What Makes a Home

Understanding SOGI Refugees’ Homemaking Processes Through Their Own Words and Pictures


Marginalized groups are often talked about, rather than listened to.


This is particularly true for individuals who petition for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). Facing persecution in their origin countries for their very identities, these individuals often keep their stories secret for fear of further persecution. For this reason, I designed a research project with the goal of centering the voices and photos of SOGI refugees living in the UK. This blog post highlights them and their journeys toward building spaces of home and belonging within their new country.


Home is never simple, least of all for refugees. In today’s international climate, building a home outside of one’s country of origin represents a deeply political act. [1] Even in everyday language, English speakers consistently use the term “home country” to indicate one’s place of origin. Linguistically, socially, and especially politically, the public conception of home remains closely tied, and often limited to, one's birthplace.


Positioned as strangers within the national home, migrants challenge the coherence of a singular, unified national identity.[2] In particular, SOGI refugees are blamed for threatening the national home in two ways: firstly as migrants and secondly through their non-heteronormative behavior.[3] Due to their uniquely held identities, SOGI refugees offer an important perspective on what constitutes a home and how one builds spaces of belonging.


Moreover, their experiences reveal themes that stretch beyond the narrow confines of a nation, immigration status or sexuality. They show how all of us — whether travelling across continents or across the street — can form chosen families and get involved in our communities in order to feel at home, wherever we are.


“Sometimes, I dream I want to marry. I want to meet someone, to have a home, to have a family, my own hair salon again… I want to continue with my life. I think for some reason, I am alive.”


“Oh, definitely there is no place like home. I want to be sincere about it, there

is no place like home. Even here, in Birmingham I feel more secure in my

room. But unfortunately you can’t go home like that, and I am looking

forward just to be in a career, to be what I am, to have with me the person I love.”


“We have set our dreams here. We are going to live our whole life here… do something for this country.”

— SOGI refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK. [4]


This blog post explores the following questions through a participant-led approach:


  1. How is the homemaking of SOGI refugees unique?

  2. How does sexual orientation and gender identity impact refugee homemaking patterns in the UK?


The research suggests that SOGI refugees build homes in their new communities through a transformative process in which the idea of a home is continually reimagined within the unique circumstances of their lives.


For SOGI refugees, one aspect of their identity created a life-threatening situation which necessitated fleeing their origin country to establish new homes abroad. In choosing to live openly as queer individuals, many give up the hope of ever returning to their country of origin.

In addition, SOGI refugees are often isolated from other refugees. My interview participants expressed profound feelings of being outsiders amongst both local LGBTI individuals and other migrants. Most participants attested that they felt most at home with fellow SOGI refugees, who shared similar life experiences. These connections, often formed as the result of their involvement in nonprofit centers and social organizations specifically devoted to SOGI refugees, show the essentiality of safe spaces where both “queerness” and “refugeeness” is understood.

The following themes emerged from this research:


  1. SOGI refugees experience multiple exclusions due to their identity. Many experience extended periods of homelessness and enduring poverty as a result.

  2. The risks involved in repatriation for SOGI refugees revealed cracks in the repatriation model as a whole. Of the 16.2 million registered asylum claims made between 2010 and 2019, only 3.9 million refugees ever returned to their country of origin, illustrating the need for other robust solutions such as integration and homebuilding. [5]

  3. The research revealed a strong commitment on the part of SOGI refugees to giving back to the UK and building lasting homes there. Their participation in nonprofit organizations that support SOGI refugees played an integral role in the homemaking process of many.


Methodology

In order to explore the under-researched topic of SOGI refugee homemaking, I relied on qualitative and participatory research approaches centered on two in-depth personal interviews. Following each interview, I requested that participants contribute photos of ‘places that feel like home’. I then conducted a visual analysis of each image, organizing them according to Boccagni’s conceptual dimensions of home: domesticity, materiality, spatiality and temporality. [6] Together, the interviews and images attested to the importance of public spaces, interpersonal connections and nonprofit organizations devoted to building community amongst SOGI refugees.

