Karim: Full Interview
Interviewed by Ross Horsley
26th September 2018
RH: This is Ross Horsley, recording for the West Yorkshire Queer Stories project on the 26th September 2018. I’m here with Karim. [This is a pseudonym but a different pseudonym is used in the recording.] Karim, what year were you born?
KARIM: I was born in Bangladesh, in [unclear], which is very near to the capital city. It’s a very agricultural centre.
RH: And how old are you?
KARIM: At the moment I’m 26.
RH: So you work here at Yorkshire MESMAC. What is your job?
KARIM: I work as a Community Outreach and Testing Worker, in Sholay Love project, which is specially designed for South Asian MSM, just to prevent HIV, you know HIV is increasing significantly in South Asian MSM. So yeah, just trying to decrease the amount, and trying to spread the sexual health information, and getting South Asian people on board for testing.
RH: How did you get this job?
KARIM: Well, as you know, my status at the moment is refugee, so when I was being granted as refugee then I applied for this job, and before that when my asylum process was going on, so I started working as a volunteer with Yorkshire MESMAC in Wakefield. So from then I have a very good relationship with Yorkshire MESMAC so I came to know that there is a special project that will start, very soon, which is Sholay Love, for South Asian people. So I applied for this, I got this job and yeah this is how I started with Yorkshire MESMAC, and I’m really, really happy.
RH: What do you do in your job?
KARIM: Basically, I was being recruited just for a Testing Worker, who would deliver HIV testing, and delivering also some sexual health information but later on I found another opportunity to work for a few hours under BME – black minority ethnicity – so at the moment I’m working in both sessional as in BME project, also assigned to Sholay Love project. So in BME project I also deliver HIV testing. I do tests for HIV and take samples for chlamydia and gonorrhoea, I mean STI samples, so yeah. I do a lot of outreach, to give information, latest sexual health information. We’re getting [?] and any other for testing time. Yeah.
RH: Is it a lot to learn?
KARIM: Yeah, there are so many things to learn, because I sometimes wonder that I used to feel like that people in this country, they are very well equipped with everything, with information, but later I find that there is so many people, even there is so many educated people, they don’t have much idea about sexual health, and the latest update of HIV, y’know, prevention and other things. So there’s a long way to go still, and also, regarding HIV, if some people are HIV, still because of social stigma and stereotyping knowledge we always keeping them behind us, so I think we need to work on that, to develop that aspect as well. So yeah, a lot more to do. It’s not like the UK’s a very developed country, so all the people they know, they have the proper knowledge regarding sexual health and other stuff, not yet, no.
RH: So your project, Sholay Love, refers specifically to men from South Asian communities?
KARIM: Yes. So, my project’s – Sholay Love one is just for South Asian MSM, even not for LGBT, just for MSM – men who sex with men.
RH: So why do you think there’s a particular need for this project in West Yorkshire?
KARIM: As I said before, not in West Yorkshire and throughout England, why this project came out, this is because different studies and different statistics shows that, compared to other ethnicities, South Asian people, their HIV infection is increasing whereas in white people, in European, even in black, it’s decreasing over time. So, why this is happening? So there are a number of reasons, that’s why this is happening, because South Asian people are, y’know, more conservative. They have a culture where they belong to it, they’re family, mostly family-oriented. They don’t want their family to know about their sexual health, so they always just keep them always in hide, in shadow. They don’t want to reveal their identity. They even fear if I go somewhere for testing, like HIV, it might somehow, it might y’know, reveal my identity to my community.
And sometimes also they are being forced to get married, so at home they have got wife and outside they are having sex with men. So that’s why they don’t tend to go for sexual health information – so there is so many things – social stigma and other culture, religious belief. That’s why they always make it a hide identity, and they don’t tend to get access to testing, to information and other stuff. So our project is working to get them on board, with high confidentiality and to make them sure that we are working for them, and there is no way we are going to reveal their identity, even to our organisation, it will be completely confidential. Yeah, so particularly why it’s in West Yorkshire: so this is a project run by NAZ Project, based in London. So… I don’t have much idea what it’s just in West Yorkshire. This is everywhere in England, so far as I know, yeah.
