Cold, weak, and isolated in a dull, dispiriting room. Avoiding contact with others to escape shouts of ‘faggot’ or being hit by other residents at the asylum centre.
This is the how Logal Kako, 21, spent his first 30 days in Sweden after fleeing from Syria. And realizing the bullying he suffered in his homeland had followed him all the way to the forests of northern Sweden was almost too much to bear.
“After I moved to Sweden in December 2014, I lived in an isolated asylum center with people who wouldn't accept me for being gay at all,” he says with exasperation.
“I had to put up another mask and pretend to be straight…I was forced to repeat what I did to cope in Syria to cope in Sweden.”
He never expected that in his dream land of Sweden – a ‘heaven’ where he expected to feel safe, free and relish being gay – he would nevertheless be forced to grapple the harsh reality of homophobia.
Logal’s face tightens as he recalls the traumatic existence he struggled with as a closeted gay teenager in Syria.
Barbie instead of Batman
“When I was 14 years old, I used to be bullied and insulted by other students at my school who shouted ‘hey faggot’,” he explains. “I didn’t go to recess; instead I spent most of the time alone in the class room. Otherwise other students would have hit me and kicked me; I was constantly under threat.”
Logal could never understand why his gayness was cause for such humiliation – he never hurt anyone, and always wondered why fellow students wanted to hurt him for simply being who he is. After all, being gay wasn’t something he chose.
As a happy and outgoing young boy growing up in Tartus, a town on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Logal began to notice he was different from the other boys, preferring Barbie to Batman, and playing with girls rather than scuffling with other boys.
“When I was 13 years old, I felt like there was something different about me, that I wasn’t like other guys in our neighborhood,” he recalls. “I used to feel shy while taking off my t-shirt next to boys, a thing I didn't experience while next to girls.”
Sitting in a quiet café in Stockholm, Logal describes his previous life as a young gay man in Syria as a complex interplay of disclosure and concealment – being gay at school and in public, while remaining straight at home and in front of his mother.
It’s clear from Logal’s expression that his relationship with his mother is a special, if not complicated one. She means everything to him, with Logal turning to her for safety, love and knowledge. She taught him to speak English and as he puts it, she taught him “to be free.”
Although, Logal describes his mother as “very open”, he was nevertheless worried about how she would react to news that her son was gay. And so it took long after he’d come out to himself and others before he disclosed his sexuality to his own mother – waiting until just before he was set to start university.
“I just couldn’t tell her [face to face],” he recalls with a sigh.
“So I wrote her a letter explaining I was gay. I put it in her hand and sat next to her on the couch.”
To Logal, Sweden was a “heavenly vista” of tolerance and equality. Photo: Private
Logal recalls staring at his mother, quivering as she scanned the paper with words that could change their relationship forever.
“Tears started falling from her eyes. She just wept.”
After a long pause, she turned to Logal.
“Do me a favour and disappear. I don’t want to see your face right now. I can never accept that my son is gay,” she told her shell-shocked son.
Logal was devastated, and seeing his mother go through what he describes as a prolonged “nervous breakdown” in the days ahead didn’t make matters easier.
Having been disowned by his beloved mother and with the war in Syria escalating, Logal decided to leave, not only to avoid being recruited for the Syrian army, but also in search of someplace where he could simply be comfortable in his own skin.
And in Logal’s mind, Sweden was that place; an unrivaled “heavenly vista” of tolerance and equality. But his journey there was far from straightforward, and included an interlude that would change him in ways he never expected when he crossed into Turkey in August 2014.
Fast forward to the dancefloor at Tek Yön night club in Istanbul, one of the city’s most famous gay clubs. Logal is dancing with a couple of friends.
Suddenly, lightning struck – with a little help from Google translate.
“I met the first love of my life, Burak,” he recalls with a warm smile.
“He was dancing with a friend when my eyes fell on his. I went to him and asked, ‘Can we dance together?’ He didn’t speak English – so I translated it on Google using my mobile, and showed it to him. He saw the Turkish translation, and was shocked for few seconds, but then nodded ‘yes’.
“When we first kissed, I felt like the whole world was empty. For a few seconds, it was as if he was the only being that existed.”
Finding his first love at the dawn of his planned voyage to Sweden presented Logal with some difficult choices. He had already been in contact with smugglers about finding him a ‘route’ to Europe.
“My life had been black and white, and with Burak, it turned very colorful,” he says.
“But going to Sweden to fulfill my ‘pink dream’ seemed closer than ever before. I had to choose between Burak and Sweden. It was as if I’d managed to put one foot in heaven only to suddenly have to pull it back out.”
'I need help'
In the end, Logal decided to move to Sweden, a decision supported by Burak, who didn’t want to get in the way of his new lover’s dream. They both held onto the hope that fate would somehow bring them together again.
And so Logal and Burak ended their brief romance with a hug and a farewell cup of tea on a cold day in December 2014.
The following day Logal found himself in line at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport, with a raging battle of hope and fear playing out inside him as he anxiously awaited his turn at the immigration checkpoint.
While other travelers casually shuffled forward to get their passports stamped, Logal had nothing to be stamped; he’d already torn up the fake passport that got him this far, discarding it in the airplane lavatory.
He shivered in panic as he approached the window, with angst similar to that which gripped him when he came out to his mother.
