In-depth | Human Rights | LGBTI

A Place to Call Home

By - 10.12.2018

Violence and hate leave LGBTI people in Kosovo to search for safety and acceptance.

On a hot summer day in late August 2018, Prishtina sits quiet, as most cities do on lazy Sunday afternoons, when residents and city birds alike lie down to capture passing moments of rest before the Monday rush comes around to set the streets in motion again.

In the yard of a single storey home in Prishtina’s Bajram Kelmendi Street, a dog finds sanctuary from the sun laying in the shade beneath a tree, while soft Turkish music wafts from an open window, and curtains dance slowly with the breeze.

On the other side of the window, the interior walls of the home are a milky color, the result of exposure to cigarette smoke, and two gold-framed pieces of fabric embroidered with images of girls in long dresses decorate the space. On busier days, floorboards beneath a geometric carpet creak throughout the house, announcing the movements of inhabitants and visitors. But in this moment, it’s quiet.

Wearing a thin black shirt and a pair of jeans, Qerkica sits on the living room couch, sipping a Turkish coffee while her friend, Mustafa, naps peacefully nearby.

She crosses her feet, lights a rolled cigarette, and in a nervous voice, begins to share one of her more recent experiences.

“Why do you look like this, you have no business in this neighborhood, we don’t want your type here,” says Qerkica, repeating the words spoken to her by a group of boys in their twenties just the other day.

Qerkica, 42, is a transgender woman. She’s also a member of the Ashkali community, and the combination has resulted in a lifetime of dual discrimination, which she has tried and failed, on multiple occasions, to escape.

“I always get talked to like this, and I try to ignore it all the time,” she says. “After some time, I got used to it, but at this age I fear more [for my safety]. Sometimes I feel like someone might pull a knife. That would be it for me. I have no business being in Kosovo anymore.”

Historical discrimination against members of the Ashkali community is ongoing, and reports show that the community has systematically been put in a disadvantageous social, economic and political position, often isolated in places with less developed infrastructure, and little educational opportunity.

Photo: Dardan Zhegrova.

Qerkica spent the majority of her early life in Fushë Kosovë. Her family moved there from Mitrovica when she was two years old, and although the municipality has the largest number of Ashkali communities in Kosovo, accounting for 9.57 percent of the municipal population, discrimination still prevails.

But it’s as a transgender woman that she is most reviled and made an outcast in Kosovo society, where traditional gender roles are the only widely accepted way to identify.

Born with a male anatomy, Qerkica has identified as a woman since early childhood.

“I always felt I was a woman, since I was nine years old; I named myself Valentina, and everyone thought I was a girl,” says Qerkica, holding photographs of her and her girlfriends dressed in evening dresses and makeup. “It was only when I grew up, and my beard started to grow, that they realized I was physically male.”

As is the case for many members of the LGBTI community, non acceptance for Qerkica began at home. Having completed just four years of elementary school, in 1989 at the age of 13, the pressure Qerkica felt to conform from her disapproving family forced her into a decision that no teenager should have to make; she packed a bag and left home in search of shelter.

Away from her family, the feeling of discrimination was just as bad. She says members of the Ashkali community chasited her, saying: ‘She is embarrassing all of us, others think we are all like her!’ Albanians said things like: ‘She is ruining our youth!’

In 1993, by way of marriage Qerkica was offered a place in a home with a family in Peja; it was the combination of her dire need for shelter and a feeling of acceptance that pushed her to accept it.

“Our neighbor’s son fell in love with me, deeply, and once he told me: ‘Valentina, I want to marry you,” Qerkica says.

At age 17, Qerkica says she had her doubts about how the son would react when he learnt of her gender identity. For transgender women, the expression of gender in public is faced with a greater rejection than for transgender men, and Qerkica constantly faced prejudice and discrimination. The marriage, to her, seemed an impossibility, but to Qerkica’s surprise, not only her would-be husband, but also his family, chose to accept her.

