Gay Syrians, who have fled to Lebanon to escape fighting, torture and possible execution, urgently need help to survive.
New organization Proud Lebanon is trying to meet the demand – but with thousands of Syrian refugees still escaping the war, is not able to reach everyone.
Those it can help are given support in accessing vital services, therapy to deal with the trauma they have faced and tutoring to get a job and build a better future.
Bertho Makso, an LGBTI activist who started the initiative, is helping mostly gay men, and a few women, from as young as 19.
Some were successful professionals in Syria, others were at university when they were outed and had to escape.
Makso told GSN: ‘They lost everything. Some people because of the war lost their houses and families. I have people who are orphans now.
‘One case I can never forget is a man who was hanged by his hands by the Islamist rebels because he was gay. So the torture signs are still on his body.
‘In some cases, they were outed by their previous gay friends who went over to the Islamist side and became fighters.
‘The Islamists are turning areas where they take control into Islamic states.
‘One of the guys told me they gave him the Koran to memorize before killing him because of his sexuality – because when you memorize the Koran you will go directly to heaven – but he was able to escape.’
A few are simply fleeing the war. But it is the extra threat posed by their sexuality which makes the LGBTI refugees particularly vulnerable.
Makso said: ‘Lebanon, compared to other Arab countries is like heaven, but homosexuality is still illegal and punishable by up to one year of imprisonment.
‘Refugees and expats are considered less protected than Lebanese and it’s easier for the police to treat them badly.’
By the end of 2013 there will be 1million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, around 20% of the population.
Meanwhile the Lebanese economy has been shattered, with export routes for agriculture and industry shut down by the war and tourism dying out.
Makso is director of LGBTI travel company LebTour but the neighboring war has effectively stopped him from working.
Despite this, he wanted to help.
He told us: ‘I am an activist and I used to do gay tours to Syria where I built friendships with the locals so the first person they contacted when they ran away to Lebanon was me.’
He started the project in September, with 12 Syrians he had reached through dating apps. Now, the number is 70, including a few Iraqis. In addition to that number, some Lebanese also getting involved. But many more need the project.
Makso told us: ‘At the start I had nothing. I just believed in myself and said “now I am taking this responsibility and I can not fail” so I gave them each a book and pen and asked each of them to tell us what they wanted from us.’
UN hand-outs give some of the men $150 (€110) per month for housing and $25 (€18) for food, but this is not enough to last more than a week.
They asked for assistance with registering with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, English classes, and the chance to learn new skills.
Proud Lebanon, as it has become known, provided all this, and psychological support from NGOs. Art therapy is on offer to help them deal with their experiences.
Monday sessions deal with topics like drugs, legal awareness, sexual health and hygiene.
The Lebanese Red Cross provided first aid training – which could lead to employment for some of them as ambulance medics. The association encouraged the Red Cross to start allowing gay men to give blood in the country.
A Christmas expo saw them sell craftwork, embroidery, art and decorations they made. It raised L£1million ($665 €486) – 90% was given to project members for food and shelter.
A fundraiser at Beirut gay bar Bardo also raised L£780,000 ($519 €379) to pay for the project’s overheads and materials for classes.
Makso said: ‘We are all volunteers, the doctor, the tutors. Syrians are volunteering to help other Syrians.’
He hopes to raise money to pay the Syrian tutors a small amount so they can survive while they help other members.
Now he has launched an Indiegogo online fundraiser so the organization can be formally registered, and promoted to those in need. A volunteer is producing its first website.
Almost $2,000 (€1,460) has been raised so far.
Makso said: ‘I used my contacts to pay for it so far. The majority of the money raised was from previous tourists of LebTour who became friends. The rest came from Lebanese people.’
Just $250 (€180) more is needed for this first stage. Proud Lebanon will then apply for more funds from NGOs. But any extra money raised will support more LGBTI refugees.
Makso said: ‘We became like a family. When we have people who are sick, we try to get them medical support from the UN, with STDs we try to help them reach people where they will be safe getting treatment.
‘Even though there is lots of discrimination against Syrians the project is trying to help. It is like a small oasis of tolerance.’