GÄVLE — Under the dark of a freezing arctic night, Jimi arrived at his destination. They welcomed him with a plate of Swedish meatballs, before showing him to a soft, white bed in a room that sleeps eight.
“Welcome to Sweden,” says a man of African origins, shaking his hand.
Jimi, 25, who is from the small nation of Eritria in the Horn of Africa, remembers thanking him and then collapsing onto the mattress. He was so tired that he couldn’t even turn off the light.
Jimi is one of the 155 survivors of the boat filled with hundreds of would-be immigrants that sank on Oct. 3, 2013, off the coast of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
The Gävle Immigrant Center, 170 kilometers north of Stockholm, is a red brick building accessible only by a magnetic security card. The corridors are impeccably clean. On the first floor there’s a common room with a TV, and those staying here are free to come and go as they please. Each person receives the equivalent of 77 euros each month, and they benefit from Sweden's free universal health service as they await Immigration Services’ validation of their political asylum request.
Jimi’s journey to get here has taken 557 days. He walked away from his desert village with nothing but a pair of sandals on his feet on the night of June 11, 2012. “There were two of us,” he told me. “We followed a trail in the dark. The guide told us: ‘Don’t speak and do not turn on your cell phone.’ ” So, they didn’t. “Even the smallest of lights could have caught the army’s attention. We were risking prison.”
Soon after, they arrived in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. And for the next year, Jimi worked sweeping the streets to save money to continue his journey northward.
He paid a total of $5,000 to five different human traffickers, and his journey took him 9,254 kilometers, which Google Maps deems navigable in just four days and 14 hours.
The route shows some of the potential obstacles someone might encounter. In Jimi’s case, there were two in particular. “The violence and racism I faced in Libya, and then what happened in Lampedusa,” he says. “Between the good and the bad, it’s something that I’ll never be able to forget.”
On the night of Oct. 3, Jimi, a Christian, was looking at the stars and praying silently. “I was out on the deck,” he says. “I wasn’t seasick, but my legs were sore. We were squashed in so tightly together that I wasn’t able to move them much. When the captain saw the lights of the island, he switched off the motor. Two boats passed us, but neither of them stopped. It was really bad. Water was coming on board and the motor wouldn’t turn on again. So the smuggler set a blanket on fire to attract attention. Then, panic erupted on board.”
Jimi had been in the sea just once before in his life. It was the summer of 2011, on Massawa beach on the Eritrean coast, and his friend Ahmed told him that to float, he needed to turn onto his back and pretend to be dead.
“I fell into the sea, fully clothed. My friends were screaming around me, but I couldn’t do anything. I pulled up my feet and I was able to kick off my shoes. I got dragged under, and I swallowed some water. Then I remembered what Ahmed said. For four hours I prayed to God for my sins with my eyes fixed on the sky.”
That night 366 people died.
Jimi then spent two months in Lampedusa. “The Reception Center was awful,” he recalls. “They only ever give you macaroni. But the people on the island were very nice and generous. I’ll always thank them for what they did for us.”
Migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa — Photo: Noborder Network
Another memorable day was on the afternoon of Nov. 15. He was with four other survivors, and they decided to swim again for the first time since the sinking. “They threw me into the water with a life jacket on. I was just 10 meters from the shore, but I still couldn’t manage to float.”
For more than two years now, immigrants who have arrived in Italy haven’t wanted to stop on the island. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the voices all say: head north. If you request political asylum in the first country you arrive in, they will digitally record your details. Because of this, Jimi stubbornly refused to give any details about his identity in Italy. After the Tunisian smuggler was identified and Jimi gave his evidence, he escaped from the Pozzallo center in Sicily with eight other survivors. “The truth is,” he says, “when the police heard who we were, they let us go.”
Man U and snowstorms
From the Sicilian city of Catania they took a boat to Rome. From Rome, a train to Milan. They were ready to stow away in the trunk of a car to go further when Jimi’s aunt called him from Saudi Arabia where she works as a cleaning lady. She loaned him 800 euros and, and he was able to get a fake passport and airline ticket to Stockholm with a stop in Brussels. “I’d never been on a plane in my life. When I saw the clouds out of the window, I started to laugh,” he says.
So, now he’s here, dazed and content, and truly where he dreamed of being. He gave his details to Swedish authorities and wants to start his new life here. He dreams of becoming a nurse.
On the morning of the first day I came to visit him here in Gävle, Jimi had a medical exam, and afterwards we went to a pharmacy to get a cream for his back. It was notable how all the people in this Swedish town were friendly, and made a point of talking to him.
But at 3 p.m., Jimi had something else on his mind: a soccer match on television featuring Manchester United, his favorite team. We went to O’Leary’s pub, which had several enormous televisions on the walls. Jimi ordered a cheeseburger.
A waitress named Margareta Lax came over with a beer in her hand. “How are you?” she asked in English, “what have you come here looking for?”
“My future," he replied. And he told her about all his plans to study, learn the Swedish language, become a nurse. “With that job I can then send money home to my family.” Jimi was drinking a beer too, and his eyes were shining as he watched the game. “In Eritrea, I played on the left. My favorite player is Robin van Persie.”
Every now and then he looks for news on Facebook. Another four survivors from Lampedusa arrived in Sweden recently, and he hopes to meet up with them soon. “The thing that scares me the most is loneliness,” he says. “Maybe one day I’ll regret the choices I’ve made. But first, I have to complete my mission.”
The referee blows the final whistle: Man U has beaten West Ham 3-1. Jimi hops up from his seat, and shakes Margareta’s hand. “Wrap up warm,” she tells him. “The forecast is predicting 50 centimeters of snow!”
Jimi has never seen snow before. Just like he’d never swam before, or been on an airplane. He wears socks but no hat, and the same jacket indoors and out. When we walk outside, it’s getting dark and he sniffs the air, and says: “Who knows what it’ll be like…”
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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