This is the English version of this interview. For Dutch, click here.
Having been through the procedure themselves, Axmed Maxamed (queer Somali diasporic activist, organizer and music nerd) and Cj (active member of Open Closet LGBT Netherlands) know how tough, complex and unjust it can be to apply for asylum, even in a self-proclaimed “progressive” country like The Netherlands. For LGBTQIA+ refugees, the process is even harder. That’s why for years now, Axmed and Cj have been putting their expertise, time and energy in helping out queer refugees and creating safe spaces for minorities.
Together with Amsterdam-based DJ Jasmín, Axmed recently curated a Dutch edition of Place, an electronic music compilation highlighting local producers and raising awareness on important social causes. All proceeds from Place: The Netherlands will go to organizations that are focused on helping queer refugees to get advice, find an extended sense of family and belonging, get legal work, and re-enter society. I sat down with Cj and Axmed in Amsterdam to share their stories, those of LGBTQIA+ refugees, and the story behind Place: The Netherlands and its release party.
Written by: Dave Coenen
|Place is a musical, country-specific charity compilation series. All proceeds from the releases will go towards local groups working in human rights issues. Combining music with activism, Kompakt and Air Texture present each release in these series.|
Axmed Maxamed is a queer diasporic Somali activist, organizer and music nerd. Axmed was born in Xamar, Somalia where he also spent his early years until his family had to flee during the civil war. He ended up in the Netherlands via other countries. He spent his formative years in Breda in the south of the Netherlands until he moved to Amsterdam some years ago. In Amsterdam Axmed co-founded Dance with Pride, a queer initiative which aims to reunite dance music with its queer roots and raise money for grass roots queer initiatives with their fundraiser parties and sales of the Dance with Pride T-shirt. In addition to this, Axmed is involved in other queer initiatives, with special focus on QTIBPOC (Queer Trans Intersex Black People & People of Colour). Together with Ladan Maandeeq, Axmed started working on ‘Queer Somali Pasts and Presents: A Storytelling and Archival Project’ which will focus on the lives of Queer Somalis in the diaspora and Somalia itself, both in the present day and the past.
Open Closet LGBT Netherlands was co-founded by Teddy Lyon as a response to the difficulties of his personal experience with the local immigration authorities (IND). Having decided that he is here to stay, the South-African born activist wanted to make sure that what happened to him does not happen to others. Open Closet not only ensures that incoming LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers are properly registered, but also provides help with food, support towards the procedures required, counseling and a family where everybody is welcome. They provide a place to come together and cover for traveling costs if needed. By organising meetings regularly, they create a sense of community and belonging for queer asylum seekers in the Netherlands. Open Closet also ensures that asylum seekers are properly informed of their rights and options. Cj is one of the hard-working people at Open Closet, putting his energy into helping queer refugees.
Jasmin Hoek is a DJ who plays under the name Jasmín. She was born and grew up in the east of The Netherlands, Enschede, and has now made her way to Amsterdam through Antwerp and Utrecht. In Utrecht she still hosts her own radio show on local radio station Stranded FM, as well as on Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio. Since her first club appearance two years ago, she has quickly made her way to the booths of Dutch clubs and festivals. In the past year, she started making a name internationally with gigs in Berlin and New York. Besides DJ’ing she writes about music and club culture for various platforms, using her Gender Studies background as a framework. Last september, Front published an interview with Jasmín. Read the article here.
How did you guys link up?
Axmed: “We met each other through Teddy Lyon, the co-founder of Open Closet. I met Teddy at a presentation by Utrecht University students who were conducting research on the experience of queer refugees. There, Teddy told me about Open Closet, and a year later we collaborated on a fundraiser for Open Closet and have stayed in touch since then.”
Cj, tell us a bit more about yourself and your efforts for queer refugees.
Cj: “I have been affiliated with Open Closet from 2018, the year I came to the Netherlands from Saint Lucia. I started helping Teddy with his initiative, because my main interest is being philanthropic: I’m all about helping others. At Open Closet, I’m responsible for the operations and administration, next to that I’m helping refugees with their procedures. And helping in this case not only means preparing them for the questions they will be getting in their procedure, but also assisting in providing legal, psychological and medical advice. Right now I’m also arranging voluntary work for refugees who are in procedure.”
