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Children and Families

Homophobia victims find refuge at unique Paris shelter

Gay marriage was legalized in France last June. Homophobia, however, remains entrenched. But for young LGBT people whose homophobic families have kicked them out, a one-of-a-kind shelter in Paris is there to help.

Homophobia victims find refuge at unique Paris shelter

There are a lot of people is this tiny room located in the quiet 20th district of Paris. The crowd is cheerful and diverse, all of the people between 18 and 25 years old. Tonight, a meeting is being held to elect the local representative of Le Refuge - or, "The Shelter"- a home for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender youth.

"I'm here because my parents put me out, because I'm gay," said Samuel, a 19-year-old Parisian. "They are religious, and they don't want to have a gay boy in their house. I lost my parents, my sister, my brother, grandparents and uncle… all my family. They said, 'He's gay, the devil's in my son.' They moved, they changed lives, they changed numbers, they changed everything. It's really hard."

For a week, Samuel wandered the streets, unsure where to go. Then a friend told him about Le Refuge, a temporary shelter for young victims of homophobia. The organization, which receives government support, was founded by Nicolas Noguier in 2003. Since its creation, it has helped around 500 people with its network of 55 flats across France.

Gay marriage debate

Johan, a member of the organization, says Le Refuge has been overwhelmed by cries for help since the debate on gay marriage last year in France.

"In one month we got as many calls as we normally get in a year," he told DW. "It's huge. Last spring, we were receiving 500 calls a month, and it's still like that now. There is a lot of unspoken homophobia in France, and the [gay marriage] debate made it apparent."

A large group of demonstrators marches behind a banner, Photo: Philippe Wojazer

Thousands turned out in Paris to protest against gay marriage early this year

Though France is not the only country to suffer from homophobia, Le Refuge is the only organization of its kind, says Johan.

"Some countries are interested, like Belgium or Canada. But today, we are the only organization in the world that helps young victims of homophobia in their own family unit," he explained. "It's a shame it doesn't exist anywhere else. I don't think there is less homophobia abroad."

No permanent residency

Janvanshir is a 22-year-old from Azerbaijan and has been staying at le Refuge since March 2013. He had to flee his country because he had been institutionalized by the state and force-fed a treatment that was supposed to cure his homosexuality. France was the only country to offer him asylum.

"I contacted different associations in different countries. Then I contacted an association in France," he recalled. "The coordinator said, 'We'll help you find a lawyer to protect your rights in Europe,' and France opened its arms to me. I felt secure because so many associations and so many people helped."

In addition to offering Janvanshir a place to stay, Le Refuge offers classes to help tenants get back on their feet - sometimes literally. Tonight, for example, 10 residents have come who'd signed up for dance lessons offered by the shelter.

Beyond social activities, the organization also helps tenants find work, apply to universities and apply for state benefits. While the organization provides a safe haven, tenants are allowed to stay for a maximum of six months. By then, they are expected to have found a new place to live.

'I'm starting a new life'

Caroline is a 20-year-old Parisian who was kicked out on the street when her grandmother found out she was a lesbian. Since moving in to Le Refuge in March, she has found a job where she works with young children. She says she is scared, but also happy, because she can finally be herself.

Two hands clasp each other in front of a rainbow-colored flag, Photo: Michael Reichel

Homophobia in France came out after gay marriage was legalized

"Right now I'm just starting a new life," she said. "I'm just starting to understand myself, to be OK with myself, to be OK with how I feel, and not feeling that I'm not normal. I would say that now, my life is true."

Caroline, like many of the others, says she wants to come back and serve as a volunteer at Le Refuge once she finds a place to live. She hopes to give back to the people who helped her when she needed it the most, to provide a way for them to not to be victims anymore.

Gay marriage debate

Johan, a member of the organization, says Le Refuge has been overwhelmed by cries for help since the debate on gay marriage last year in France.

“In one month we got as many calls as we normally get in a year,” he told DW. “It's huge. Last spring, we were receiving 500 calls a month, and it's still like that now. There is a lot of unspoken homophobia in France, and the [gay marriage] debate made it apparent.”

Though France is not the only country to suffer from homophobia, Le Refuge, Johan says, is the only organization of its kind.

“Some countries are interested, like Belgium or Canada. But today, we are the only organization in the world that helps young victims of homophobia in their own family unit. It's a shame it doesn't exist anywhere else. I don't think there is less homophobia abroad.”

No permanent residency

Janvanshir is a 22-year-old from Azerbaijan. He's been staying at le Refuge since March 2013. He had to flee his country because he had been institutionalized by the state and force-fed a treatment that was supposed to cure his homosexuality. France was the only country to offer him asylum.

“I contacted different associations in different countries. Then I contacted an association in France,” he told DW. “The coordinator said, ‘We'll help you with a lawyer to protect your rights in Europe,' and France opened its arms to me. I felt secure because so many associations and so many people helped.”

In addition to offering Janvanshir a place to stay, the LGBT organization offers classes to help tenants get back on their feet - sometimes literally. On the night of my visit, ten residents had signed up for dance lessons offered by Le Refuge.

But the organization also helps tenants find work, apply to universities or ask for state benefits. While the organization provides a safe haven, tenants at leave Le Refuge are allowed to stay for a maximum of six months. At that point, they must find a new place to live.

‘My life is true'

Caroline is a 20-year-old Parisian who was kicked out on the street when her grandmother found out she was a lesbian. Since moving in to Le Refuge in March, she has found a job where she works with young children. She says she is scared, but happy, because she can finally be herself.

“Right now I'm just starting a new life,” she told DW. “I'm just starting to understand myself, to be OK with myself, to be OK with how I feel, and not feeling that I'm not normal. I would say that now, my life is true.”

Caroline, like many others, says she wants to come back and become a volunteer at Le Refuge once she finds a place to live, to give back to the people who helped her when she needed it the most, to provide a way for them to not to be victims anymore.

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