Jon is 20 years old and is from a small village in the east of Saudi Arabia. Whilst he was in sixth grade he went to his cousin’s wedding where he met Marbilla. He and Marbilla became close friends and the two eventually became a couple.

Jon is a trans man but Saudi Arabia is a country where trans rights are virtually non-existent and one of the 69 countries where homosexuality is still a criminal offence. As he puts it:

“I have known that I am a trans man as far back as I can remember. When I got to middle school, I realised it was real and that I was not mentally ill. But my parents started to have a problem with the way I was as I got older – I suffered abusive words and violence.”

Whilst Jon was struggling with the reaction of his family, Marbilla was also experiencing violence at home. She was forced to marry when she was 18 but the marriage only lasted four months. After the divorce she was imprisoned at home for a year. When her family began to consider getting her married again, both John and Marbilla realised they had to flee Saudi Arabia.

At this point in time Jon was a student at a university four hours away from the village where he and Marbilla grew up. He forged a letter pretending Marbilla was also enrolled as a student and spent the next year planning their escape. When talk of Marbilla getting re-married became serious, Jon used money earmarked for rent to apply for UK visas and book flights. Saudi Arabia implements a male guardianship system in which women are required to have written permission from a male guardian to travel, marry and sometimes even access work and healthcare.[1] Through fleeing with Jon, they were both risking their lives.

Eventually, after a heart-stopping delay at the airport, the couple reached London and claimed asylum.

When in the UK they had to get through the hurdles and bureaucracy of UK asylum law. Asylum seekers on arrival are placed in temporary accommodation whilst their claim is processed. Jon and Marbilla were moved between various locations before being placed in a hostel in Croydon.

Arrival in the UK does not necessarily mean safety for LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees. As well as dealing with the racism experienced by many migrants, they also face the additional burdens of homophobic and transphobic abuse. Some are rejected by their ethnic community and also face abuse in the outsourced accommodation provided by the government. Jon and Marbilla experienced this in Croydon where they were made to feel unsafe by fellow hostel residents, most of whom were also from the Middle East.

It was at this point when they encountered Micro Rainbow – a social enterprise set up to support LGBTQI refuges and asylum seekers through providing safe housing, facilitating access to employment and education and also through running social inclusion activities.

Within two months of contacted the social enterprise, Jon and Marbella were moved into a Micro-Rainbow safe house, one of 13 of secure accommodation facilities exclusively for LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees.

Commenting on moving into the safe house, Jon said:

If it wasn’t for Micro Rainbow, I don’t know what would have happened to us. We could have been found, kidnapped and forced to return to Saudi Arabia with my father.

For the first time since our ordeal began, we feel safe. There’s no racism in the shared Micro Rainbow house, or a feeling you’re still in your own country. I can now leave the house comfortably and not worry about Marbilla or anything else.

The thing that reassures me most about being in Micro Rainbow housing is that I know we won’t be kicked out until our asylum is accepted. We won’t have to leave until we have our papers, which means we can actually relax and not worry about being uprooted every few months.

Jon and Marbilla are currently awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. In the future Marbilla hopes to work as a teacher and Jon as a police officer.

In a system where LGBTQI asylum seekers have the odds stacked against them, facing a culture of disbelief from decision makers as well as homophobic and transphobic violence[2], Micro Rainbow is providing a vital lifeline offering the support, safety and security that they have been so desperately lacking over the rest of their lives.

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microrainbow.org

This Social Enterprise Story is based on a longer piece written by Jon himself which can be read here.


[1] https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/07/16/boxed/women-and-saudi-arabias-male-guardianship-system

[2] Research from the University of Sussex showed across Europe 1 in 3 LGBTQI asylum seekers were refused asylum because officials did not believe their sexual orientation or gender identity https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jul/09/lgbt-asylum-seekers-routinely-see-claims-rejected-in-europe-and-uk