Axmed: “You’re doing so much, and you’ve only been here for a year…”
Cj: “Open Closet operates solely on donations and fundraising events, without any funding or support from the government, so it’s very good and important Axmed and I linked up for the fundraising compilation.”
Open Closet not only provides legal aid and advice, but also creates a (sense of) community for the people it tries to help. How does the organisation try to establish that?
Cj: “In my experience, queer people find it difficult to integrate. Open Closet hosts a lot of events, collaborating with other organisations. The main aim of these events is to get as many people as possible involved in the social process and providing opportunities to socialize. Getting buddies is very important for queer refugees: they need somebody to inform them about the social structures in the Netherlands. And it’s all because the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) is giving us LGBTQIA+ refugees such a hard time.
Some people just can’t or don’t dare to express themselves properly because of where they grew up, came from, or simply because of their gender expression. These people are criticised or punished when they act, speak or gesture in a certain way. A lot of queer people have to pretend to be someone else in their country of birth. Open Closet tries to tell them that they have a place here in The Netherlands, because the law here basically states that everyone should be treated equally.”
Axmed: “The IND expects gestures or behavior they deem typical for or fitting with your gender expression, and if you don’t live up to these images or expectations, they mostly don’t believe you.”Cj: “Their asylum support group is corrupt. They sometimes even say ‘you are not gay enough’ to refugees. There’s this unnecessary need to ‘prove’ them you are in fact what you claim to be. I don’t know why they’re trying to do that, because when you’re gay, for example, you’re being yourself, and you’re not obliged in any way to live up to an image or label society or an institution has of you.”
“…the IND assumes everyone is lying. So on all the refugees who come there, there’s a burden of proof from the moment they step in.“Axmed Maxamed
Axmed, could you elaborate your experiences with the IND?
Axmed: “I worked with the IND as an interpreter for quite a while. I believe the starting point for the IND and its employees is to actually reject as many refugees as possible. So their number of rejections is what they’re now judged on. From that starting point, they assume everyone is lying. So on all the refugees who come there, there’s a burden of proof from the moment they step in. That’s why I also stopped working with the IND, because it just didn’t feel right anymore. As an interpreter, you don’t have a say in helping someone, but you have to just sit and watch this frustrating, heartbreaking process. I then proceeded to only work with the lawyers who are on the side of the refugees”
Cj: “They will ask you a question and will ask it ten more times, out of the blue, in the middle of the interview.”
Axmed: “They’re just testing if you have the mental capacity to understand what is happening. All trauma resulting from fleeing a country and awful living conditions is not taken into account. With sexuality, it’s even more problematic, cause they want to know the exact date of you’re coming out, or your realisation of when you became gay or queer or whatever. If you can’t give them one, they don’t believe you. It’s really terrible.”
Cj: “When do you become gay? How are you not gay enough? How can you even prove?”
Axmed: “And that’s only my story as someone who worked with them. There’s another dimension to my experience with the IND, because I also came to the Netherlands from Somalia as a kid. I fled from a civil war with my family. Coming to the Netherlands, you always have to show or prove to them that you’ve been through what you claim to have been through.
Like Cj said, in their country of origin LGBTQIA+ people have to hide who they are, and now all of sudden they have to performatively show that they are who they claim to be. Most of the employees at the IND have no understanding of what it is like to live in a country that is not European, Western and/or mostly white. In addition to that, they also have very little understanding of what it is like to be queer. There is no sensitivity or empathy, they just have this mind set of “this is how you should be, and if you’re not, then you’re not getting what you want”.
There’s this example of what they told to a cis (short for cisgender; someone whose gender identity matches their sex at birth, ed.) woman with kids. They told her “you can not be “fully” lesbian, because you have kids”. All of this is said, while she was forced to have kids, because otherwise she could not survive in the society she grew up in. It’s very narrow minded to think of people like that and to treat them in that way. The European Convention of Human Rights has even told the Dutch IND that they have to change the ways in which they make these decisions, and the Dutch government was obliged to publish their criteria for entering the country as a refugee. It’s incredibly harsh and tough, especially for queer refugees.”