RH: So have you met quite a lot of men from that community here?
KARIM: Erm, well, it’s been three and a half months I’m working in this project, so still I can suggest to say the beginning, so already we have reached some social group and organisation based in South Asian LGBT, y’know, LGBT community. So we are getting good response, so y’know it takes time because when the – when South Asian people see us for the first time they never approach to us to get any information, they feel like we are a part of their community, we might reveal their identity to anyone in that community, so they don’t feel very comfortable to speak with us at the first time, but I have seen yeah, if they see us time-to-time, even second or third time they feel like ‘oh they are working in a project, they are working for us, they are reliable, they will not reveal our identity to anyone’, so yeah… Hopefully in the future we will get really good response, we’re getting a good response even now.
RH: Good. So you live in Wakefield now, where else have you lived in the UK?
KARIM: Erm… well, I came to UK 10th of June 2017 and I claimed my asylum in the airport, Heathrow Airport, and from then they put me in detention centre, so I was in detention centre for almost a week, and from there they took me in a… temporary accommodation in London. Do I remember the name of that building? It’s… maybe, I forgot the name – and I was there for one week again and from that accommodation they, y’know, they brought me in a, like, again in a very big umm… asylum people’s camp, a camp I would say also, like almost 500 people including children, families, women, men, they all live in the building – this is in Wakefield, and the name is [clears throat], and the name is ummm Urban House.
So I was there for almost one, yeah almost one month, and after that I got… accommodation, this house, shared house, that was also in Wakefield. So from that house I went through the process, and after finishing the process they granted my application and I got my status now as refugee status, and yeah so now I’m happily living in Wakefield.
RH: So how was the process itself, was it difficult to go through?
KARIM: Um, I would say the process is, it’s very difficult. Even in my journey, of the asylum process, two times I attempt to commit suicide because, when I was in London – as you know I don’t have anyone in this country, particularly I don’t know anyone in this country and I arrived in the airport with less than £100, so that’s all I had at that moment. So I had no idea where I would live, what I would eat or nothing, even I had very little about the... about everything in this country. How to get on bus, how to manage a ticket and what to do and like, everything was like, I was like a new born baby for everything.
So I was very disappointed, very low mood, and anxiety was y’know like – there was anxiety… depression of course. So it made me to decide that it’s better to carry out this life – not to carry out this life, rather let’s just end up this life, so I made my life to commit suicide. I do remember I um… I was about, I was – I made a plan that I will jump in the train line in um – what’s the name of the station? … Umm, it’s in East London, it’s a train station, Central Line… so I was about to jump and then so suddenly I remember I saw a signpost like ‘never give up’, like this kind of thing, which just gave me a second thought, let’s wait and see how long I can fight for my life, so yeah I stopped that day. I didn’t do anything bad that day. And again, again when I was in a shared house in Wakefield – so Home Office, they turned me down. They accepted my sexuality, they accepted my threat and fear at the persecution in our country, but they didn’t accept that this will be threshold for my life, so they sayed they want me that I can return to my country, and that I can relocate in another year, so it makes me really sad and I felt like that, I fought – I fought for a long time and the result is zero. So it makes me so sad and I, again I decided to commit suicide. I also, y’know, I also swallowed some sleeping pill, and yes still I’m alive, and anyway so I made my mind to fight for my life and finally, yeah, finally I got it. So, and I believe we shouldn’t give up. Life is beautiful [laughs].
RH: What led you to leave Bangladesh?
KARIM: Erm, right, um… Because in Bangladesh, this is a Muslim majority country. So, there is very little chance for freedom of expression, to be who you are – you cannot be who you are, you have to just follow the mainstream, ah, mainstream flow. So since I am a member of the LGBT community, so I was, I was also involved with some LGBT movement works. It was very, in a very discreet way – I was discreet until I was been caught by police, so I was discreet before that, and erm… yeah, since I’m LGBT, member of a group of LGBT so I was been identified and that’s why they threat me. I got threat from Islamic Party. They said if I don’t leave the country within a period of time, they will… erm, they will kill me. So yeah, and… I had to believe it because in 2016 they also killed two of my friends, who were also the pioneer of LGBT movement organisation in Bangladesh. They were been killed in their own flat in 2016, 25th of April, just in front of their mother… So the Islamic Party, they used machetes to kill them – yeah, and it was international news, that in Bangladesh two LGBT activists were, were been killed… So that’s why I had to leave my country, I was forced to leave my country.