“I was sickened by stress. It was 4pm, dark and my heart was throbbing with fear,” Logal recalls.
“I started to ask myself, ‘Where am I? What should I do?’”
Unsure of what to do, Logal gathered up the last ounce of courage he could muster and approached a stern looking police officer.
“I need help.”
“What sort of help?”
“I am Syrian.”
For a moment, fears raced through Logal’s head as he stared back at the officer.
“He said, ‘Don't worry son. You are safe now,’” Logal recalls.
“At that moment I started sobbing uncontrollably.”
Surrounded by homophobes
However, it didn’t take long for Logal’s tears of joy to be transformed into tears of despair. After two days at an asylum reception centre near Stockholm, Logal was relocated to what he describes as the “shithole” in Torpshammar – a place where his Sweden dream morphed into an unexpected nightmare.
Nestled in a community of fewer than 500 residents about 60 kilometres from the nearest city of Sundsvall, the asylum centre in Torpshammar left Logal feeling both geographically and emotionally isolated.
“I found myself surrounded by homophobes who looked at me with contempt,” he recalls. While Logal was far from flamboyant, his fashion choices and piercings led fellow asylum seekers to assume he was gay.
“Some laughed at me for no reason, others shouted ‘sissy’ or ‘faggot’; others hit me,” he recalls. “I felt hopeless.”
Logal spent most of his time in his room, eventually pleading with officials from the Migration Agency for help.
“I was told, ‘We can’t offer more than this,’” he explains.
“It was at that moment when I started to think, ‘Is this really the Sweden I’ve always dreamed of?’
“I felt like death would be an easier choice.”
Suicidal thoughts came and went, as Logal struggled to endure what felt like a “prison”. The uncertainty of how long he would have to wait for his asylum decision didn’t make it any easier.
“I had so much anxiety. I was constantly sad and alone, wondering how long I’d have to live like this. A year? Longer?” he recalls.
“I became afraid of everything, afraid to walk out the street…every time a train approached a thought about throwing myself on the railway.
“I felt totally powerless and out of control; I've never experienced anything like it in my life – even though I’d been through war and life in an extremely homophobic society, the horror I witnessed in Sweden was unprecedented.”
New Year's resolution
As 2014 drew to a close, Logal was at the end of his rope, ready to give up on life in Sweden – and maybe life in general. But then something unexpected happened, thanks to a fellow Syrian – one of the few friends he still had in Sweden.
Logal (right) poses with one of his friends in Sweden. Photo: Private
“He invited me to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a Swedish friend of his, Jonas, who lived in Danderyd near Stockholm,” explains Logal.
In the waning hours of a year that had turned Logal’s life upside down, he explained his predicament to Jonas, closing with a spontaneous proposition: could Logal rent a room in the house in exchange for minding Jonas’s pets?
Much to Logal’s amazement and joy, Jonas accepted.
“He told me, ‘I’ve always wondered how I could help the Syrian people, and by welcoming you in my home I can fulfill that wish.’”
Relocating from the harsh reality of Torpshammar to Jonas’ idyllic existence in suburban Stockholm gave Logal the lifeline he needed to get his Swedish dream back on track.
He had the chance to live how he wanted, free from persecution and ridicule, making the ever-longer wait for his residence permit decision bearable.
“It felt really good. I was living with great people, I had the chance to get dressed and behave the way I liked – wearing high heeled-shoes, girly clothes; being totally free,” he recalls with a sparkle in his eye.
“It was a time where I built a circle of relationships that made me really happy. I had finally found my place in Sweden and started to express myself.
“All I wanted is to simply walk the streets and be gay.”
'A complicated heaven'
And that’s more or less what Logal did for the next 11 months until on November 6th, 2015 he was finally granted permanent residency in Sweden.
The occasion wasn’t as transformational for Logal as was moving out of Torsphammar, but having shed the uncertainty about his stay in Sweden, Logal has spent the last several months focusing on how to build a complete and full life in his new country.
After more than a year in Sweden, Logal admits it’s no longer the land of his “pink dream”. Rather, he instead sees Sweden as a “complicated heaven”.
Nonetheless, he is committed to building a new life in Sweden embracing the difficulties and eager to take a shot at becoming a singer – something he believes will let him express himself and bring joy to his heart.
Logal has also re-established contact with his mother – who now lives in Lebanon – using occasional conversations on Viber to help rebuild their relationship to a point where they can now discuss “love, boys, and relationships”.
“She has worked hard to accept me,” he says. “Now she means even more than everything to me!”
And after a couple of Skype chats with Burak, the couple decided to go their separate ways, accepting that their life trajectories were headed in different directions.
“I don’t know how I bounced back to normality after all that I’ve been through,” says Logal, reflecting on his current situation.
“I’m going to follow my dreams and work hard. Now I’m studying Swedish and volunteering as an interpreter at [LGBT rights organization] RFSL where I translate from English to Arabic for asylum seekers.”
At the end of the day, Logal simply wishes to be respected for who he is: a human being who experiences the same ups and downs as anyone else
“I wake up, wash my face, brush my teeth and have a breakfast everyday – I have friends, I hang out, study, love, vomit and cry,” he explains.
“I am a human being just like you. You don't need to accept me, but you don’t need to humiliate me either.”
Logal with Rex the dog. Photo: Private