Rainbow Street Stories
When it comes to Rainbow Street, many people know about the work, but know almost nothing about the people who do it. While anonymity remains crucial for the security of our staff, volunteers, and especially our beneficiaries, we thought it might be a good idea for people to get to know a little bit about the people behind the scenes; those who carry out our vision here at Rainbow Street! Below will be a series of interviews with the people who represent Rainbow Street on the field, and - alongside our staff - make our mission a reality.
This is the story of KA, one of our longest-serving volunteers, a case manager and security officer, as he told it in Amman to one of his fellow volunteers at Rainbow Street.
What does a case manager with Rainbow Street do exactly?
I work directly with the beneficiaries, meaning I deliver financial assistance to them which they use for basic necessities - mainly shelter - and try to provide them with emotional support. I refer them to other organisations, work with them to figure out their needs, help them plan out their lives, deal with the challenges they face. I am acutely aware of the importance of the work we do, having been in a position where I needed it myself.
Tell me about that, and about your background.
My background is a bit complicated. I grew up in a totally different environment than the one I am currently in. My neighbourhood was underserved and not very safe. There was a certain hostility and bullying of many different kinds. Violence was common, as were drugs, police raids, etc. I lived in the same building as my extended family. The mentality was very traditional and conservative, and limited in scope. There was no room for someone to say something or act differently to the norm.
The environment was difficult, and treated women very unfairly. Me and other males around had access to a lot of stuff the females didn’t, and there was evident discrimination. For a while, as a child, I adopted this ideology, I followed whatever my parents and relatives believed in. There was so much sexual harassment and physical and emotional violence against women, and that was the status quo. It wasn’t until I grew up a bit that I realised something as simple as “women aren’t supposed to be harassed”.
It was very much in the culture. I didn’t know that I was gay back then, but I was still heavily bullied for how I behaved. There was still something that made me different, of which others were aware and for which they attacked me.
A few years later, when I was 13, we moved. Some time before we moved I had begun to withdraw from the community around me, because I felt I was different. Something was off.
I stopped feeling like I belonged there at an early age. I didn’t like the injustice, I didn’t want to be a part of it. Later on I started discovering my sexuality, and it was difficult to realise who I was, what it means, and for a long time I thought I was alone in the world. The internet helped, and I discovered that it’s a real thing, and it’s there, but I wasn’t looking at it like something I could accept; I was a perfectionist, I had a life plan, a big, important one. I fought all the circumstances to preserve this ideal image I wanted for myself. I was the first one to graduate from high school in the family, which meant there was a lot of pressure from them on me and what I would achieve. And I wanted to achieve exactly that, for a long time, so it would not have worked for me to accept my sexuality.
How did you cope with your sexuality at that time?
I went through conversion therapy, which was very traumatising. I sought it out on my own, and got professional help for it. It didn’t work, obviously.It made me blame my family and how I was raised for my sexuality, how my dad or my grandfather treated me, or the area I grew up in even. It was very heavily focused on environmental factors, and it made me feel an intense hatred towards these people because they made me feel that way. It was wrong, and extremely unhealthy to have that kind of hate towards anyone to replace the hate for myself, and unsuccessfully at that because I still hated myself.
I decided to stop after two suicide attempts. I got to the point where clearly, after years of trying to convert myself, it wasn’t working and it was making me depressed and suicidal, it made me think I should maybe accept my sexuality? That’s how it was. It was gradual, and so hard because for all that time I’d been telling myself I NEED to hate this part of myself, this is not me, this is an outsider. And then, I had to unlearn all of that.
What has that process felt like, learning to accept yourself?
It’s been a long, difficult one, and it’s not really finished yet. The plans I had for my life had already been disturbed by the time I realised I was queer, so I had to look at this ideal image of myself with more flexibility.
Then, with time, I started meeting more people, started learning from their experiences, and I found out that a lot of people share my experience with sexuality and acceptance, and I started finding support, an environment to harbour me.
The biggest example of that kind of environment is the Rainbow Street community. When I started volunteering with Rainbow Street, I had already started accepting myself. But Rainbow Street enhanced it, and I finally started feeling like I do have a safe space, a supportive family, people to talk to about anything. Because we’ve all lived in the same society, and have had at least to some extent similar experiences. It’s significant, how the Rainbow Street community is helping form the version of me that’s empowered, that’s proud. That’s what I hope to do, and intend to keep doing, for other people.