RH: Did you tell anybody about your sexuality at home?
KARIM: Not until I was been identified, because I went to a gathering, where same-minded people, so it was in 2017, 19th May in very near to our capital, Dhaka city, so it was a kind of music party, dance party, nothing else, at night. So it was a kind of late night party as well. There was almost like more than a hundred people joined the party so we had food, snacks, some people had little bit, y’know, like beer and other stuff. So it was very private building, it was very private meeting as well. So all of a sudden, I left the party since my house was bit far, so I left the party around 1:30, 1:00 or 1:30 and the party was been raided by police around 2:30. And the police arrested 26 LGBT people from there, and then they just send them to the court, and so far I know they were still there in prison, 26 people – just because of nothing, just because of their sexuality.
And um, yeah, so there was a kind of ‘who attended the party’, there was a kind of record, because since it is a very… it’s a very confidential thing, so we make a record so that if next time, next to next time we can always update these people. And only we, we invite people in our, this kind of party, who are actually member of LGBT people, that’s why we make the record. Since the record file was in the building, and police also seized that file and they had that record of everyone who joined the party. And then later on I found a threat from Islamic Party, so my reckon is – police, they didn’t take action directly, so they rather arrested 26 people on spot and then they hand over this file to the Islamic Party so that, y’know, from international level they don’t get any pressure, so I think this is what they have done. So this is how I was being threatened over phone that ‘you this, you this, we know, so you have to leave the country’.
RH: Were you going out with anybody at the time, when you left?
KARIM: Erm, pardon?
RH: Were you going out with anybody, did you have a boyfriend when you left Bangladesh?
KARIM: Yeah, I had… I was inv- I had my boyfriend in 20… 2011, no ’12 maybe, my first love. So yeah, and 2013 I had my second boyfriend, and finally when I left Bangladesh, yeah at that time I had [laugh] – and still I’m with him, I mean he is in my country, Bangladesh. I’m planning to get him here, so yeah.
RH: What job were you doing in Bangladesh?
KARIM: When I was there I was a teacher. School teacher.
RH: And what about your boyfriend, what does he do?
KARIM: He’s a banker.
RH: So hopefully you can bring him over here, so you can reunite?
KARIM: Fingers crossed [laughs].
RH: Will you be able to help him with the process?
KARIM: Erm, no, I don’t think I have any right at the moment to help him because still y’know even my – I’m not stable here, still, so yeah I don’t have any right to influence his, y’know, influence his visa, but when he would come here and he will apply for asylum I think I can help a little bit influence with the application.
RH: How long does your asylum last here now?
KARIM: …I mean, what do you mean by that?
RH: Were you granted indefinite asylum here in the UK, or is it just for a certain period of time?
KARIM: So if they grant your asylum application, so it takes five years. So now the process I’m going now, five years, and after five years you have to apply again – they will, Home Office will again assess all of your papers, and after they are satisfied with everything then they will give you indefinite leave, or else not. So they have right, they have right anytime they can return you. Anytime.
RH: What was it like growing up gay in Bangladesh?
KARIM: [Laughs] Er, right, so when I was in class six or seven I had an unusual feeling like that… why I always – I mean, when I see a pretty girl I just feel she’s very pretty, she’s nice, but when I see a pretty boy I feel like to touch him, so it makes me a little bit, er, worried about that why I feel that way, so I feel like over time it will be, y’know, I cannot work on this feeling but I didn’t – I had no idea that this feeling can be something else, because still then, even the word ‘homosexuality’ and the word ‘gay’ or this kind of thing, I had no idea about this thing, no idea about this thing so – in our society we only see y’know like heterosexual men and women, and the other thing is, like, third gender, which in our culture we say ‘hijra’. So their body language and everything is very different, so I thought no, I’m not a part of them, definitely not, so yeah I’m a part of mainstream thing.