On the day of their wedding, Qerkica dressed in a white bridal gown. She was welcomed and received in the home with music and celebration, and in line with Ashkali customs, she placed sherbet on the doorstep of the home, a good luck ritual to see that her marriage would be easy and sweet like the dessert.

But all did not end well. After just nine months, her family brought her back to Fushë Kosovë against her wishes. But soon after she would leave home again, and that move would be the one to shape her life.

In 1995, Qerkica and her friend Mustafa, whom she had met a few years back, reconnected and decided to find a home together. The two would not only become guardians of one another, and inseparable friends, but would spread the sense of safety and belonging they found in each other to other members of the LGBTI community facing similar hardships.

“Anyone who has ever met us thinks that I am Mustafa’s daughter, and I never told them I wasn’t, so they would not think that I am alone,” says Qerkica, who found a sense of security in Mustafa who was 16 years her senior.

It was in those years that their common company began to refer to Qerkica [who went by Valentina at the time] as Mustafa’s “qerka,” which means daughter in Serbian. She acquired the name Qerkica, a playful form of the word, soon after, and it stuck.

Mustafa’s story, much like Qerkica’s, began as a teenager. In 1975, when he was 15 years old and finishing at the Vuk Karadžić elementary school, in Prishtina (now named Elena Gjika), Mustafa says he began to have feelings for a classmate.

Photos courtesy of Qerkica.

“I remember when on a rainy day, a classmate came to my home to do our homework together, and my dad stopped in for lunch. When we went outside to greet him, it was an awkward moment. I liked him, but I did not want to say it, to accept it,” Mustafa says. “He approached me and embraced me and whispered in my ear ‘I feel the same as you Mustafa.’ It was then that I realized what I felt for men.”

Two years after that realization, Mustafa’s life took a sudden turn when he lost his sight as a result of an accident. In addition to the initial care which his family provided, and the five year relationship he held from 1988 to 1993, Mustafa needed more stable support.

In 1995, Qerkica and Mustafa began living together in Prishtina, initially moving between the houses of mutual friends, before eventually renting a place for themselves. But when Qerkica’s large family — her two brothers with their wives and children — migrated to Germany during the war in May 1999, she returned to Fushë Kosovë, this time with Mustafa, and the two moved in and cared for the empty family home.

It wasn’t long before the they decided to extend the care they took of one another to others facing a similar sense of exclusion and alienation. In 2003 they opened their home as a shelter for LGBTI individuals who found themselves homeless after escaping physical and psychological violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I remember the first time [2003] that someone came to my house; she was a friend from Prizren, but I do not want to mention her name, she has a family now,” Qerkica says. “Born as the only boy… [but a transgender woman], she too had a lot of trouble with her family, who were scolding her for that reason. She had four sisters, and was forced to leave the house and come to me.”

Qerkica says the friend stayed there for two and a half years, but the house would continue to serve as a shelter for the next two decades. The home also became a gathering space, for members of the LGBTI community, who could come as they were and find full acceptance amongst friends, and even invite partners for coffee and lunch.

“We got together and prepared food, had coffee, talked for hours,” Qerkica says. “We used to read our fortunes from coffee cups, we would get dolled-up and had hen parties and danced to music. Everyone felt at home; even better, since they could do anything they wanted. Sometimes we did not have much money, but we made it somehow; someone would go and do some work, and we made it, all of us together.”

But in 2016, Qerkica’s biological family was repatriated from Germany and returned to the home they once left, and again, Qerkica and Mustafa found themselves in an environment where they felt unaccepted and unwelcome.

Abandoned by the Law

Like Qerkica and Mustafa, many members of the LGBTI community in Kosovo are expelled from their families and forced to leave home at a young age. This is especially difficult when acceptance at a societal level is lacking.

In circumstances such as these, responsibility should fall on institutions to protect the basic rights of these individuals and offer solutions, but in Kosovo, institutionally supported shelters for LGBTI people are essentially nonexistent.

Because of the lack of institutional support, those facing discrimination because of their sexual identity or orientation are left to turn to their neighbors for support, and it is vital that those in the community open doors for one another.

