©Design: Boshra Jallali

A story of wandering

Ward *: She / He / They - Non Binary

By Haithem Haouel

English translation by Yasmine Ben Salah

His story is a constant search for a dignified existence and a glimpse of peace. At the age of 27, the young Ward smiles broadly as he comments in retrospect on his perpetual pursuit of self-preservation. From Tripoli to Tunis, dodging and waiting.

After listening to his journey, he gives us complete freedom to present him, as our interlocutor treats with caution some terms that are commonly used such as “refugee”, “asylum seeker”, or even activist. “Ward” is his real first name, which he chose to put forward in order to overshadow another one that is more common, with a Muslim connotation, attributed by his family.

For him, emphasising one name more than another is a way of coping with the far-reaching changes that were about to take place. And if he chose “Ward”, it was to move forward and leave his life in Libya, his native land, behind him.

His awakening was very early merged with his discovery of himself, his body, his gender and his sexuality. Fuelled by curiosity, Ward picked his way through a hostile, dangerous social context and managed to lead a full double life in the middle of Tripoli. A hidden, solitary existence, conducted with suspicion… until the gradual and certain break-up of this precarious tranquillity.

At the beginning, the discoveries ...

As a child he grew up with loving parents. It was more with the extended family, and more specifically with his uncles, that relations clashed for a long time. “We all live in a neighbourhood that brings together the whole extended family. Proximity was inevitable, and so was gossip. My appearance was the subject of gossip, my gender identity or my so-called delicate side was questioned, but strangely, this aspect of my personality was accepted by my parents, who were conservative, of course, but who would step aside when it came to the ‘what will they say’. He recalls. Survival or developing defence mechanisms was learned in the family… before applying them in an even larger and more dangerous society.

Ward discovered his sexuality at an early age and always kept it to himself. At 16, he accumulated encounters, crushes and casual relationships without losing sight of his studies: he opted for natural sciences, then music, then philosophy, and hung on as best he could to pursue his studies in the most unstable Libyan context, because of the revolution and the civil war. 

The queer community in Libya is similar to others, which are simmering in secret in the Middle East, North Africa or elsewhere: this queer life is lived more by night. Its members have their own addresses, their own dating applications, and everything is done out of sight, in the shadows. “Everything was lived in silence before the revolution. It is undeniable that nowadays, tongues are looser and the Internet has brought about change. Queer life is not organised, structured, there but it exists and more than we think… it smoulders under the ambient and very heavy conservatism of society”. Ward deduces by referring to “the Guejmi”, citing other demeaning names like “Bouftat” (a vulgar term attributed to Gays/Queers), and recalls another, the “Chekchaka”, which refers to the Bling Bling side that Queer people can have.

A community life that is constantly in turmoil, which Ward was not keen to join. A loner, and not very sociable, he was content to have very few friends with whom to share the same interests and to keep on having … romances and flings. “Adopting group codes, coming out… I don’t have to try to do all that”. He points out. So, he might as well just carve out his own existence… which is about to escape him.

Everything was lived in silence before the revolution. It is undeniable that nowadays, tongues are looser and the Internet has brought about change. Queer life is not organised, structured, there but it exists and more than we think... it smoulders under the ambient and very heavy conservatism of society

Encounters and consequences…

Ward stealed money and gave it to his first love, and through a series of tumultuous encounters, he became infatuated with a young man 15 years older than him. They became close, socialised and attracted the attention of a neighbour; a ‘Dealer’, who was quick to gossip to the family. He says: “This dealer neighbour went and falsely said that he saw me kissing a man in the car: something I would never do. An uncle came after me with a gun “to save the family honour”, and to eradicate this tare of homosexuality!” he said. 

These events left their mark on him and became the precursors of an imminent escape. It was impossible for him to continue to live in such an aggressive and repressive environment. His parents did not intervene at the time of the violence and his relationship with one of his two brothers began to deteriorate. He left home for a while and then returned, at the insistence of his distraught and mentally exhausted mother. The accumulation of mischief, incidents and violence, which increased from week to week, pushed him to leave … His presence disturbed and fuelled the tension. 

But an umpteenth encounter has led to his definitive departure…

“In September 2019, I met a young man on facebook. We became friends at first … then we had grown closer. This person turned out over time to be extremely possessive, sickly jealous, and very violent. He became insistent, sending repeated “Nudes”… He overwhelmed me to the point of suffocation. The situation got worse when he started to harass me, threatening to expose me to my family, my parents, and everyone. He wanted me to submit by force or else he would disclose me and kill me. A raging psychopath!” Ward recalls. The threats became so alarming that he sent a distress e-mail to an international organisation that would assist him from a distance. The possibility of his departure from the country became obvious, and even necessary. It was a question of survival!

After endless and fruitless searches of international organisations that were unable to take him in, he was finally taken in by the N.I. in Tunisia. He had time to say a hasty goodbye to his family, to collect a few clothes and belongings, to get 60 Tunisian dinars in his pocket and to take off… to finally land at Tunis-Carthage airport on the 10th of January 2020, i.e. two months before the COVID19 pandemic. The torment takes other forms under other skies!

Leaving and awaiting

One page is turned to allow another one to tell the story of a new and equally turbulent chapter in Ward’s short life as he lands in neighbouring Tunisia … with no intention of seeking asylum. “I didn’t know anything about the status of an ‘asylum seeker’ or a ‘refugee’ when I got on the plane to Tunisia… In my head, I just had to go somewhere else!” he comments, looking slightly ironic.

Ignorant of almost everything about the host country: how to get around, its laws… etc. He wandered around trying to protect himself instinctively… The N.I. arranged his arrival and placed him in a studio in La Marsa. A psychologist, money, and rent were promised for a period… A positive impression emerged at first sight, and seemed idyllic in the so-called “most emancipated of Arab countries: Tunisia”. At least, this is the idea he had of his host country.

