Mahamood Rakibul Hasan (or simply ‘Rakib’) hasn’t eaten a decent meal in days.
It’s a scorching hot morning in Kathmandu, Nepal, and we’re sitting in the pretty courtyard of my hotel, where I offer to buy him lunch.
Over a triple decker sandwich and iced coffee, the handsome 23-year-old tells me his story – beginning with right here, right now. He can’t find work, is low on funds and feels terribly homesick.
‘I miss my family so much,’ he tells me in very good English, which he taught himself. ‘My home district is Patuakhali [South-central Bangladesh]; my parents and my younger brother are still there. I call them, but they tell me: “If you will be a straight son, you can come back. We don’t accept a gay son in our family.”‘
He continues: ‘My brother once told me “Whether you’re gay or not you’re still my brother.” I believe my parents are stopping him having contact with me.’
Rejected by his parents, Rakib left home at 18 for Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.
There, he got involved with a local LGBTI organization, but later fled when he began to receive threats from Muslim extremists over social media.
Rakib claims to have known, Xulhaz Mannan, editor of Bangladesh’s first queer magazine, and his friend Tanay Mojumdar, whose murders at the hands of such fundamentalists made headlines a year ago.
Rakib’s now been living as a refugee in Nepal, recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), for over a year.
Although he’s scared of getting caught, Rakib wants to be named and pictured in this article.
‘I have already exposed myself as a gay activist,’ he says. ‘I don’t have that insecurity. In the past I had lots of bad experience, but the LGBTI is a sensitive community in the world. I have to be brave.’
My interview with Rakib is a fitting end to a fascinating stay in Nepal – a scenically beautiful country where same-sex sex has been legal since 2007. In Bangladesh, it is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
‘It’s not as safe as Western countries, but it’s safe compared to Bangladesh, India and Pakistan,’ explains Rakib. ‘It’s more advanced.’
He has applied for resettlement in Canada with the help of the Rainbow Railroad. ‘They are too kind to me, but it is taking a long time,’ he says.
In the meantime, he has to make it work in Nepal.
Here, Rakib shares his heartbreaking but inspiring story in full – from coming out to his mother at 12, to being raped and abused by police in Dhaka at 19, to sleeping on the office floor of Nepal’s only LGBTI organization The Blue Diamond Society at 23…
How did you come to decide to come out to your parents?
I knew my orientation was different at the age of 12. This I shared with my mom, as I was friendly with her.
She told me: ‘It’s not a problem – maybe it’s your age.’ After that, when I realized I was positive about it, I strongly shared it with my family. This time they took me to a psychiatrist, and into an asylum and rehab for three months. I was 18. After that, they realized I can’t change.
Then, even the monks in my prayer hall refused me. ‘If you are like that, you can’t enter this mosque.’ By that time I’d finished my secondary school diploma. I realized if I stayed at home, I would maybe become mentally disordered, because I didn’t have support. So I left my home. I was 18. I thought the capital would be more liberal.
Are you still religious?
I was born Muslim. But I respect all religions. Now my religion is humanity. Sometimes I go to church, sometimes to temples.
How was Dhaka?
After one year I was related with [an LGBTI] organization. It was a circle, we met and worked together.
That was the start of my activism. I was very young. I’d had lots of bad experience because of my orientation, but I wanted to do something for my future generations. I can absorb this pain, but I don’t want it for other people.
How did people treat you as a LGBTI person?
It was bad. One day in 2013, I was in a park. Three police followed me and got me. They said: ‘You are gay or from the transgender community.’ They explained the park in the nighttime was a cruising site for sex-selling.
They told me: ‘You are a sex worker, you will be arrested.’
I was scared. I didn’t have family or financial support. They physically assaulted me, sexually assaulted me, put cigarettes out on me.
I shared this with my friends – the ones who would go on to be killed by fundamentalists. They told me: ‘We have to absorb this pain.’ I didn’t want to complain to the police, because they oppose LGBT issues. I was 19.
Lots of bad things happened to me. People said they’d put acid in my face because ‘you’re an enemy of Islam, of Muslims.’
So you were raped?
Yes, by three police.
Where were you living at this point?
I was living alone. In a single room. We were together, my friends [were nearby].
How did you make money?
I was a private tutor and I worked in a restaurant. I was also physically assaulted by my coworkers there. They approached me for sex and when I denied they physically assaulted me. They slapped me and threw me out of the restaurant.
What happened after you were threatened by extremists?
I contacted the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and they suggested I leave my country. ‘If you are seeking asylum we can help you.’
I was trying to go to India, but there were visa complications there. That’s why I came to Nepal.
They gave me an honourable visa as a Bangladesh citizen. It had a one-month time limit. I applied for asylum in UNHCR Nepal. Three months later they gave me refugee status.
But there are no signatory laws. [According to the UNHCR, ‘though not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, and with no domestic refugee legislation, Nepal continues to host a large number of refugees and asylum-seekers’]. They treat refugees like illegal immigrants, not a refugee.
I will have to pay a $5 (£3.93, €4.68) per day fine to immigration when I leave. It’s too much. It’s already been a year. It’s big money.
How are you finding life in Nepal?
It’s difficult, but when I first came here, it was good. I thought it would be much more liberal than other Asian countries.
But in Nepal I don’t have any job, or accommodation [paid for me]. The LGBTI organization Blue Diamond Society gave me a place for three months. It was their office floor. I was staying there without food, without blankets, for all of winter. The UNHCR don’t have any [financial] support for me. It’s so difficult to survive.
Where are you staying at the moment?
A rented roadside room. It’s $150 (£117, €140) per month. I had savings, and the last two months I paid, but from next month I don’t know how I’ll pay. I can’t work. When I apply for jobs, they ask ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Bangladesh?’ ‘You don’t have a resident’s permit?’ ‘No, I’m a refugee.’ ‘OK, well, we don’t have a job for refugees.’ They don’t want the complication.
I have applied for a resettlement in Canada. But it’s processing and taking a long time. I have to survive in the meantime. Rainbow Railroad are trying to take me from here. We’ve been in touch since July via email.
What would happen if you went home?
A month ago police [in Nepal] deported a lot of illegal immigrants. If police deported me, the main problems are my family and other Muslim fundamentalists. They’re too active. They’re killing teachers, bloggers, anyone who talks about human rights. It’s horrible. I never want to go back to Bangladesh.
Do you miss your friends who were killed?
Yes. Not only my two friends [Xulhaz and Mojumdar]. In 2015, my friend Avijit Roy, was one of eight bloggers killed by fundamentalists. [Avijit, a US-Bangladeshi atheist, who advocated secularism, was attacked while walking back from a book fair with his wife].
They were my family. Now I am zero – I don’t have anyone in this world but my shadow.
Would you like to get married and have kids one day?
Of course, why not. I always think, I’m normal like my brother, my mom, my dad. It’s my dream. If I have a place to live, one day I could get my partner, and my kids.