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Cities of refuge
5 min read

Refuge writers due to sexual orientation

For Somali writer Ahmed Mohamed, being gay and writing about it in a strongly homophobic environment became more and more dangerous. Finally, through ICORN, he managed to leave and become Skellefteå’s first refuge writer. However, reality of life as an immigrant in Sweden proved not to be uncomplicated. Jude Dibia from Nigeria came to Malmö as a refuge writer after spending one year in exile in the US. His writings made it impossible for him as well to stay in his home country. Both now try to use their new platforms in Sweden to change negative attitudes towards LGBTIQ people in Africa in in The Middle East.

Credits Text: Daniel Gustafsson March 10 2016

26-year old Ahmed Mohamed is of Somalian nationality, but has lived most of his life in an Arabic country in the Middle East, where he was also born. Mohamed started writing early, and his own sexual orientation soon became a topic in his books.
“I was always interested in language, and early on felt an urge to write. I write in Arabic, but nevertheless my first book Jihadi Kafahi, was published in Somalia. But as homosexuality is a theme in the book, in a matter of three months it disappeared from the shelves in Mogadishu”, he says.

In Nigeria, Jude Dibia, 41, could also have his books published at first, and he was even shortlisted for Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007, although his debut novel Walking With Shadows from 2005 was initially hard to find in local bookstores. But gradually, it became a success and put Dibia in focus, which over time proved to be not only positive. His books openly describes the dilemmas of being gay in a strongly traditional culture regarding sexual orientation.[1]
“To a large extent, many believe queer behaviour and lifestyle is alien to traditional African culture which is not true”, says Dibia.

In January of 2014 Nigeria introduced a law criminalising not only same-sex relations but also extensively criminalising LGBTIQ persons and anyone who in anyway supports them. Violence and hate crimes against LGBTIQ people became more and more common. The situation in Somalia is similar, if not even harsher. Legislation is strongly discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, and there are several reports on public killings of young gay and lesbian Somalis in later years. One such case was the stoning to death of 18-year old Mohamed Ali Baashi in 2013 outside of Mogadishu. Refuge writer Ahmed Mohamed describes the condition for LGBTIQ people in Somalia simply as ”horrible”, while his second home country in the Middle East also showed little tolerance towards his sexual orientation.
“I would certainly be in prison if I had stayed there, but Somalia is still worse. There I would probably be dead. Homosexuality is just a big no-no. Minorities are the ultimate victims of our society”, he says.

Both Jude Dibia and Ahmed Mohamed find a common tendency in both their home countries, that LGBTIQ issues are just not relevant to most people. General problems in both societies related to staggering economies, the influence of militant movements and even warlike conditions, puts focus elsewhere in the general opinion.
“One can almost forget that many LGBTIQ persons are being targeted, humiliated publicly and even denied basic human rights in Nigeria because the news is dominated by other urgent problems. People like to argue that as long as other ‘more important’ issues are ongoing, LGBTIQ rights and persecution is not important or is not an issue at all”, says Jude Dibia.

For Ahmed Mohamed the pressure of local Somali community in Sweden soon proved to re-enact these attitudes. Mohamed claims he cannot longer visit certain suburbs of Stockholm, where the Somali community is particularly strong. Word was soon out about his sexual orientation, and he began to receive threats – even death threats – on his Facebook page. In Sweden he has taken a strong stance in speaking up for LGBTIQ rights through writings and public lectures. Eventually he managed to find a handful of people in the local Somali community with whom he could engage in these issues, but much too few in his opinion.

Jude Dibia is more positive about his local environment, and finds that life in Sweden has expanded his network in terms of his advocacy work and has opened up new channels. He is now writing again and exploring new ways of using his writing as a bigger platform to talk about LGBTIQ rights in his home country and Africa. Despite the present hardships in Nigeria, he is positive about the possibilities of change.
“However, this change is not happening tomorrow. There is a lack of knowledge and understanding of LGBTIQ issues that needs to be urgently addressed. Positive LGBTIQ role models who happen to be Nigerian/African also need to take a more active role in dispelling the negative picture painted by the society”, he says.

Also Ahmed Mohamed calls for more information, education and role models. This is why has has started a blog which informs about the situation for LGBTIQ people, not only in Somalia, but also in the Middle East. His hope is - just like that of Jude Dibia – that over time, the negative attitudes against LGBTIQ people his home country will steadily diminish.
“My dream is to start an NGO in Skellefteå which would work in order to strengthen the Somali LGBTIQ community in general. I would like to promote ideas of diversity. From Sweden, I could start a new kind of platform. It could take three, five or even ten years before things will start to happen in Somalia and in immigrant circles. But it will change. My hope is that I could be a kind of beacon. That I will be able to talk to people and to say: ‘we exist – our words will be heard’”.

[1] An example if Dibia’s writing, the short story “The way we were”, was published in PEN/Opp #15:

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