Words: Billy Stockwell; Image: Unsplash (posted by model)
*names have been changed to protect identities
"When the plane took off, I cannot express that feeling. I thought I was dreaming and I'm going to wake up from this dream."
Aseer, one of the first LGBTQ+ Afghans to arrive in the UK, speaks about his experience escaping Afghanistan, over two months since Attitude shared the stories of four individuals fearing for their lives in the country.
One gay man told Attitude at the time his boyfriend had been killed by the Taliban "to set an example" to the LGBTQ+ community. "We were so happy," he said. "Now, I’m lost and broken. I’m all alone here. He was my everything and I lost him."
Despite managing to get out of Afghanistan, this particular individual remains in a very precarious situation, whilst two of the LGBTQ+ individuals Attitude spoke with have been unable to leave the country.
However, others like Aseer have finally made it to freedom, thanks to the dedication of organisations like Stonewall and Rainbow Railroad and campaigners like Nemat Sadat, who has been working around-the-clock to help LGBTQ+ Afghans.
"What Nemat did for us, that's unbelievable," says Aseer. "He was the first one who told me that he would get me out, and finally I'm here."
Aseer was once in hiding with his family, waiting for the day the Taliban were going to turn up at their door, either for him or his dad who worked for the Afghan government. The “general amnesty” announced by the Taliban for government workers is not real, he says, but local media cannot expose the truth because they are too scared of the repercussions.
Now Aseer waits only for his isolation period to end before starting his new life in the UK.
Once he finishes his studies, Aseer would like to work with Nemat or set up an organisation of his own to support LGBTQ+ Afghans. "I'm thankful to the UK government for their help. But there are many like me. I would be very proud and happy to help them."
Aseer wasn’t always so optimistic about his future, not least because during the Taliban takeover he didn’t think he’d have one at all. "I was there when the Taliban captured Afghanistan and I have seen their brutality," he says. "Every day people are finding dead bodies. They are hanged from the trees. I haven't seen such a horrific thing even in movies."
Aseer himself was admitted to hospital after being beaten by the Taliban, because he defended one of his friends who was being targeted by the group.
After Gul Rahim, a Taliban judge, confirmed to the German newspaper Bild that gay men would be killed under their regime, life changed dramatically for LGBTQ+ Afghans. "Everything just went, how do you say it in English? Down south?"
The only thing that prevented Aseer taking his own life on the night that the government collapsed was his parents; he was worried that they wouldn’t cope without him.
"I still have the marks on my hand that I cut that night," he says.
The fall of government in Afghanistan did not just expose the LGBTQ+ community to greater risks from the Taliban, but also from members of their own community.
For a combination of reasons, some gay men have joined the Taliban, Aseer says, meaning that the LGBTQ+ community does not know who they can trust anymore. "I lost contact with a lot of my LGBTQ+ friends, they did not like talking to me," Aseer says. "That’s a big issue now."
Thankfully, there was one LGBTQ+ friend who Aseer could trust, having known him for years. "I was so depressed for many nights, so I was going to his house and spending the night with him," Aseer says. "Thankfully no one knew the location of his new house."
Aseer had more reason than most to be worried about the Taliban finding him, for he was a vocal advocate for gay rights in Afghanistan. "My basic mission was to make people aware that being part of the LGBTQ+ community is normal," he says. "LGBTQ+ people should be proud of their sexuality."
He continues: "I faced many problems because of that, from friends and family. They would ask, why are you talking about these people?"
On his journey to the UK, Aseer met another LGBTQ+ Afghan, Coffe*, who was also fleeing the Taliban. "He did not have any money with him, not even to buy basic stuff," Aseer says. "I told him not to worry, I'm going to help you with everything that I can".
Now friends, Aseer and Coffe, both in their 20s, got their invitation to the UK from the British High Commission at the same time. "It’s destiny!" declares Aseer. "I have a really bad mental health record but when I’m with Coffe I feel less depressed because he makes me laugh."
Coffe was a tailor back in Afghanistan and before the Taliban took over, he was happy with his life. "I had friends, there was a group of us, all of them were part of the LGBTQ+ community," Coffe says. "But in the outside world, it was really hard."
Like Aseer, Coffe was equally brazen about his sexuality in Afghanistan. He enjoyed doing make-up and would sometimes even wear it in public, despite the inevitable abuse he received because of it.
"My parents never knew that I was gay. I never talked to my family about it because if they knew about me being gay, I would have been killed."
However, despite this, Coffe didn’t want his family to get hurt if the Taliban came looking for him, so he left home and started the treacherous journey out of Afghanistan. Without the help of Nemat and Aseer, he says, that journey would have been impossible.
Specific details about his and Aseer’s journey have not been included, to prevent the Taliban cracking down on other LGBTQ+ Afghans trying to leave the country via similar routes.
"I'm really relieved for myself,’ says Coffe. "But, at the same time, I'm really worried about my family because they were dependent on me. I was the one bringing food and income into the home. So that is my biggest stress right now."
"I want to learn English as soon as possible," he says, "so I can get a job and support myself and also my family." During Attitude’s chat with Coffe, Aseer was acting as his translator.
"I also want to help those stuck in Afghanistan. Some of my friends have contacted me to say please get us out. Two of my friends are transgender and they are now a target for the Taliban. I’m really worried about them."
"Every day people are going missing," Aseer adds matter-of-factly.
"Even if the Taliban allows girls to go to school, or if they accept woman in the government, they will never spare LGBTQ+ people."
If the UK Government really wants to help LGBTQ+ Afghans, Aseer pleads with them to "do it, and do it now". The individuals evacuated to the UK will be eligible for the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), but how many LGBTQ+ can be brought to safety is unknown.
"There’s a fierce competition right now for humanitarian visas," Nemat reveals, "I just hope LGBTQ Afghans on my list aren’t left out going forward."
"I’m happy that the UK has stepped in and taking the lead to resettle LGBTQ Afghans. But the process has not been fair and just.
"I have made numerous attempts to reach out to Stonewall and the UK government to prioritise my LGBTQ list in the issuance of UK asylum visas. Still, I haven’t heard a word."
As the first openly gay Afghan, now living in the US, Nemat believes that he is in the best position to assess which LGBTQ+ Afghans are most in need of help. Despite supporting the work that they are doing, he does not think that the UK Government or Stonewall UK have sufficient cultural knowledge of the country.
So far, Nemat has raised over $10,000 to help evacuate LGBTQ+ people out of Afghanistan, but his target is $500,000. (You can support the fundraising campaign here).
In statement, Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss said: "Britain is a fierce champion of freedom and the right of all people to be themselves and love who they want free from persecution.
"We played a key role getting these people out and will continue to do all we can to help at-risk Afghans leave the country."
Nancy Kelley, Chief Executive of Stonewall, said: "Throughout this crisis, Stonewall and our supporters have called for international support for LGBTQ+ Afghans, and for their recognition as a priority group for resettlement in the UK.
"Over the last few months, we have worked around the clock alongside the UK Government, and Rainbow Railroad, to support LGBTQ+ Afghans to safety. Today, we are proud that our campaigning and collaboration has resulted in the first group of LGBTQ+ Afghans arriving here in the UK to resettle and rebuild their lives, and for LGBTQ+ people to be recognised as a priority group for resettlement.
"However, our work is not yet done. We will continue advocating for international support for LGBTQ+ Afghans, including those that remain in Afghanistan, and we will also continue to work with the UK Government to ensure that the LGBTQ+ Afghans who arrive in the UK are given the support they need to thrive."