What about your story, Cj?
Cj: “My experience is that I came from Saint Lucia, a tiny island in the Caribbean. The Caribbean are seen as some kind of tourist heaven. But locals are treated differently than visitors. A lot of people don’t see that. My story is very different from the image of the Caribbean tourist heaven: I have been through a lot of persecution and violent abuse. When I went through the procedure at the IND, I had to hand them every piece of information I had – Amnesty reports of human right trusts, US state reports, everything. All because they didn’t have proper knowledge about my motherland and the way people are treated there.”
Axmed: “Clearly they have put the burden on you as well.
Cj: “It’s also difficult – especially for African people – to obtain simple doctor reports, police files or other official documents once you’ve stated that you’re LGBTQIA+.”
Axmed: “What makes this situation even shittier, is that these oppressive laws are inherited from colonizers from European countries; the same countries that are now rejecting all these refugees. LGBTQIA+ people are punished by law all around the world, and when they apply for asylum elsewhere, all kinds of laws are keeping them away from getting to a safe space easily. With this system, a lot of countries are destabilized when it comes to human rights. It’s fucked up on so many levels.”
Could you tell us more about all the ways you’re raising funds and awareness for queer refugees?
Axmed: “Because of the interviews we do, we aim to put the stories of (queer) refugees and the procedure they have to go through out there, so people need to know and we – documented people with knowledge about the procedure – need to put those stories out there, and we need to stand with LGBTQIA+ refugees, especially people from the queer community. Because, in this community as well, a lot of racism occurs. A story that I hear a lot in meetings with people from the LGBTQIA+ community is that a refugee comes here, thinking the Netherlands is gonna be some kind of open-minded haven, but still they encounter a lot of racism, oppression, islamophobia and/or even exclusion from LGBTQIA+ community, for example. That’s another problem within the LGBTQIA+ community I encounter: cis white gays who see islamic queer refugees as a problem.
Other than putting these stories out there, we are also hosting a release event for the compilation on the 21st of December in The Hague. At the release party, there will also be a fundraiser for Open Closet LGBT Netherlands, we’ll organise a discourse in which members of Open Closet and other LGBTQIA+ refugee initiatives share their stories and perspectives. Teddy Lyon will exhibit his art and in addition to that, multiple artists featured on the compilation will perform. There will be a screening of a few short films on this topic and people from the community will provide food as well.”
“We still need more profound thinking from an intersectional perspective, to be able to see how all these problems are related so we can finally take steps.”Axmed Maxamed
What is your view of the Dutch dance scene and their provision and creation of safe spaces and communities for queer refugees?
Axmed: “Nowadays, it’s kind of en vogue to do something with refugees or other minorities, especially in club land. A lot of people want to help, but don’t actually take the time or don’t try to make an effort trying to connect with the people they want to help. I think listening and connecting is something you should always do when you’re trying to help a community: to have an actual conversation with them, not just, like, put something up because you think it is the right thing to do. The latter feels performative and can bring more damage to the people you’re trying to help. Minorities are not an object to gain your woke points with, and fundraising is not just some good deed to whitewash, pinkwash or polish your own organisations’ negative past. Even if it doesn’t come from a mean-spirited mindset, these things still happen a lot in dance culture.
In the Amsterdam club scene, I don’t know anyone actively and consistently battling these issues apart from Dance With Pride. Lots of “charity” initiatives in Amsterdam right now are based on capitalist mindsets, aimed on making money. I encounter events that claim to be inclusive and diverse queer friendly parties, but in fact predominantly attract cis white gay men. Or initiatives that set rules for having to be inclusive and diverse, which makes me ask myself: what are you actuallydoing to make sure your party is inclusive? Just putting up some posters in the venue is not enough.
Especially with big events, you need to include people in your organisation that are raising awareness for these topics consistently. Yet the money still keeps flowing in, and sure, organisations do in fact learn stuff and progress, but mostly I feel like the knowledge gained is applied by them performatively, without having a deeper understanding of the topics they claim to care about. It looks good for event organisers in Amsterdam to be inclusive and diverse, sure, but more has to happen. When it actually comes to speaking up or action for communities who are marginalised, most people are just quiet. You can apply the same things to the Black Pete problem or the recent controversy around Nina Kraviz. It shows the lack of care from most white people for the position and experience of (queer) people of color. We still need more profound thinking from an intersectional perspective, to be able to see how all these problems are related so we can finally take steps.”