When a whole group of society feels endangered then solidarity among group individuals grows sharply.

Arbër Nuhiu, CSGD.

Arbër Nuhiu from the Center for Social Group Development (CSGD) a non-governmental organization that supports, defends and advocates for the rights of LGBTI people says that he has been in contact with Qerkica since 2003, when she first opened the doors of her home to her peers. Nuhiu says that victims of domestic violence often sought shelter and help at her home. “Some felt more at ease and free, and could be themselves when they stayed there,” he says.

According to Nuhiu, when a whole group of society feels endangered then solidarity among group individuals grows sharply. He says this has pushed many LGBTI people across Kosovo, but especially in Prishtina, to support each other, especially in cases where violence is present.

In 2015, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) undertook a survey, interviewing 1,221 LGBTI people over the age of 18 in Kosovo. It showed that about 80 percent of those interviewed had experienced discrimination and psychological abuse from their family and social circles, which took the form of cruel jokes, humiliating comments, insults and threats because of their sexual orientation; 29 percent had experienced physical abuse.

Despite these numbers, since 2012, only about 20 cases of threats and physical attacks have been reported to the police. Human rights activists say most of the attacks or incidents that occur go unreported. If they are reported, they rarely end up in courts. A CSGD report from 2016 states that: “This is because of the fear that their names will be publicly disclosed, the fear that their cases will be ignored and because of a general mistrust in law enforcement.”

This was witnessed in November this year, when various online portals published a captured video inside Prishtina police station. The video shows two arrested citizens, with one claiming to have agreed to have sex for money, and the other denying it, resulting in a knife being drawn.

In the video, five police officers were seen and heard insulting and mocking the two men they had arrested.

“Can I have a glass of water?” one of the citizens asks.

“No,” one of the police officers answers.

“But I cannot speak,” the citizen replies.

“Did he fuck you or did he not fuck you?” the police officer asks. “Did he French kiss you?”

The other police officers are heard laughing in the background.

The video gained traction in the media on November 16, and the following day the Kosovo Police Inspectorate made the decision to suspend the five officers. They remain under investigation for suspicion of misuse of office and unauthorized video recording.

LGBTI rights organizations say that the aforementioned case shows both discrimination, and an incitement of hatred.

What final decision will be taken by the Kosovo Police Inspectorate remains unknown. But the current provisions of the Criminal Code of Kosovo are unlikely to lead to a just decision. The criminal code recognizes sexual orientation as an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a criminal offense, and also in the cases of annihilation of and damage to property. Furthermore, Article 147 which specifies punishment for anyone who incites or publicly spreads hatred on national, racial, religious or ethnic grounds, excludes sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender identity isn’t included anywhere in the code.

“As long as gender identity is not included in the criminal code and sexual orientation is included only in destruction and damage to property [and as an aggravating circumstance] — we will see less and less crime and hate speech cases reported to the courts or the police because the community feels insecure and does not see any results when those who committed the offenses are convicted,” says Rina Kika, a Prishtina-based lawyer who deals with human rights cases.

LGBTI rights organizations have been advocating and lobbying for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity within Article 147 as grounds for hate speech or hate crime.

One such case occurred in 2016 in Ferizaj, where two activists were attacked while in the town square distributing brochures and advocating for the promotion and respect of LGBTI rights. In the judicial treatment of the case, the prosecution used Article 147 of the Criminal Code, and as a result, the Basic Court in Ferizaj did not take into account the motive of this criminal assault, which relates to the sexual orientation of the victims, and instead treated it as an ordinary case of discrimination.

This case shows not only that the prosecution lacked expertise in dealing with such crimes in the legal system because it failed to insist that the case be considered as a hate crime, but it is demonstrative of how the lack of consideration for sexual orientation and gender identity in the article will continue to affect how similar cases will be dealt with in the future.

Since then, LGBTI rights organizations have been advocating and lobbying for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity within Article 147 as grounds for hate speech or hate crime. But since the updated code is not expected to be adopted until early 2019, for now, activists remain in the dark about whether or not the new version of the article will include these updates.

