The psychologist at the LGBT youth shelter waited for me in a small side street in the city center of Tirana, Albania’s capital. “No one knows our exact address, we want to avoid arson and havoc,” she told me.
She knocked on a discrete door. Once inside, she showed me the two bedrooms with bunk beds and invited me to the living room to meet with some of the residents at the STREHA shelter.
A young man, Rajan, barely 18 years old, shared the story of being expelled from his family home. “When I told my parents last year I was gay, my father beat me up. My mom took a plastic bag, stuffed it with food and clothes and then I was kicked out. I did not have anywhere to go, didn’t have any money. I did not dare to go back to school because of all the bullying that was going on. I ended up doing sex work to survive. Through an acquaintance I learnt about this shelter.”
Rajan has found some peace of mind at the shelter, where he has made friends while he recovers from his trauma. In Albania, an anti-discrimination law has been introduced, gay pride parades are being held, yet there is a virulent homophobia.
Another young man, Valmir, smiled when he told his story. “My experience is similar to Rajan’s. Thanks to the social workers here my life is back on track. After staying here six months, I found a small apartment, and a job as a journalist. And now I help out here as a volunteer.”
STREHA staff explained the shelter, which serves LGBT youth between 18 and roughly 25 who have been rejected by their families, was founded with donations from the US and UK Embassies. The Dutch embassy now provides some support, but the shelter is running out of funds.
That afternoon, I met with Tirana’s mayor, Erion Veliaj. I told him I was impressed by the shelter and asked if the city could support it. “Yes,” he said. “Let them send me a proposal, we must be able to find some money for this service.”
In the evening I reconnected with Rajan, Valmir, and the shelter staff at the opening of the Pride Photo Award exhibition, organized by the Zeta Gallery with the Dutch Embassy. They were standing in front of a photo series of a French transgender girl’s transformation over the period of a few years. The parents were embracing their child, and this caught the attention of the group. “Not all parents kick you out of their house,” Rajan mused. I told them the possible good news. “Let’s hope the Mayor will keep his promise,” Valmir said cautiously.
Given that coming out is sadly still risky in many countries like Albania, the shelter for stranded LGBT youth is a bitter necessity.