What have we learned from Sarah Hegazi’s battle on earth?
By Norma Lize, Trans Activist
June 14, 2020 wasn’t a regular Sunday for the Middle Eastern and North African queer communities. We woke up to the devastating news from Toronto – Sarah Hegazi lost her battle on this earth after dealing with trauma, loneliness and depression. Sarah was an Egyptian activist who had sought asylum in Canada looking for a better life, after being persecuted by the authorities there for waving a rainbow flag in 2016 at a concert by an Arabic band, whose lead singer is openly gay. In Egypt, being gay is till this day sentenced by death with charges of debauchery and blasphemy.
Sarah’s journey started two years before she landed in Toronto, in her native country of Egypt when she posted a picture on her social media for the first time without her veil and publicly came out with a picture of her with a rainbow flag, the same flag that caused her imprisonment later that year. Sarah was brave and took pride in her queerness and wanted to be an example to help others be free and live their authentic life away from fear.
The sight of the flag being prominently displayed outraged many in the Egyptian establishment. It ignited a three-week anti-gay crackdown by authorities, in which Hegazi was the only woman arrested. In interviews Sarah said she was tortured for three months before her release on bail. Fearing her eventual persecution as an openly gay woman, she fled to Canada. After moving to Canada, Sarah stayed in contact with her friends and chosen family in Egypt. Physically she was in Eastern Canada, however her heart and soul were very much still in North Africa. Sarah’s mother’s death was the final nail in the coffin, she couldn’t attend her funeral because of her refugee status that banned her from going back to a dangerous zone. She stayed here, with her depression and sadness, expressing on her social media platforms and through her writings – her only escape from reality – how heartbroken she was and how much this life had become hard on her. She tried to reach out for help through her posts and writings on social media, and through private conversations with friends, but she was not able to express what she was going through and was never able to reconcile and live with her trauma. She tried hard to fight all the struggles she faced, the harsh society back home, the family rejection, the corrupted system that threw her in jail and molested her, and the depression and loneliness in Canada. This is something that a lot of newcomers and refugees fleeing dangerous zones struggle with once arriving to their countries of asylum. Unfortunately, the lack of support systems that are targeted to help refugees and people who are traumatized from their own experiences in their homophobic countries, didn’t help Sarah to give herself another chance.
As a middle-eastern person who witnessed the news, it was hard for me not to compare people’s reactions after Sarah’s death: How many middle eastern platforms condemned her as a queer atheist and blasted their pages with homophobic slurs, shame and hate, and how the international community rushed to condemn the violent actions taken against her and wanted to do her good yet still failed her because they brought her to a safe country but didn’t provide a support system to heal her trauma. Sadly, this is the story of many other refugees. Many refugees who flee their countries are never truly free from exposure to the media and to their families and communities back home. This is where access to proper mental health support becomes necessary and providing flexible and easy access to resources and information and ways of dealing with daily struggles uniquely experienced by LGBTQ+ refugees.
The homophobia and hate on social media pushed a lot of queer activists and refuges to organize vigils around the globe to grieve their lose. From New York to Amsterdam, Beirut to Berlin, Vancouver to Toronto where she lived, activists and allies gathered, cried, shared Sarah’s words, lit candles for her soul, and raised the volume on a lot of questions and struggles that the queer refugee community are still facing today. The vigils and Sarah’s death were another reminder that there is so much work to do around the world to fight for LGBTQ rights. Refugees around the world can work together on creating policies and projects to protect them, pitch in ideas, and get the support of local and international NGOs and governments to make it happen, and avoid losing another Sarah.
Sarah’s death was a slap in the face. The world failed her and is failing so many other Sarahs everywhere, every day. But the question here is, what are we doing to protect our community from falling? How are we protecting our friends and colleagues and chosen family from losing their fight and giving it all up? What are the ways that we, as community and allies, will be taking in the future to stop hate and discrimination from happening? Are we ready to talk about the discrimination and lack of mental health support?
If you want to talk to someone about your mental health and reach out for support, please do so:
BC Crisis Centre, 1.800.SUICIDE (1.800.784.2433)
Trevor Lifeline: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/ ,1-866-488-7386.