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Alice Driver | Longreads | July 2020 | 16 minutes (3,906 words)
“Me with two suitcases, without knowing anything, so far away, not speaking the language, oh no, it was a total odyssey.” — Karla Avelar
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Home was 16 by 26 feet. When Karla, 41, lay on her single bed at night, she could stretch out her left arm and grab her mother Flor’s* hand. She and her mother, who was 64, hadn’t lived together for 32 years: Now they practiced French together and her mother, who never learned to write, carefully traced the letters of the French alphabet in cursive well into the night. Neither of them had finished elementary school; Flor, born in rural El Salvador, was forced to leave school after first grade to work and help support her family and Karla was forced out of school in eighth grade due to bullying from teachers and students who told her she had to dress like a man in order to attend class, who once tried to hold her down and cut her hair and who frequently beat her up. Home was the name she had chosen for herself — Karla Avelar — one that was first legally recognized when she was 41 and requesting asylum in Switzerland. When the weight of memories of her previous life haunted Karla, she went outside to search for a place to cry alone.
When I first met Karla in San Salvador, El Salvador in July 2017, her home was a place I couldn’t safely visit. Karla, a renowned LGBTQ activist, had been nominated for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights, which would come with a large cash prize if she won. Members of the Mara Salvatrucha in Karla’s neighborhood, part of an international gang known as the MS-13, had become aware of the news and had threatened to kill her if she won and didn’t hand the money over to them. She had even been forced to change houses due to the threats, but she still felt her neighborhood wasn’t safe for me to visit, so we met at the offices of COMCAVIS TRANS, an NGO that was the culmination of her life’s work as an activist. Like so many trans women in El Salvador, she had survived more violence than most of us could imagine — rapes, assassination attempts, being unjustly imprisoned — and after being released from prison, she founded COMCAVIS TRANS as the first openly HIV positive trans woman in the country. I interviewed Karla for a story about the reasons why trans woman flee El Salvador, neither of us knowing that Karla would eventually become the story.
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On October 6, 2017, roughly a month-and-a-half after we bid each other farewell in San Salvador, Karla and her mother flew to Switzerland to attend the awards ceremony for Martin Ennals Award nominees. When they arrived in Switzerland, Flor broke down and told Karla that members of the MS-13 gang had come to her house, beat her up and forced her to watch a video in which they were torturing a man, telling her that they would do the same thing to Karla. Before leaving, they told Flor that they would rape her in front of Karla and then kill her if Karla didn’t hand over the prize money. And then they asked her to confirm the date that Karla would return to El Salvador after her trip to Switzerland.
Karla relayed the threats to the members of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights who were worried that she would be assassinated if she returned to El Salvador. They encouraged her and her mother to apply for asylum in Switzerland. At the awards ceremony, Karla was recognized for her activism and awarded a monetary prize plus an additional amount to donate to the NGO of her choice. Karla and Flor didn’t have time to celebrate — they needed a few days alone to consider what it would mean to never return to the land of their birth. Karla was proud that she had lived honestly in El Salvador, not hiding her past as a sex worker, as someone who had spent time in jail and was HIV+, even when it put her at risk, but she also knew many trans women who had been murdered for their activism.
On Oct. 22, 2017, Karla and Flor requested asylum in Switzerland, and they were sent to a shelter for asylum seekers. “It was huge,” said Karla of the shelter, adding, “at first [the other migrants] treated us very badly. There was a lot of xenophobia directed at us because we were from Latin America.” After Karla was harassed by a group of African migrants, she and Flor were moved to another shelter where they spent 22 days. The shelter — in contrast to the U.S. detention system which often disregards the safety of the transgender community — provided all transgender asylum seekers with a private room with a kitchen and a bath and guaranteed their privacy and security. Karla and her mother were assigned a social worker to help them through the asylum process, a woman who initially called Karla by the name assigned to her at birth. Karla explained that although it was insulting, “I didn’t want to switch social workers — I wanted her to change and to have the chance to rectify.”
After three weeks at the shelter, Karla and her mother were given the choice of three small government subsidized apartments in a town where they could await their asylum hearing. Karla requested that the names of places where she has lived in Switzerland be omitted for her safety. She visited them all and picked the apartment that was closest to a hospital knowing that she would need to take care of some urgent health issues — a doctor in El Salvador at the Ministry of Health had diagnosed her with a terminal illness. And that is how Karla and Flor ended up in a studio apartment with just enough room for two single beds, a small sink, and a bathroom. “I invade her privacy as an older adult person and she invades my privacy as a trans person,” explained Karla as we sat at an open-air restaurant in October 2018. When I visited her, she and her mother were still stateless, slowly working their way through the asylum process while living off a small monthly stipend provided by the Swiss government. As Karla described the situation, “Although we were born in El Salvador, we no longer have Salvadoran nationality and we can’t travel. We live in Switzerland but we don’t have Swiss nationality so we are two stateless people and that is frustrating — not to be able to work, not to be able to study, not to be able to speak the language, to need to request a permit for everything.”