And this it’s going on, so I always used to, I always used to pretend to, like, yeah I’m a boy, and I have a feeling for a girl. Even I do remember I used to – I had a girlfriend in my college, and I have seen my other friend who, y’know like, take their girlfriend in their bedroom, they do, do stuff, but I never felt like I will take my girlfriend in my bedroom and my home or anything, so I felt for her, that she’s pretty, she’s nice, she’s my girlfriend, I’m in love with her but I never, I never felt to touch her, in any way, you know what I mean? So that touch, I never felt anything. But I had unusual feeling like in my, umm, like night pleasure, I used to see boy with me, so that was very unusual feeling for me, why was I seeing this weird stuff, because still then I haven’t had any idea what, about my sexuality.
The first time – I finished my college, still I haven’t had sex in anyone, even not a girl, not a boy. When I finished my college, so I, er, so I went to Dhaka, the capital, for my graduation, to get admit in university. So in my first year of my university, one of my friends – I don’t want to disclose his name, he’s straight – so in the very early morning, maybe our class start from 9:00, from 9am. So, we are very early at that day, maybe 8:30 we are in the campus, we all were in the campus and then he just came and say ‘you know what happened yesterday, what happened yesterday’, so still that time the cyber-café was very popular in our, in our country, so he was in a cyber-café, my friend was in a cyber-café and he met a man who is 33-35 years old, and then that man just approached to my friend and was saying ‘where do you live?’ Then he said ‘I live this area’, then the man said ‘yeah, it’s very near to mine, so what do you do in the afternoon, late afternoon’ and he say ‘we play cricket, sometimes badminton’ and he say ‘well, I’m kind of bored at that time, can I have your number and join your team?’ Then my friend said ‘of course, why not, you can’. So this is how they exchanged the phone number, and that night, the man called my friend, saying that ‘right you are really handsome, you are really beautiful, do you mind to come at mine, and we can have really good time, in our bedroom and this time’.
So since my friend is straight, so he just slanged him, he just y’know, bullied him, slanged him and the next day morning he was sharing this story with us, and that was my first feeling that just hit my mind – ‘does it exist? So, I’m not the only one feel for the same sex, so there is other people, they also feel for the same sex!’ I was sweating, I do remember I was sweating at that time, I was also shaking and… I didn’t, I didn’t bother to ask my friend, ‘can I have his number?’ Then my friend replied ‘why do you want his number?’ I said ‘I will just ring him and I will just slang him’, y’know give him slang or bullied him, and he said ‘yeah, of course you can do this’.
Then I got the number, and I do remember, on that day, the evening I called that guy and I was, I was shaking, my voice was shaking. I just rang him and said everything that, ‘yeah, this is my friend, yesterday night you called him, he also give you slang, bullied you, so I’m his friend and I also – I fe- I think, I think I also feel the same way you feel’. So, the man, he felt like I am, I’m going to do some harm to him, so he felt like, he just hang up my, my phone call. And later on after, maybe, after one week I got call from him, he called me back and said ‘well, can I have your picture, how can I have your picture sent?’ So, still that time I didn’t use Facebook or any other social media. He said ‘ok, let’s meet at my house, in front of my house’, so I said ‘yeah, of course, why not?’ So, I went to his house, so… we liked each other, and then he took me to his bedroom and he was asking me ‘are you top or bottom?’, and I said ‘what do you mean by that?’ And he said ‘come on, are you joking?’ And I said ‘no I’m not joking, what do you mean by that, top or bottom?’ Then he said ‘are you gay?’, and I said ‘what do mean by ‘gay’?’ He said [earnestly] ‘come on, don’t pretend!’ And I said, ‘trust me, I don’t know anything, any term you are using with me!’ Then he said ‘well, did you see any gay porn?’ And I said, I said ‘what is the – first of all say what is gay, what is like, first I need to understand what is gay’, and he said ‘gay means homosexual’, then he explained me everything, he showed me video, gay porn [laughs] – it was my first day I’m, I’m knowing myself!