How did you get involved with Rainbow Street?
I was making peace with everything when I saw an ad asking for people who want to work with the LGBT+ community, and sent in an application. I started volunteering in May 2017. Seeing the work from the inside, it was so important to me to be able to help, support other people in the community to which I feel a great sense of belonging. It felt like a duty, because I had made it through all these different formative stages, my life was already on a good stable path (despite other hurdles, later). Before, I used to fit the classic profile for a Rainbow Street beneficiary; I had been homeless, vulnerable, faced rejection, was in a toxic environment, and I received help from numerous people and was able to stand on my feet because of that.
When I started working with Rainbow Street, I felt like I was repaying a debt.
I am able to understand how our beneficiaries feel, how it feels to be in a position of extreme risk, or to know that whatever minor stability you have could be lost within an hour. To feel threatened by people you love, to have 10JDs ($15) to your name and not know where you’re going to sleep that night, or get your next meal. It’s catastrophic, it’s a literal threat to your existence.
It also helps me, and gives me a sense of purpose; I hope that the work I do with the beneficiaries empowers them in one way or another, although I feel the word “empowering” is a bit flaccid. But it works.
How does your professional background help you in your work?
I study in the medical field, and I have this knowledge that I’m grateful for, that helps me guage what resources a beneficiary might need, that allows me to counsel them on what might be necessary for them, or at least where they can start in order to get what they need when they’re facing a health problem. This is especially useful since they, as refugees and queer-presenting people, will mostly not have access to any medical insurance. So I try to use my network of connections to get them the help they need. Some of the knowledge I’ve acquired also pertains to psychiatry, which helps me recognize mental health problems and make the proper referrals to service providers in the field and give helpful advice.
In the periods during which there were disturbances in my relationship with my family and during which I had to leave my home and then return, my circumstances and self-expression changed completely. I have had to , for a long time, start presenting as straight, and pretend that I have been “cured”, in order to survive financially, continue my studies, and maintain the peace with them. Since I’ve had to make those radical changes, my understanding of security and privacy became very critical. I hate that it is so, but in this society and environment, it is invaluable. This contributes to my work with Rainbow Street because I have become highly aware of the safety and security issues of our beneficiaries, my fellow volunteers, and myself. The work dictates that digital and physical security be of paramount importance.
Do you have a favourite success story from your work, something that you’re particularly satisfied with?
I was working with a trans female beneficiary. The first time I met her she was absolutely devastated and cried throughout the whole meeting. She could not get through a full sentence without breaking down. Complete wreck. Working with her was very hard at the beginning. There were several critical points in her case and I tried my best to be as careful as possible. We spent so much time working on her self-esteem and her mental health. Months later, her demeanour had completely changed, and she became much more light-spirited when I would meet with her, and one day I found myself thinking: “Wow, she’s actually, finally doing well”. She was very expressively grateful as well. I recently talked to her, after she had been resettled to a different country, and she seemed so happy. She was finally feeling safe, expressing herself, wearing dresses and going out and finding a job. Her life seemed to be coming together, and she thanked me again. Of course, it wasn’t just my work, it was all the effort she put in, and everyone else at Rainbow Street. I felt so proud.
Are there times when you were frustrated, or wished there was more you could do?
This is a critical point. I used to approach the work in a way in which I would try to figure every little thing out for the beneficiary, and it started inflicting an intense and unrealistic sense of total responsibility for this person, which is unrealistic. I had to force myself to learn that I am their case manager; yes, I am here to help them, but I am not their saviour. I need to learn how to prioritise my wellbeing: to give them all I can, but also not push myself past my breaking point. I used to try to be everything to the person and provide them with everything, but that which can remove important opportunities for them to take back their autonomy and dignity.. It’s also difficult to draw a line with how involved I am with each case. It’s incredibly frustrating, and not actually what I need to be doing. It’s not in my best interest, or theirs.
What would you like donors to know about Rainbow Street?
Things here are not easy, and a single donor’s contribution can give someone a meal, or several. It can mean they have a roof over their heads for a bit longer, and that much more security and safety for it. No matter how small the contribution is, it matters, and it makes a difference.
Whenever the beneficiaries thank me after I pass along the assistance, I tell them I’m only the messenger, the ones we should be thanking are the people who make it possible by donating. And then they ask me to do exactly that, so thank you.