OPINION: Between death and the gallows, my friend died

by Omar Ghoneim | Activist
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 10:43 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Hamed Sinno (L), the lead singer of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila holds a rainbow flag during the Ehdeniyat International Festival in Ehden town, Lebanon August 12, 2017. Picture taken August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sarah Hegazi died because Egyptian society revolted against her and Canada's support system for asylum seekers was inadequate

Omar Ghoneim is a human rights activist based and political refugee now based in France. He was a close friend of the Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazi, who died earlier this year

Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazi died on June 13, 2020 in Toronto, Canada. In life, Sarah was compelled to revolt. More accurately, society revolted against her, and she had no choice but to respond.

Sarah was arrested on October 2, 2017 after raising the rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo, Egypt. She was accused of inciting debauchery and joining an illegal group offending public stability and social coexistence. During three months in prison, Sarah was tortured with electric shocks. Other prisoners were informed she was homosexual, putting her at risk of sexual assault.

These experiences continued to traumatise her after her release on bail in 2018. But despite this, Sarah never stopped writing. Her friends feared for her re-arrest and strongly advised her to leave Egypt. She sought asylum in Canada in March the same year.

In exile, Sarah did not feel the security one would think a liberal country such as Canada would offer. She was uprooted from her community, her friends and her political circles in Egypt. She had a hard time forming meaningful friendships. As a result, she resorted to overseas friendships. Ours was one of them. I was in exile in France because I was also arrested in the crackdown following the Mashrou’ Leila concert.

I first met Sarah through feminist groups on social media. Our relationship began with solidarity over a cause and we quickly developed into a strong friendship. It was a source of solace in the grim reality of exile. We shared laughs, tears and sometimes traumatic memories as if we were using each other as therapists. We were both dreamers. We dreamt of a better future for Egypt, the country we love and were forced to leave.

A screenshot from Sarah Hegazi's private Instagram account showing a video call with Omar Ghoneim. Credit: Omar Ghoneim

Sarah knew that she could not return to Egypt and felt alienated. Her mother's death made it worse. She told me, “I was arrested in Egypt and now I am arrested in Canada as I can do nothing for my family in the midst of this disaster.”  In exile, she could not even say goodbye to her mother, who left the world without seeing her daughter one last time.

Sarah tried to develop friendships and close relationships in Canada to restore her sense of security. She gave a lot, waited for a reward, but was sadly let down by many people around her. She sought mental health treatment, but it did not help her. Sarah struggled to find a suitable psychiatrist, one in whom she had confidence, and who understood her trauma and could help treat it.

Sarah regarded Canadian psychiatry as an insensitive machine ignorant of the Middle Eastern problems and which treated refugees with pity, which she considered an insult.

Financially, Sarah was not well off. Her work was interrupted by trauma-related mood swings and anger outbursts. She often felt drained, depressed, and listless because of the medications she was prescribed. She depended on governmental assistant, though it was not enough to sustain a dignified life.

Sarah was ultimately unable to integrate. She felt helpless in the face of complex bureaucratic procedures that accompanied asylum and her new life. She needed a social worker to support her in all those tasks, but she never felt confidence in those assigned to her, and they checked with her infrequently. Sarah was further challenged by having to do this all in English, a new language that she struggled with due to learning disabilities.

Sarah was dismayed by the hero-like status that people gave to her. People used to tell her that she was brave to raise the rainbow flag and to move to Canada but despite all the apparent privileges, she only thought of her family.

I used to joke with her saying: "Rise up, you are the first lesbian who was arrested in a political case.” She responded, “And how could this save my mother's life?”

Sarah's resilience was evident in how she reacted to each strike against her, one after another. Her strength was shown through her reaction to the attacks she faced, one after another, and she remained standing to go on fighting the good fight.

I expected, with every shock, that it was her end, but she surprised me by standing up again. She had a great strength in facing bullying and hate speech throughout her life.

Sarah's death was an assassination.

She was killed by the system: from the authorities who arrested her, ignored the violations committed against her and falsely accused her, to the merciless regime that continues to annihilate all dissent.

The ending of Sarah's life started with hatred and bullying campaigns, prison and the deteriorating situation in her exile in Canada until, ultimately, the girl took her own life.

Her story compels us to ask critical questions about the support system for asylees who suffer from trauma, disability, and inability to integrate in their new home. Any institution for asylum seekers suffering traumas should see the world through the eyes of those victims.

Between death and gallows, my friend died.

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