And then, yeah, so that day we had, we had sex, and I ask him that how do – is, is, does it exist? He said of course it exists, even in our country, in our city, there are lots of y’know gay people all around in our country, so I ask him ‘how do you meet each other?’ So, since he really likes, like me, so he wanted to have, y’know, random sex with me, so he didn’t give me the clue, how can I meet other guys. So, yeah we had sex, like, three or four times. One day he said me, ‘well you can open a Facebook ID, like fake Facebook ID, so I can give you a link, a Facebook link. In this friends’ list you will find lots of people you can send friend requests and this is how you can, you can meet other gay people’. So this is how I started my journey, yeah. So it has never been easy for me.
RH: So when you met people in Bangladesh, were they always quite secretive, were they scared that you might not be who you say you were?
KARIM: It’s very secretive, you know, no people – it’s very rare people who shared their picture on Facebook, if they even shared, they just shared the body, they disguised the face, or one part of face. So there are lots of incident in our city regarding, like – even Islamic parties are, who are against homosexuality, they also know that how do we met each other, so they also use this kind of Facebook ID, they also try to make friendship with us, so this is how they say well, they send some fake picture and they make a plan to meet each other. When some people go to meet them, and then just y’know, do harm to that person, so yeah, this is a very, this is very common incident. So that’s why it’s very, it’s very discreet, people try to be very discreet, and to meet unknown people after knowing him virtually for a long time, then they tend to meet. So it’s not very easy to be a gay in our country, in our families, it’s really hard.
RH: Have you been to a gay bar here in the UK?
RH: What did you think, when you went into it?
KARIM: Oh, so alive! So it’s really nice, it’s really nice. It’s a, it’s a different, different thing. So I feel like, there is place for us, and this is me [laughs].
RH: Which ones have you been to?
KARIM: In Leeds, Queen’s Court, Viaduct… what’s that corner name, that one? Centre? So yeah this is too, even in Wakefield there is The Rainbow pub.
RH: Have you been to that one?
KARIM: Yeah, yeah. Even in London I’ve been to… um, what is it called, it’s very popular – G.A.Y. Yeah, so… what’s the street name?
RH: Old Compton Street?
KARIM: Yeah, but a famous name of that area, also?
KARIM: Soho, yeah! I’ve been in Soho village and other, other very well-known pub, yeah, it’s nice.
RH: Do you have LGBT friends here?
KARIM: Lots of, lots of friends [laughs].
RH: So would you say that you’re happy here?
KARIM: Yeah, I’m very happy to be here, and I also want to be here because I find my existence here, not in my country, but trust me, each and every moment I feel for my country, I wish I could go back and have a life I want and, er, yeah… I’m just – I would like to stay in this country because here I feel safe, and I can be who am I. I can express my feeling with freedom. Yeah, that’s it.
RH: Ok, I’ll ask you one more question: you mentioned the third gender, in Bangladesh, people, can you tell me a little more about that, I’m just interested?
KARIM: People in our country, like… officially they were been recognised maybe three or four years ago. Before that they couldn’t even be, y’know, they hadn’t had right to vote in our election. So government accepted them four or five years ago maybe. So, those people, I mean hijra, in our culture we say them hijra, or the third gender, so it’s a very bad experience, like no one employed them, no one. They tried to earn for the living, but no one employed them in our society. Even the family, they just want to get rid of them. So at the end, what they find, there is a particular area, particular, some particular building where only these people live, in our country. So this area, I mean they earn money by doing, like, it’s a kind of y’know, they just get on, get on a bus, they demand for money, so some people give them, because all we know that no one employed them, this is how they live on.
And they don’t have any social recognition, no one likes them, everyone think they are a curse, they are cursed for the, in the world, and we will be cursed if we touch them. So their life is very pathetic, their life. When you feel like you don’t have even right to vote, for the election, when you feel like no one will employ you – for example, if even you were to employ them in a restaurant, if they are to serve the food, no one will eat the food, so yeah this is a very common scenario.
RH: Ok, thank you very much today, Karim, for talking to us.
KARIM: It’s my pleasure, thank you so much.