Even so, Karla was aware that she was lucky to be able to request asylum in Switzerland, a country where requesting asylum was not criminalized and where she could study French while waiting to hear the outcome of her request. “As far as being an activist, I’ve been really fortunate during the [asylum] process,” she explained. “Activism has provided me with support — both financial and moral — from friends and allied organizations that I met through my work.” At COMCAVIS TRANS, Karla had provided support to help trans women who wanted to migrate to the U.S. understand the asylum process and gathered documentation of the violence they had experienced. She had lived the violence that trans women experienced, and understood intimately why trans women sought asylum in the U.S. and Europe.
A 2019 study which COMCAVIS TRANS contributed to, “El Prejuicio No Conoce Fronteras” (“Prejudice Knows No Borders”), found that four LGBTQ people are murdered every day in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study showed that roughly 1,300 members of the LGBTQ community have been murdered in the region in the past five years, a figure that includes many of Karla’s trans friends. To put this data in context, which is important because violence against the LGBTQ community is often underreported, between 1990-2019, 350 trans women with whom Karla was friends in El Salvador or who she had met through work at COMCAVIS TRANS were murdered. Many countries in the region, like El Salvador, have few if any laws to protect the LGBTQ community, and since police and the army are often implicated in such violence, laws are rarely enforced.
Most Central American migrants still seek asylum in the U.S., but the number seeking asylum in Europe has increased nearly 4,000 percent in the last decade. Given the cost of paying smugglers and the violence of gangs controlling routes to the U.S., some Central American migrants have discovered that the journey to Europe is safer and cheaper. In Karla’s case, she never planned to migrate to Switzerland, but as soon as she requested asylum, she began networking with LGBTQ migrants from Central America across Europe to form a supportive community like the one she had created in San Salvador.
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The day we reunited in Switzerland, she greeted me in French, the skin around her eyes crinkling as she smiled. She wore jeans, light blue shoes, and a top with pink, blue, and black feathers. We sat in the golden late afternoon light and ordered fondue as we watched lean, youthful bodies jump into a nearby lake. Karla, her face relaxed, talked about the support the Swiss government had provided her to get medical care, describing how all tests for the terminal illness at the hospital had come back negative. She believed the diagnosis that she had received in El Salvador boiled down to doctors discriminating against her and misdiagnosing her as a form of “psychological torture” for being trans. “There are other concerns, right? But a negative diagnosis is the lottery for me right now,” she said.
Karla would also receive support to get reconstructive breast surgery and to fully transition into the body she had always dreamed of, a process that doctors said would take about three years. “In my youth, when I was 15, I injected mineral oil into my breasts,” Karla explained. “It is a do-it-yourself process in Latin America; some trans inject mineral, some airplane oil, some cooking oil, but they all are serious things over time.” When Karla had been beat up by the police in El Salvador — their way of punishing her for being a sex worker — they had hit her breasts, leaving behind hematomas that doctors in El Salvador diagnosed as a terminal illness. “That was news that emotionally destroyed me,” whispered Karla. The doctor in El Salvador had also told her, “What you need to do is look for God.” After being trapped in a body that was not aligned with who she felt she was and lied to by doctors in her own country, Karla was thankful to finally have doctors who respected her. Given that she had waited more than 40 years to fully transition to look and feel as she had always seen herself, three years would feel like no time at all.
Throughout the process of receiving asylum, the Swiss government provided Karla with comprehensive health care that respected her needs as a trans woman. “I am very lucky that the head HIV doctor speaks Spanish. She is from Argentina and she is fabulous,” said Karla, mentioning the compassion with which her team of doctors has treated her. Karla’s experience proved a marked contrast to the experience of trans women who seek asylum in the U.S. who: 1) are sent to detention centers rather than shelters like in Switzerland, 2) are often held in male detention centers in the US where they are likely to experience violence (Cibola County Correctional Center is the only ICE facility in the U.S. with a unit reserved exclusively for trans women), and 3) if they are HIV+, receive negligent medical treatment, which, in cases like those of Roxana Hernández and Joana Medina León, leads to death. In the U.S., migrants and asylees are treated like criminals in the billion-dollar detention business which is mostly run via private prison companies.
