Transgender woman survives rape, assault while fleeing Syria

Even in Toronto, the sound of a siren can make Alia stop and go silent. It can bring back memories of hiding from Jordanian police. Of having to decide between being raped or being illegally deported to Syria where, as a transgender woman, she says she would have been killed.

'All my life, I feel like I am a refugee,' newcomer to Toronto says of growing up transgender

'Alia,' a 24-year-old Syrian transgender woman, arrived in Toronto as a refugee after surviving sexual assaults and violence in her home country and in neighbouring Jordan. (CBC News)

Even in Toronto, the sound of a siren can make Alia stop, go silent. It can bring back memories of Jordanian police. Of having to decide between being raped or being illegally deported.

She may be learning English now, but Alia cannot find the words in her new language to capture the perpetual state of fear that followed her as a transgender person in Syria and then as a refugee in Jordan.

Alia is not her real name; the 24-year-old requested anonymity to avoid repercussions that might come from telling her story.

'All my life, I feel like I am a refugee'

She grew up in Damascus, sandwiched between two sisters and four brothers, but she never felt safe coming out to any of her family. They would never accept her as she was, she says.

"So all my life, I feel like I am a refugee," she says in Arabic, through an interpreter in a recent interview in Toronto, where Alia has lived since June.

The Arab Spring in 2011 effectively became the catalyst for her journey to Canada, as protests against Syria's Assad regime descended into civil war.

The rise of ISIS in 2013 compounded the violence and the unrest.

"No one could make [out] the difference between the good and the bad," she says. "I feel like humanity… went out from this place."

Ronnie Ali works at Egale Youth OUTreach centre in Toronto and has helped LGBT youth like Alia create coping strategies for trauma. (CBC News)

While more than 12 million people have been displaced since the war broke out, the cultural prejudice toward gay or transgender citizens has made them especially vulnerable, the UN Security Council reported this summer as it held an inaugural session on LGBT concerns. More than 30 people are known to have been publicly executed by ISIS for alleged same-sex relationships, that committee heard in August.

At the time, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission called on Western countries to prioritize LGBT refugees, something Canada announced it would do Tuesday, although it will not accept single heterosexual men coming without parents.

In Syria, both the rebels and the government security forces also targeted lesbian, gay and transgender civilians, Alia says.

She began receiving death threats as the civil war went on. A transgender friend was jailed in Damascus after having had sexual reassignment surgery.

Flight to Jordan

Those threats combined with the routine nature of violence during the war prompted her to flee to Jordan in 2013.

But she says she found little refuge in the ultra-conservative country. Instead, she became a repeated target of the police.

She lived in a house with LGBT friends because she did not feel comfortable coming out to her family. But some of those friends were caught by police, had their hair cut and were dumped on the Syrian side of the border, she says. The officers went through her friends' phones, saw her picture and had her contact information, she says. 

"So I start at this point feeling like there's no security," she says.

Alia hid in her boyfriend's house in Jordan for days. But weeks later, plainclothes officers approached her and two friends when they went outside.

Victims of violence

They forced them into their car, she remembers.

"They closed our eyes… [but] we start hearing that they are calling their colleagues. 'Come, we just catch a good thing.' They are asking other police officers to 'Come, see what we catch, three trans.' "

The men drove them to a government building where they were tortured, Alia says. The officers took their jewelry and their cellphones.

And then they told Alia they would be getting back in the car and driving them back to Syria.

"We were crying, in a panic," she says. "I can't say, 'If I go back, I will die,' because they don't care."

The officers then changed tactics. They said would let them all go, Alia says, after the officers raped them.

For a week, I cannot open the door. I turn off all the lights... I felt alone, completely alone.- Alia, transgender woman and Syrian refugee

"Each of us went with a police person in a private car," she says. "We choose to have sex instead of going to Syria. It was like there was nothing in our hands, nothing we can do."

Alia and her friends were released, but she says they lived in fear.

"For a week, I cannot open the door. I turn off all the lights," she says. "I felt alone, completely alone."

Weeks later, she was assaulted again as two cars blocked her path and men emerged wielding wooden rods. One of her friends who had been with her during the sexual assault was dragged into a car. Alia has not seen her again.

"People [are] looking at me and I'm begging them, 'Please, please help me. For God's sake, help.' But no one helped."

After that, she said she knew she could no longer safely stay in Jordan.

Priority application

It took nearly nine months for her application to come to Canada to be approved, she says, because of a clerical error, but in the end her file was prioritized because she was in an especially vulnerable situation. On June 8, she landed in Canada.

"When I arrived in Canada, I felt that this was my birthday," she said. "Today I got born."

It's a new beginning rather than a happy ending, however. Alia still has to adapt to a new language and a new culture. Like other LGBT refugees, she does not feel safe seeking services from the organizations serving other Syrians because of ongoing prejudice.

But she said she feels far safer than before, in part because of the counselling she's received at at an LGBT youth centre in Toronto.

"I'd love to find here what I've lost," she says. "To live the life that I should by right as a human."