Currently, the non-recognition of discrimination in the Criminal Code is just another illustration of how institutions fail to support the LGBTI community. Beyond this is the lack of institutional understanding and recognition that in an environment where abuses and harassment extend from family to neighborhood to the street, alternative living spaces such as shelters become of vital importance.

But such spaces do not exist. To try to tackle this problem, in 2016 the Prishtina-based NGO Center for Equality and Liberty (CEL) started cooperating with the “Streha” shelter in Tirana, which was established the year before.

According to shelter psychologist Elvis Popaj, people from Kosovo have sheltered in the Streha Center in Tirana and have good relations with LGBTI members, since as communities they face the same forms of discrimination. So far, seven people have been sheltered from Kosovo.

According to Popaj, after a person is evaluated by a multidisciplinary team and is determined to be in need, at risk, or in a period of difficulty, then the person is sheltered and begins to receive a range of services such as accommodation, food, psychological and social counseling, employment negotiations and health services. Thus, the person not only gets out of the difficult situation but is also supported in accessing society.

“People can stay in the shelter for six months to a year, based on their needs,” Popaj says. “For us, the social and psychological well-being of the individual is important, and therefore even after those persons leave the shelter they continue to be assisted with psychological services or other services that help them find and maintain a job, financial independence and integration in the society.”

While CEL has directed many victims of violence and discrimination to the Tirana shelter, Qerkica and Mustafa have not benefited from the services.

“The shelter in Kosovo must be independent from donors or funds. We cannot tell the victims that you have a shelter today but after six months it will close because of lack of funds.”

Blert Morina, CEL.

“Qerkica and Mustafa are not cases that can just go to Tirana for several months and then return to Kosovo again,” says Blert Morina, director of CEL. “Due to his health condition, Mustafa needs care, and together with Qerkica they both need long term housing so the shelter in Tirana is not convenient for them.” In 2003, Mustafa suffered a stroke that left him half paralyzed.

In the meantime, CEL is also seeking funding and support from the country’s institutions to establish a self-serving shelter run by those living there, which would simultaneously serve as a rehabilitation center in cases where those sheltered have experienced mental and physical violence.

“The shelter in Kosovo must be independent from donors or funds,” Morina says. “We cannot tell the victims that you have a shelter today but after six months it will close because of lack of funds.”

Such a thing happened, for example, when Qerkica lost her house because her biological family returned from Germany, and all those sheltered with her lost theirs, too.

Meanwhile, at the institutional level, there are no specific policies foreseeing solutions to such situations. In fact, it was only in May last year that the Office of Good Governance (OGG) within the Prime Minister’s Office — which has a supervisory role and advises ministries, develops policies, and provides guidance on areas of good governance, human rights and gender equality — fulfilled its obligation deriving from the Law on Protection from Discrimination to draft secondary legislation on accountability, coordination and reporting of anti-discrimination mechanisms at the ministerial and municipal levels.

Within the secondary legislation, a regulation was adopted, which obliges ministries and municipalities to designate units or officials for protection against discrimination. Their role will include: providing support in drafting and implementing local policies and ministry strategies to promote human rights and protect from discrimination, developing regular dialogue with non-governmental institutions and organizations and vulnerable groups on discrimination issues, making recommendations for any discrimination related issues, and so forth.

But according to the CSGD report, although the OGG stated that most of these institutions have already appointed the relevant officials, they still do not have the list of these officials. Moreover, while the OGG mandate includes training programs for civil servants at the municipal and ministerial level, including issues related to the protection against discrimination of the LGBTI community, such training has not been conducted in the last three years.

“In the municipality of Novobërdë [in 2017] they stated that the trainings were not held because such a community does not exist in our municipality,’ says Rina Braimi, program manager at CEL. The municipality’s answer is also included in a 2018 report from the Equal Rights for All Coalition on advancing LGBT rights.

“In conversation with them we told them that they needed to get acquainted with the community living within the municipality, since there are LGBTI members in every municipality,” Braimi says.

