Our counsellors see many migrants every day during their consultations. These are often very special conversations. Tina van Hoof is one of our focal points for migrants who identify as LGBTQI + ;she tells us about her meeting with Saliha* last March.
“At the beginning of March 2020, a person from Sudan came to me for a consultation in an asylum seekers center (AZC) in the north of the country. Based on this person’s masculine name and also their physical appearance, the first impression was that I was speaking with a man. We quickly fell into a very relaxed conversation with a lot of freedom to express feelings and emotions. They probably sensed that freedom when speaking to me because they said very carefully that as a child, they dreamed of coming to the Netherlands, to be free to be them self and become the person who they wanted to be. Although this person was born into a man's body, they felt at a young age that this felt wrong; their physical appearance and their gender identity did not match. They had heard that in the Netherlands there were opportunities to live in a way that their body would align with who they felt they had been all these years. When I asked which name and pronoun they prefered me to use, they said "Saliha", a woman.
Since Saliha was born in Sudan, where transsexuality is not a subject that can be easily discussed with parents, family and friends; Saliha lived a sequestered life. She did study, graduated with a master's degree and worked for a short period. She often spent her time inside of her parents' house. As she got older, her feelings began to gnaw about her identity. As a result, she made the difficult decision to come to the Netherlands and choose a new future for herself. Once on Dutch soil, the gnawing began again. This time she got feelings of doubt, regret and not wanting to lose her parents. "I've always dreamed of this, but now that I'm here, I can't." She was sure that if she went through with openly accepting herself as a transsexual, she'd lose her relationship with her parents. That thought made her decide to go back to Sudan.
"I've always dreamed of this, but now that I'm here, I can't."
This is how she entered the IOM consultation room at the AZC. Determined and ready to register for guidance to return home to Sudan. Of course, as an IOM counsellor, I wanted to help her with her wish to return, but I also saw the struggle she was going through in her head and in her heart. When I carefully asked about this visible struggle she was going through, she looked at me and poured her heart out. She cried intensely and admitted that she hadn't talked about this before. She had bottled everything up, and now everything came out before me in the consultation room. I listened to her, but I also outlined my objective understanding of her story. I asked if she had spoken to people in the Netherlands about her feelings – perhaps with a mentor or other residents at the asylum seeker center, with her lawyer, with the IND, with transgender or LGBTQI+ organizations in the Netherlands. Her answer was no, she hadn’t spoken to anyone - she had no idea where to go to get advice. Saliha was now alone at the AZC, sharing her accommodation with four (heterosexual) Arab men, waiting for the decision of the IND about her asylum application.
Before coming into my consultation room, Saliha had made a plan – go back to Sudan and find a job in Khartoum. When I asked what her life would look like, she said that because of her gender identity, she would have to lead a reclusive existence again - "back in the closet" as it is so symbolically called in the west. But at least she would have her relationship with her parents, even if she could never talk to them about her gender identity and the pain and fear it was causing her. Despite the intense emotional turmoil she was experiencing, Saliha registered with IOM to return voluntarily to Sudan. Nevertheless, during my discussion with her I felt that I had to emphasize that I could help her find additional guidance, and that she was always free to withdraw the application for voluntary return. I would be there to listen and give her freedom to tell her story and to openly express her thoughts. I was motivated by my wish to help her create a life in which she could somehow be herself and be happy, wherever in the world this might be. But ultimately, it was her choice.
Two weeks later I received a message from Saliha saying that she wanted to withdraw her application to return to Sudan. "I have changed my mind and I want to continue my asylum procedure. The conversation I had with you was so helpful".