|Steha center in Tirana. Photo: Streha Facebook page|
Nineteen-year-old “S” cuts an unusual figure in Albania. Born a woman, S now wants to be considered a he/him, not a she/her.
Facing a good deal of psychological violence from her family about her sexual orientation, she says she tried committing suicide several times because of the pressure.
In the old days, there would have been nowhere to turn – but now “S” has found a place of refuge and support in the Albanian capital, Tirana.
Streha, which means “shelter” in Albanian, opened in December 2014 – the first-ever non-publicly-run residential centre in Southeast Europe for LGBT people.
It provides a residential home for up to eight young people at a time, aged 18 to 25, who are at risk of violence and discrimination at the hands of their families or the local community if they come out as LGBT.
Initially established to help Albanians, it has since opened its doors to ethnic Albanians from outside the country as well.
One of those is 21-year-old “T”.
Unlike “S”, she is not a transgender person, trying to transition from one sex to another but an “out” lesbian.
That is not an easy choice to make if you happen to live in a rural village in overwhelmingly Muslim, socially conservative Kosovo.
Back home, she says, her family forced to marry a man without seeking her approval. Her family did not want to accept her sexual orientation.
After a while, she abandoned her home and left Kosovo for Albania, where she found shelter and support in Streha.
Streha provides a reintegration service to at-risk homeless people such as her.
Youngsters accepted for places can stay for between six months to a year, using this period for mentored rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
Marsida Cela, director of the centre, told BIRN that such a relatively small centre cannot meet the demand for places from Albanians outside Albania.
“We could only accept four cases from the region during 2016, three from Kosovo and one from Montenegro,” she said.
The three Kosovars were one lesbian, one gay man and one transgender women. The one Montenegrin client was a lesbian.
“We can only accommodate about one in every four cases of people asking to access the service,” Cela added.
Those who benefit from the centre’s facilities tend to come from abusive and violent family and communities, she explained, adding that help starts with getting non-Albanian nationals a permit to live and work in Albania.
“Primary assistance starts with a residential permit to have the right to work in Albania. The immigration authorities have been helpful in this process,” she said.
Beyond that, help focuses on “reintegration and empowerment to live independently”, she explained.
“We start the process of re-integration through vocational education and employment programmes.
“Special mentorship is provided to the beneficiaries from outside Albania once they are released from the program and live independently,” she continued.
Beneficiaries of the shelter’s services are also encouraged to get involved in an art therapy programme.
This aims to help resolve some of their personal conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, reduce stress and increase their self-esteem and self-awareness.
After completing their stay in the centre, it is up to clients from the region to decide whether they wish to remain in Albania or return home, which some do if their relationships with their families and communities have improved in the meantime.
During the first two years of its existence, Streha has hosted a total of 33 people in house, and mentored three other cases at a distance.
Staffer working in the centre have follow to strict procedures, which include not revealing the identities or home addresses of any of the people staying there – which is why BIRN’s interlocutors are designated only by initials.