Nearly 100 queer people of Middle Eastern heritage are gathering each week for an online peer support group in response to Israel’s attacks on Palestinians.
Led by Finlay Sarafa McHale, a queer and transgender Iraqi Chaldean clinical social worker, the online group of queer SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) people aims to provide a space to process loss together. “I believe healing happens in community; I don’t think we can fully heal on our own,” they say. “It was so refreshing to see so many other queer SWANA people in one space.”
Israel formally declared war against Hamas on October 8, after the militant group killed more than 1,400 people a day earlier. Since then, Israel’s air strikes in Gaza have killed more than 8,800 people and injured more than 22,000 people trapped in the occupied territory, according to figures from the United Nations (UN). By October 24, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza had displaced one million Palestinians from their homes, the UN reported.
Sarafa McHale wanted to create a space where queer SWANA people could be open about their identities amongst people who share a cultural heritage. “As queer and trans SWANA people, we live and witness many genocidal acts targeting us and our loved ones while often not having a space that allows us to fully show up in our identities,” the group’s mission statement reads.
The legacy of colonialism has negatively influenced perceptions of queerness within the Middle East, Sarafa McHale says, leaving lasting impacts and causing some societies to become less accepting of queer people. “Our social acceptance of queerness was stamped out as a means of control. So now, a lot of our societies have become quite conservative in their approach to queerness. It’s slowly changing and improving, but it’s still relatively hard for most queer people.”
This means many LGBTQ+ SWANA people have to choose between being close to their cultural communities or the queer community. “That’s a really difficult choice to make. It limits our resources and prevents us from being our authentic selves. We need to be our full, authentic selves to process what we’re feeling,” Sarafa Mchale says.
Support group for queer Palestinians and SWANA people
Free, Mondays at 7 PM via Zoom, firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming together through this online group helps people heal. But it’s also a way for queer SWANA people to show their support for Palestinians. “In the Arab world, queer communities overwhelmingly support a free Palestine,” they say.
Some Zionists argue colonialism benefits queer Palestinians by pointing to anti-LGBTQ+ oppression in Middle Eastern cultures, a point Sarafa Mchale finds ironic because queer people face growing oppression in Israel, due in part to a faction of far-right nationalists in government. “Israel isn’t safe for queer SWANA people at all. Similarly to anti-Zionist Jews, we don’t want this happening in our name. We’re not asking for this. It’s not for us, so stop using us to perpetuate your genocide,” they say.
Turnout for the first session exceeded Sarafa McHale’s expectations, so they decided to shift toward a peer support model, which means attendees will converse with each other on an “even playing field.” Sarafa McHale will step in to moderate the conversation if there’s conflict. They’re also speaking with other mental health professionals about getting involved so they can split the group into breakout rooms, making it easier for more people to share.
For the first few weeks, the group will largely focus on getting to know each other and building trust. As the sessions continue, Sarafa McHale plans to introduce specific conversation topics and themes related to their therapy specialties, which include queer and trans issues, disability and chronic illness, and decolonization.
As SWANA people process Israel’s continued attacks on Gaza, Sarafa McHale advises them to spend time with their communities and engage with their cultures. They add that people who need professional mental health support should interview a few potential therapists to ensure whomever they choose is equipped to meet their needs. “If they refuse to answer questions, that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s not going to be a great fit,” they say.
As SWANA people bear witness to Palestinians’ pain and loss, many struggle to eat or complete other “self-preservation” tasks, Sarafa McHale says. Dedicating actions to Palestinians, like this online support group, has helped motivate them and their therapy clients. “Perhaps I’m making Palestinian food for dinner or engaging in a bit of decompression by listening to Palestinian music or reading Palestinian poetry, of which there’s so much amazing work,” Sarafa McHale says. “I’m also doing all those same things with my own culture too, and it helps.”
This adds meaning to daily tasks, but it also helps to preserve SWANA cultures. “Genocide is not only the attempted wiping out of a culture by killing its people but also an attempt to wipe out the existence of that culture. By engaging with these things, you help to keep the culture alive. It’s another way of undermining the genocide that’s been occurring for the last 105 years,” Sarafa McHale says.
The group meets on Zoom every Monday at 7 PM. Sarafa McHale also runs a group chat for participants. People interested in joining should email email@example.com.