Lebanese gay group helping refugee relief

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Matthew Streib, foreign correspondent for The Pink News meets the Arab world’s first gay group which has spent the last month opening up its community activities to both gay and straight refugees displaced by the conflict between Israel and Lebanon.

The Sanayeh Public Gardens, one of the few green spaces in the highly-developed city of Beirut, is usually a haven of relaxation.

It boasts children chasing each other around the immense fountain, office workers reading newspapers during their lunch breaks, and numerous vendors hawking Turkish coffee on silver trays.

Recently, however, the Sanayeh Public Gardens have hosted up to 1,500 internally-displaced refugees from the hostility between Israel and Hezbollah, one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the country.

Helem’s Involvement

The organisation which oversees these relief efforts, the Sanayeh Relief Centre, is managed by Samidoun, a gigantic consortium of non-profit organisations, which are multi-confessional, multi-national, and normally diverse in concentration.

The Sanayeh Relief Centre has been in charge of relief efforts for around 10,000 refugees at 31 sites, mostly schools, but also including a theatre, the Sanayeh Public Gardens, and other buildings. At last count, 11% of the refugees were under five years of age.

Helem, the Arab World’s first LGBT-rights organisation, has played an integral part in the efforts of the

Sanayeh Relief Centre, donating volunteers, money, necessities, and even Lebanon’s gay and lesbian community centre to the relief effort.

The Zico House, a saffron-yellow building located in the centre of one of Beirut’s busiest streets, has hosted Helem since its official registration in 2005, yet a passer-by might never know it, for no sign is visible from the sidewalk.

Due to the hostilities, however, Helem has put its LGBT-oriented activities on hold. The Zico House has been transformed into the hub for the Sanayeh Relief Centre, providing a site for planning meetings, a hotline, and storage space for goods before disbursement.

In fact, every volunteer who wishes to aid in the relief effort must first grace the rainbow-adorned offices of the Zico House.

Helem postponed its LGBT-oriented activities for many reasons, but foremost out of civic duty. “We’re Lebanese before anything else,” said Georges Azzi, Helem’s coordinator.

Since the start of the war, Helem’s members have been at the forefront of all relief efforts, and have consistently participated in daily anti-war demonstrations in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut.

So far reactions have mostly benign, and sometimes positive. “We haven’t received any negative reactions,” said Ghassan Makarem, a coordinator for Samidoun.

“Even when we were visited by an Islamic group which is part of our branch network, there was no reaction. In fact, the Hezbollah house committee even gave a positive reaction.”

Azzi agreed. “I don’t think people care where the help comes from, as long as it gets to people,” he said.

A few days before the cease-fire, the scene at the Sanayeh Public Gardens was dismal and strained, with nearly every inch of the park covered with the makeshift camps of refugees.

The heat and the stench were unbearable, mosquitoes attacked viciously, and disease was always an arm’s length away. There were only two sources of potable water, which were two large, gray tanks from UNICEF, and lines could form rapidly.

Many of the refugees came from southern cities such as Tyre and Can’aa, major targets in the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah. The refugees are mostly Shi’ite, and are supporters of Hezbollah whose loyalty has only gotten stronger in the past month.

Most of the refugees refused to talk to the media, responding angrily or asking to be “left to their misery.”

One family, however, was eager to share a bit of its blanket, and to speak of its story.

Hassan and his family live in Jwaye, a small village on the outskirts of Tyre on the southern Lebanese coast.

Hassan works six days per week as a taxi driver in Tyre, so he was familiar with the roads and came easily to Beirut soon after the hostilities started, bringing his brother, his wife, his 16-year-old daughter, and his elderly mother. They brought a foam mattress, a radio, a blanket to sit on, and not much else.

The future is quite uncertain for Hassan’s family. His brother, Ali, worked in a gas station in Tyre before the war, but it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike, and jobs are hard to come by in Lebanon, which was facing an unemployment rate of more than 17 percent before the war.

“We depend on the money I make,” said Ali, “You can’t feed everyone on one paycheck.”

Alia, Hassan’s daughter, resumes school in September, but she is worried that she may not be able to attend. Aside from the chance that it has been demolished, there is a high possibility that it will become a shelter for families whose houses have been destroyed.

When told that Helem, an organisation that works for gay rights in Lebanon, was playing an instrumental role in the relief effort that was benefiting them and asked for their views on the subject, Hassan paused.

“We thank every single person who is helping us,” he said, refusing to comment further.

Azzi predicts that the future has good things in store for Helem. “When all this is over, I think it will be very good for Helem.

People who would normally not see gay people will have seen them doing good things and helping people,” he said. He added that such visibility is intrinsic to the cause for LGBT rights, for exposure to LGBT people helps neutralise anti-gay rhetoric better than anything else.

As the refugee crisis subsides, Helem will resume its normal activities, advocating equality and justice for LGBT people in Lebanon and throughout the Arab World.

Its projects will include an HIV-prevention campaign targeting cruising sites in Beirut, pushing for the incorporation of gay-positive terminology in governmental and university policies, and providing a support network for LGBT Lebanese.

For more information on Helem, or to make a donation, visit www.helem.net.

This article first appeared in the September issue of The Pink News which is out now