I recruited participants by reaching out to organizations who worked regularly with LGBTI individuals and/or refugees. These organizations were thus able to act as gatekeepers, ensuring that the participants were safe and well-prepared to participate. Alana Eissa, a transgender woman from Malaysia, wished for her name be published as part of the research; meanwhile, the other participant wished to remain anonymous.

In order to cross-check the results of my data collection with a wider group of respondents, I incorporated secondary data in the form of transcripts of interviews with SOGI refugees completed by the SOGICA Project. This initiative investigated the legal obstacles to SOGI asylum in Europe. SOGICA’s researchers generously shared their complete database of interview transcripts with me, which I methodically searched by using the keywords “home” and “future”. The quotations at the beginning and end of this post are from their research.


Results

For many of the refugees interviewed over the course of this research project, “home” is inseparable from people, both in the UK and abroad. Many attested to the lasting psychological impact of not being able to return to their birth home, to their family and the places they grew up in; to a feeling of rootlessness, neither fully established here nor there, fitting in nowhere.


Nonetheless, by investigating the homemaking processes of SOGI refugees, the research revealed how their struggle and sacrifices enabled new aspirations for social connection and family that would be unimaginable in the home country. My participants spoke of “chosen families” who shared similar life experiences and helped them survive in the often hostile environment they faced in the UK. Sleeping on friends’ couches, sharing food with new asylum seekers and splitting rent with other refugees emerged time and again as common means of survival. Homebuilding and a sense belonging came after, growing out of these intensely personal networks of mutual aid.


Many of the individuals interviewed attested that their particularly poignant experiences of exclusion came about due to their intersectional identies as both queer individuals and refugees. For many, the relief from persecution and empathy they found within organizations or social groups specifically designed by and for SOGI refugees emerged as their central social and civic outlet. Turning to nonprofits and advocacy groups such as Say it Out Loud and Micro Rainbow offered my participants not only a pathway to survival, but the first feelings of belonging and home in the UK.


Participatory Photography

The photos contributed by SOGI refugee participants of this project lent a new perspective to this topic, allowing a glimpse into what home looks like through their eyes.


The prevalence of images of people show the importance of friends and chosen families to making spaces feel like home. Of the total of six images, one third of them included photos of these close friends and adopted families, despite my explicit, repeated instructions not to send images of recognizable individuals due to privacy concerns. For their privacy, I have not to publish those images here. One caption written simply read, “Chosen family. Nuff said.”


The photos also exhibit an appreciation of the beauty of the UK and feelings of attachment towards the places they inhabit: what Boccagni describes as the material, tangible dimension of home. [7] In particular, the landscape photographs of London (Figure 1) and the moon over the Thames (Figure 2) illustrate emotional ties to the physical spaces, landmarks and cities.


Certain photos seemed to function to connect their past histories with their current homes in the UK. In particular, one image of the moon was captioned, “I always feel calm when I look at the moon... no matter where I am.” Aspects of the natural environment that remain constant, such as the moon, provided a sense of solace and stability that travelled with SOGI refugees wherever they might be. Moreover, the image related back to many conversations in interviews that discussed how SOGI established new homes in the UK without negating the home, often only of memory, located in the country of origin.

Figure 1: “View of London city overlooking

the Shard and Canary Wharf in the distance.

My city that I’m falling in love with.”




The prevalence of public spaces available to anyone show the critical importance of these places to the homemaking process of refugees in the UK. Moreover, the lack of private spaces attest to the lack of resources available to them, as well as to their intense need for privacy.










Figure 2: “I always feel calm when I look at

the moon. Sometimes the moon over London is

pretty and I find solace over them, no matter where I am.”


The final image included here depicts the view from one participant’s window at Micro Rainbow, an organization specifically devoted to housing and supporting SOGI refugees. Micro Rainbow offered Alana Eissa shelter after an extended experience of homelessness. There, she not only found shelter, but also built social and civic support networks necessary to holistically begin building a home for herself in the UK.


Migration can be described as an ongoing process where past, present and future are folded together in the emergence of migrant lives. [8] As these images attest, the places where the participants felt most at home wove together temporal (Fig. 2), spatial (Fig.1) and relational elements (Fig. 3 and other photos), described so articulately by Helen Taylor as the building blocks of belonging. [9] Through these images, participants show their daily lives, the simple human connections that made homemaking possible for them and the spaces in which this process continues to unfold.



