friends
Imma has been in Finland for almost two years. Like Al-Asmar, Imma has also already received one rejection for his asylum application. He appealed, and has been waiting for a new verdict since autumn last year. Talking about the application process, it has been mentally extremely difficult for him, so he has to take long breaks while talking about it.
“When I told the officer at the Immigration office that I am gay, the interview took completely another direction. They started to ask very detailed questions concerning my boyfriend, what kind of sex we had, where and at what time. The interrogation took over five hours, and I gradually became so nervous that even the interpreter was worried.”
Because of his sexuality Imma’s family has turned their backs on him. Apart from one phone call with his mother last year, he has not heard from any of them for over four years. In Finland he arrived alone. After he got the first negative result for the residence application Imma was told he could move to Arbil, city only three hours away from Baghdad.
“How could I return there? My family has said that anyone is free to kill me. If someone kills me, for sure they will not spend even one day in prison. In Iraq the society is unable to protect people like me.”
HeSeta group has become like a family to Imma. Creating art and spending time with friends has been a welcome distraction. He will continue to do art in the future as well.
Editor: Anna Gustafsson
Al-Asmar and Imma asked not to use their real names in this article to protect their safety.
The Masks We Wore exhibition at Harju Youth Center open until Friday 30th June from noon until 6 pm.
More information concerning the HeSeta group for LGBT asylum seekers: http://www.heseta.fi/together