With Place: The Netherlands and its release party, you also try to connect with the minority group you’re helping, by providing a safe space. How did the Dutch edition of Place come about?
Axmed: “James Healy from Air Texture is also the person behind the Place compilations. He reached out to Jasmín through SoundCloud, asking her to curate a new edition of Place for The Netherlands. Then she contacted me to join her. Jasmín and I have known each other for some years, and I’ve had good experiences with the way she sees the world and wants to support all kinds of people. It felt good to do it together. I was the one tasked with looking for the cause of the fundraiser. Open Closet was the first initiative that came to mind, because I know they don’t get any funding and it’s been a while since we’ve raised money for them. After that, Jasmín and I started to think about the artists to feature on the compilation.”
How did you compile the artists for the project?
Axmed: “James gave us all the freedom to choose whoever we wanted, which was really great. Jasmín and I eventually selected artists who we felt were underrepresented, and whose music we really like. Most of them we knew personally, or we had a mutual connection that could bring us in touch with them easily. All of them – except for one producer who moved after compiling Place – are based in The Netherlands. We also wanted to make sure that the compilation not only centers around Amsterdam. Utrecht, Den Haag, Rotterdam and Enschede are some of the other cities represented on Place: The Netherlands. We’re proud of this broad representation.”
There’s a lot of breakbeat, experimental electronics and chaos to be heard on the compilation. Do the tracks on the compilation relate sonically to the stories of LGBTQIA+ refugees?
Axmed: “Some artists on Place: The Netherlands made their featured track specifically for this compilation. There are no artists on there with similar backgrounds as queer asylum seekers, but there are stories and experiences on the compilation which resonate to similar themes. There’s this track called ‘Black Anger’ by Global Mind Surveillance, in which the artist shares his own experiences with oppression and racism.”
DJ Bone is one of the more well-known names on the compilation: an American DJ who recently moved to Amsterdam together with his wife. He also organised a big fundraiser during the most recent edition of ADE: DJ Bone’s Homeless Homies.
Axmed: “Yes, so happy with his appearance on the compilation! He said yes to us immediately. DJ Bone is a guy who really cares about and does a lot for homeless people as well. Even though he’s this big techno legend from Detroit, he still spends money and time on minorities and people in need.”
How does the fundraising process work exactly?
Axmed: “The compilation is only released digitally. All the money from digital sales will go to Open Closet. We asked the artists we wanted to book at our party if they’re ok with zero payment. All of the artists are documented and privileged enough to donate their time and work, so there was no hassle about the money going directly to Open Closet. We also created many ways in which visitors can contribute: both online and at the door, people can buy tickets and make donations. Additionally, we’re making sure that people who are not able to buy a ticket because of their living circumstances, can send us an email, and we can provide them train tickets, free entry and drinks. People with privilege can pay extra or donate as much as they can.”
After Place: The Netherlands, what are your plans for the future?Axmed: “I’m planning to move to Berlin in the next couple of months. In the meantime, I’m working on several projects: setting up a music / community venue in Berlin with a few friends and organising a pilot event there in April, alongside a story-telling and archival research project into the Somali LGBTQIA+ history. For Dance With Pride, not a lot is happening event-wise, but I’m active on social media posting about Black Pete, among other things, using the platform to reach as many people as possible.”
Cj: “We are really looking forward for 2020 to be the spectacle year for Open Closet. We are also planning to host a couple of fundraising events, and we’re arranging our own boat at the Canal Pride next year. Good stuff coming up.“
Place is a non-profit project created by New York label Air Texture in collaboration with Kompakt. The release party and fundraiserwill take place on December 21 at The Grey Space in the Middle in The Hague. For tickets and donations, click here. Place: The Netherlands features artists such as Blusher, DJ Bone, Pasiphae and Zohar. Order and/or listen to the compilation here.