Figure 3: “A view outside my window at the

Micro Rainbow shelter. Forever grateful

after escaping homelessness.”


Conclusion

In 2017, a transgender UK national was granted asylum in New Zealand, a testament to the intolerant environments often found in even so-called “safe countries”. [10] Moreover, due to their intersectional identities, SOGI refugees are often left outside of the social and material networks that local LGBTI or other refugees turn to in times of need. As one participant attested, gaining refugee status in the UK by no means guarantees safety or a home: “Freedom has no meaning if you don’t have the basics to live …I have lost more than I gained”. [11] Homemaking posits a continually evolving challenge.


Despite overwhelming structural opposition, SOGI refugees actively build places of belonging in the UK, finding home amongst chosen families who support and affirm their life stories, aspirations and dreams.


The role of nonprofit organizations offering independent housing and social spaces tailored specifically for SOGI refugees remains critical. Considering the lack of national-level protocol and sensitivity toward SOGI refugees, these community organizations provide SOGI refugees with essential safe spaces. Simple policy changes to better meet the accommodation and healthcare needs of SOGI refugees would go far to empower these individuals to establish sustainable homes for themselves in order to do what nearly all of them attested powerfully to wanting to do: to give back.


“My hope in the future is to help people who are destitute and people who are

not believed.”


“I want to go to school. I would love to do humanitarian law. And crazy as it

seems, as much as they have pushed me all over the place, I still want to help

asylum LGBT people..”


“I just want to study, I want to live a free life, and encourage others that they

shouldn’t give up. And stand up for who they are.”


“I think in a way I am an activist. I don’t want to stop that... because it scares me that potentially someone might go through what I have been through. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I have been through.”

— Anonymous, SOGI Refugees (SOGICA Interviews)



Isabel Soloaga is a University of Sussex graduate who studies migration and global development. She writes about human rights, migration and climate issues for newspapers and nonprofits in her home state of California and in the UK.


Instagram: @isabel.soloaga

Facebook: Isabel Soloaga from Vacaville, CA.


Endnotes

[1] Boccagni, P. 2017. Migration and the Search for Home: Mapping domestic space in

migrants' everyday lives. Pp. 87-88. Mobility & Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

[2] Simmel, G. 1999. ‘The stranger’, In Social theory: the multicultural and classic

readings, Edited by: Lemert, G. 184–189. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[3] Gleeson, J. 2019. ‘The Future of Trans Politics’, Verso. Available at:

https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4269-the-future-of-trans-politics

(Accessed: 26 November 2019).

[4] Quotations taken from full transcripts of interviews generously provided by "SOGICA - Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims of Asylum: A European Human Rights Challenge", a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 677693). More information is available online at: https://www.sogica.org/en/.

[5] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2020. ‘Voluntary Repatriation’, UNHCR. Available at: www.unhcr.org/en-us/voluntary-repatriation-49c3646cfe.html#:~:text=Million

(Accessed 4 August 2020).

[6] Boccagni, P. 2017. Migration and the Search for Home: Mapping domestic space in

migrants' everyday lives. Pp. 35-36. Mobility & Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

[7] Boccagni. 2017. P. 35-36.

[8] McCormack, D. P., & Schwanen, T. 2011. Guest editorial: the space-times of decision making. Environment and Planning A, 43(12), 2801–2818.

[9] Taylor, H. 2013. ‘Refugees, the State and the Concept of Home’, Refugee Survey

Quarterly, 32, pp. 130-152. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/rsq/hdt004

(Accessed: 10 March 2020).

[10] Roy, E. A. 2017. ‘British Transgender Woman given Residency in 'Safer' New

Zealand’, The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 October. Available at:

www.theguardian.com/world/201 7/oct/12/british-transgender-woman-given-re

sidency-in-safer-new-zealand (Accessed: 1 September 2020)

[11]"SOGICA: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims of Asylum: A European Human Rights

Challenge", is a four year project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 677693). More information available online: https://www.sogica.org/en/