According to her, this response indicates how ignorant the institutions are in terms of being acquainted with the communities within the municipality. With such an approach, addressing essential and vital issues for the LGBT community remains hostage to institutions that do not understand their needs.

Cycles of Hope

When Qerkica lost her house because her biological family returned from Germany, all those sheltered with her lost theirs too. Faced with expulsion and with the threat of ending up on the streets, Qerkica and Mustafa had to turn to the community, needing the help and care that they passed on to so many returned to them.

In April 2018, the Haveit artistic collective, known for artistic interventions as a form of protest against social injustice, turned its focus on the solidarity existing between LGBTI people through the story of Qerkica and Mustafa. The goal of the project Tash nashta po bohet shpia (Now maybe we will have a home) — which was part of the Competition for Artists Working in Kosovo supported by Stacion – Center for Contemporary Art in Prishtina in cooperation with the University of Arts (UAL) in London — turned to finding funds to help find housing for the two.

Photo: Dardan Zhegrova.

With the slogan #openyourheart Haveit organized music performances in different locations across the city, bars and cultural spaces in order to raise additional funds during April and May 2018.

After two months, in June 2018, Qerkica and Mustafa were provided with a rented house in Prishtina. About 2,000 euros were raised on their behalf.

“Our interest as artists was not just artistic, to create the video and to forget the case. In this situation we established a closer relationship with the subjects, namely Qerkica and Mustafa,” says Lola Sylaj, a member of Haveit. “What concerned us most is that every time we met them and had a shoot, Qerkica and Mustafa had a lot of understanding for the artistic side, but they had a basic need for shelter, and for the whole time kept saying ‘maybe now the house will be ready, too.’ This pushed us very much to work to solve the problem at least for a while.”

The solution was found with a house on Bajram Kelmendi Street, in which Qerkica sat on that August morning with her Turkish coffee. But as has proved the case time and time again for the pair, it wasn’t long before discrimination and hate forced them from their home.

“‘Why did you come here, why are you bringing such people to our neighborhood?’” Qerkica recalls their neighbors commented. “‘We do not want to come close to these people; they have no business in our neighborhood.’”

An aggravated economic situation caused an extra burden, too. Qerkica had no regular income or day job; occasionally, she would clean or assist someone with housework, but for the most part, Mustafa’s 100 euro pension from the Association of the Blind was the only income they brought in.

After four and a half months spent at the rented house, Qerkica was not only facing financial difficulties in sustaining the rent, but also similar pressures from her landlord that had been placed on her by her family. Feeling unwelcome and like she was being forced out by her landlord, she made the decision to leave the country, to escape.

Mustafa went home to Fushe Kosovë, and stayed with Qerkica’s family under the care of her brother’s daughters, while Qerkica fled for Germany, her sights set on getting to France where she planned to seek asylum with a friend.

She left without a visa, and, together with a friend, traveled towards Serbia, to Subotica, in hopes of crossing the border into Hungary. But her escape attempt failed, and she was returned to Kosovo.

Photo: Dardan Zhegrova.

The following month, Qerkica returned to Fushë Kosovë with Mustafa, where things continued on in their torturous pattern, offering glimmers of hope that the situation would improve, only to come crashing back down.

“My feelings about who I am, my identity, they never change,” says Qerkica. “What can change is the way people behave with me, so that we love and accept one another.”

Now, almost two decades later, Mustafa remembers the words of his former boyfriend to Qerkica: “He will take care of you, you will be in his hands.” In the ’90s Mustafa took care of young Qerkica, while she was experiencing prejudice and exclusion. But now, as they both have aged, Qerkica says that she feels it’s her turn to.

“I told Mustafa that I will take care of him for as long as I can stand on my legs,” she says.K

Editing by Leurina Mehmeti.
Additional editing: Besa Luci, Dafina Halili.
Language editing: Lauren Peace.

Feature image: Still from Haveit’s film “Tash nashta po bohet shpia”.

This article was written as part of K2.0’s Human Rights Journalism Fellowship, 2018.

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