LGBTQI rights are human rights: discussing sensitive topics can be a challenge in refugee orientation trainings

3 years 2 months ago

Migrant trainer Dima Salih works around the world providing cultural orientation for refugees moving to Finland and Iceland. For her, as a Middle Eastern woman, the rights of sexual and gender minorities were initially a difficult topic to discuss. Now she champions them proudly.

“What do you see in this photo?”, I ask. I hold a picture of a person who is half male and half female in my hands. In front of me, I have a group of students. Men and women of different ages, who are preparing for a new life.

Participants take their turns guessing. “It symbolises the equality between men and women?” “Women are half the society?”

The photo sparks a lively discussion. I thank the participants for their answers and continue to reveal that the photo symbolises transgender people.

Quickly someone raises their hand to ask what “transgender” means.

Pride and basics: from awareness to acceptance

On the 29th June, 100 000 people took to the street of Helsinki to celebrate Pride, among them my colleagues from IOM.

Meanwhile, I was busy working in a ground floor of an office block, where we trained refugees who were about to start a new life in Finland after fleeing war-torn Syria. It was almost 30 degrees outside, and we were grateful to have air conditioning. 

I work with a so-called Pre-Departure Orientation course (PDO), which aims to prepare the new arrivals as well as possible for their new lives in a new country. The course includes information about the Finnish society and its habits and culture, introduces practicalities and provides an opportunity to ask questions. In many ways, I knew where the participants were coming from. I come from a Palestinian family, and as a Middle Eastern woman, I know very well that there were big differences from gender roles to understanding of family and its different forms between my culture and the Finnish society.

I understood from my own experience, that a rainbow family might be a new concept for some of the participants, as it had been for me.

For IOM, LGBTQI matters are important, and for us it was important to advance them also in the migrant training we organised. I had prepared a set of materials to work with as a foundation for our discussion. To discuss same sex marriage, I showed photos of a family with two women and two men with children.

As a Middle Eastern woman, I have never imagined that I will one day have the guts to discuss LGBT rights in front of a group from my society where women are still fighting for their rights. In many Middle Eastern countries, the family laws are ancient and are influenced by a patriarchal interpretation of Quran verses. There is a wide equality gap between genders. In addition to strong inequality between genders, also sexual and gender minorities are persecuted. Homosexuality is illegal in the eyes of the law and taboo in the eyes of the society. Often, religion is employed to increase antipathy against homosexuality, and homosexuality is seen as “western”, as opposed to nationalist sentiments.

Having grown up in this culture, homosexuality and gender minority rights were not familiar for me either. I had never thought about the topic before 2010, when I moved to Iceland to join Gender Equality Studies and Training Programme as a student at the University of Iceland. In Reykjavik, I made friends who were openly gay and heard about the topic from experts in our university for the first time. Spending time with my new friends helped me to understand them better and realize the obstacles they had faced.

Later, when I moved to Finland, my understanding and my sympathy only deepened: I became more open and finally I was not ashamed to discuss the topic openly.

Cultural sensitivity but not cultural relativism

Discussing gender and sexuality would be a sensitive topic in any culture, but even more so in the conservative Middle East.

When I prepare materials for the migrant trainings we organise, I need to think carefully about the most suitable methods to bring up the topic with people from different backgrounds. Would it be enough to inform people about the law in their new country? Would it suffice to tell people that everyone is entitled to equal treatment? – And could I just say that homosexuality is accepted legally and socially in your new home, so you just need to accept that, without allowing further discussion?  

I used to work in a Palestinian women’s organization, and among the first things I learned was that I could not raise awareness about women’s rights without engaging both women and men. I also learned to be patient and work towards gradual change. Nothing, I learned, happens in the blink of an eye. 

I felt that explaining what the law said was not necessarily the only solution in protecting people’s rights. In my trainings, I focus less on the law and I put my efforts into changing some of the participants’ mentality. One training is not a miracle solution, but my goal is to grab the participants’ attention before they move to their new home, and to make them think more about the issue. 

Using the right terms and language is part of the training, as well as understanding the unconscious biases. I go through the terms such as transgender and illustrate different forms of discrimination connected to LGBTQI issues. To make my point, I compare the LGBTQI discrimination to the discrimination faced by women, racialized groups, persons with disabilities and also refugees. 

I also underline that even though discrimination happens, people everywhere are entitled to the same rights. Rights cannot be divided or cherry-picked depending on policymakers’ ideology or any other factor.

In my trainings, I insist on maintaining a poker face to prevent anyone from underestimating the importance of the topic.

So far, my experiences have been very positive. Participants have agreed with me and I haven’t received negative comments. On the contrary, many have been supportive.   

All in all, I can’t say that I have always changed everyone’s mind completely in just three days, but what I am sure of is that I have succeeded in shedding some light on the LGBTQI rights and have challenged some of the existing stereotypes, taboos and old perceptions.

Challenging the stigmatization of homosexuality, encouraging a questioning attitude and demonstrating the respect for difference already goes a long way.   


Dima Salih

The writer works as a migrant trainer at IOM Finland.

The views expressed by the authors in IOM Finland's blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the International Organization for Migration.