Ward kept a low profile, avoided making connections on the spot, and tried to find some kind of equilibrium for himself … to no avail. He turned up at the office a week after his arrival, didn’t get his money the first time, and then two officials called him and supervised from afar… But very quickly, disenchantment sets in: “The services and money transactions were done without leaving any tracks, in a nonchalant way, sometimes I had to walk from the northern suburbs to the downtown of Tunis, because I could not afford it… I did not receive my money in full, after they had let me wait for a long time… Very quickly, I understood that this host organisation was taking advantage of the situation and acting as an intermediary: It seemed to me that they were receiving funds from a major global funder to take care of potential asylum seekers in danger of death, and were pocketing a percentage of the overall sum offered on each victim found or contacted. It was like an organised trade of asylum seekers. I reported this to this major funder, but I didn’t get any response”… He relates with great lucidity. “What is despicable is the behaviour, their dubious way of doing things… much more than the money or the services that were missing!”  Ward thought about making a complaint, but he had to do it from abroad. He thought of disclosing the whole thing in an online article… Soon he would know that he was a ” trial case “, or ” lab rat “.

Given the urgency of the situation, the villainous actions and the lack of reactivity, one has to make do with what is available and adapt… To make matters worse, the world was placed under general lockdown because of COVID19 … everything was closed, travel was greatly reduced, and the accommodation of Ward was compromised. 

The noose was tightening...

“Of the three months of accommodation, I was offered an extra month because of the health situation, then I had to find another place to live. The situation was becoming more and more critical. Fortunately, I had a fellow traveller who supported me at that time: he came to my rescue, kept me company and was often present especially during all my altercations. There was one in particular that I will remember for a long time: my run-in with the CEO of the N.I. who had tried to get rid of me from the office with a very haughty and aggressive tone. I decided, after that, to contact lawyers, and to cut off contact with the staff of the organisation”. he recalls. 

So what is the alternative in this time of crisis?

Preferring to take a leap into the void, instead of continuing to suffer, Ward contacted an aunt and his two cousins and stayed with all of them in Cité El Ghazela for a while. He shared the expenses with them but then- left immediately, following a serious dispute… The ultimate option offered to him from then on was to become an “asylum seeker” and obtain his refugee card… So he headed for the asylum seekers’ centre in Bhar Lazreg, despite all the dissuasions he had received… This was in February 2021.  

Envisioned beforehand as a refuge with basic amenities, he immediately came up against the difficult reality. “I was told that the Shelter was not for me and that I would not feel safe or well. I was warned… For my part, I saw it as a legal shelter, a periodic step that I had to validate in order to be able to obtain asylum legally and, above all, my refugee card, which gives me access to healthcare and studies. I had to build a legal status in Tunisia”. he says, with a yellow smile on his face.

The refuge was a building of about 4 flats, each one with 3 to 4 rooms. At least 8 to 12 people live in each flat. The overcrowding, the “Roomates”, who often lack hygiene and with whom he does not get along, made his daily life difficult. The “Shelter” brings together several cultures, mainly sub-Saharan. Ward did not go unnoticed… The situation of the applicants on the spot was much more tragic than he expected. The profiles were often violent and unstable. Ward kept a low profile in a very precarious shelter.

This attitude though did not protect him from harassers and dangers: a Libyan trans person and another former Libyan military man caused him harm, a Mauritanian “sex worker” and a Sudanese man made life difficult for him… The place was cruelly lacking in hygiene, and was only dedicated to Sub-Saharan Africans and a minority of Libyans. The women applicants were placed a little further away. 

The suffocation reached its climax and pushed him to leave … after two years cloistered in this building, located in an unsafe neighbourhood. A “Shelter” that he left recently, once he obtained his refugee card from the U.N. 

“The people who work in this type of organisation are disconnected from the field and do not know the real conditions… The psychologists they provide do not have the tools or the knowledge to deal properly with people from the LGBTQI+ / Queer community. In my case, I fled Libya because I was about to be persecuted on the basis of my gender / sexual orientation…”. Ward notes, relieved to have circumvented yet another hardship.

The wait for a more peaceful future is becoming more and more tiresome… and endless. He has been in Tunisia for three years already. But what next? An infinite number of intrusive and unsuccessful interviews followed, and the impossibility of choosing his host country, somewhere in the West, became clear. His future fate does not depend on him, but on the Western countries that ask for a reduced number of asylum seekers: they choose them after an infinite number of procedures. He now intends to contact the authorities, or embassies, to speed up the procedure for his departure.  

In the meantime, Ward is still in Tunisia, working as a freelance graphic designer, writing, and maintaining some links with people from the community in Tunisia, whom he has met thanks to “Mawjoudin – We exist”, preferring to keep only a few people around him and avoiding going out much. 

He is happy with his acquired “post-Shelter” autonomy, ending on a bitter-sweet note: “It’s all worth living… in spite of everything, there’s no turning back. But you have to be tough and resilient to be able to live through so many twists and turns. I am still sceptical and very worried about the fate of asylum seekers, which is still so precarious, and which could get worse at any moment… Especially after the outdated and shocking statements of the Presidency on the fate of sub-Saharans. I am afraid that the State will attack asylum seekers, a small but real fear. We can’t be sure of anything…”. He says confidently. A blurred vision of the future! Ward ben Mansur concludes, with resignation: “I am just one number among many… awaiting”.

1 thought on “A story of wandering”

  1. Very touching story. Ward was courageous enough to leave his family and his country. I wish that ward will be able to live quietly now , in a safe place. Thanks to mawjoudin for the very good work in Tunisia!

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