Even though laws protecting the LGBTQ community in Switzerland were stronger than in El Salvador, Karla still saw an opportunity to use her experience to provide support for others adjusting to a new home. “I’m thinking of founding an organization here for trans women migrants who are refugees,” Karla said as she dipped her bread in fondue. “We could raise funds and create a baseball or soccer teams for LGBTQ refugees.” She had turned over COMCAVIS TRANS to one of her co-workers, but she felt a lot of guilt about leaving her colleagues and her community and worried that they felt abandoned by her. “Talking about Comcavis brings up memories — and not only memories — it moves my heart because it is a project that was born out of necessity that I experienced firsthand as a [trans] person and that, in the end, became a reality and went on to benefit many people,” explained Karla. “I hope I can achieve this other trans dream.”
When we first met in San Salvador, Karla talked about how she responded to being a victim of countless acts of violence. “There is nothing to do but rebel,” she said. “Rebelling is one way and another is to claim your rights. The fact is you’ve got to claim the right to live because if you don’t claim it, you become a victim of that violation, of that aggression.” And the beauty of watching how Karla worked was seeing that she rebelled by claiming rights for the LGBTQ community, by creating spaces where they could feel safe and learn more about their legal rights.
After dinner, we walked around a lake, stopping to sit on a bench at dusk, the night gathering around us as we talked. Cruise ships lit up red and yellow passed by as Karla talked about how she had waited her entire life to change her name legally, and that as of June 21, 2018, she was officially Karla Avelar. “This has allowed me to not only feel good about myself, but to also feel good socially because I know that I can go to the bank, the grocery store or the pharmacy and that they will treat me like I want to be treated,” explained Karla. Her mother, whose house she fled when she was 9 because she was being abused by a family member and was rejected for her long hair and feminine gestures, had only become part of her life again after she was released from prison in 2002. Flor first called her Karla in 2017. “It was such a surprise that I couldn’t think of what to say. I just thought, ‘Wow, my mom called me Karla’ and from then on, she said ‘Karla’ except sometimes she called me my birth name because she would call me her son. But it made me very happy to see that she corrected herself and called me ‘Karla’ and then when she was speaking to people she would say, ‘This is my daughter.’”
Both mother and daughter struggled with their inability to work. “It was not easy for me to throw away my life’s dream,” Karla said, referring to her work at COMCAVIS TRANS. In March of 2018, Karla became depressed and didn’t get out of bed for two weeks. “I told my mom to close the curtains and leave the room dark. I was so helpless that I think I went a week without showering.” In those first months in Switzerland, she and her mother looked for places to cry alone until they slowly built up the confidence to cry openly in front of each other. But there were also days when Karla and Flor were immersed in French classes, thrilled at the opportunity to be learning in a supportive environment. And as news of Karla’s asylum request spread, she began to receive messages on Facebook from members of the LGBTQ community around the globe. “They called me and sent me hugs and nice emails — so many trans people did, people who I helped,” said Karla. She shared one Facebook message that read: “Karla, it took you a long time, but congratulations, you are now free.”
Karla had begun to participate in events and conferences, including a one about global refugees, and she was helping a doctoral thesis student at a university in Holland with her research into the motives that force trans women to migrate to Europe. “I helped her contact trans women in Europe who are requesting asylum. Here she will do interviews with a Panamanian, a Costa Rican and me, and then she will go to Italy, Spain, Madrid, Morocco.”
Karla stood up from the bench, walked to the lake’s edge, and hopped onto the white railing surrounding the lake, kicking her legs in the air and throwing her head back. “I am excited, excited because I want to learn another language,” she said smiling. As soon as she mastered French, which she knew would be difficult given how long she had been out of school, she wanted to learn a third language: English. On the first day of French class, she was the only Latin American in class, so she felt like a fish out of water and wished that the earth would open and swallow her. However, as she continued attending classes, her excitement won out over her nerves — and she was also proud that she had earned high marks from her demanding teacher. “I think that this is a country of respect, a country of opportunities, a country that gives you confidence. And you should treat that confidence like a treasure. I also think that it’s a very strict country that adheres to a lot of laws, to the rules, but therefore it guarantees a lot of rights,” Karla said.
As we walked back to her apartment, down brightly lit avenues, she talked about Flor and her bravery in fighting against a society that had discriminated against her for having a trans daughter. “I think my biggest inspiration is my mother. I’m sure it is my mom because sometimes I’m in bed and she suddenly gets up and it is 12 or 1 in the morning, and she is studying. Then I think to myself, ‘How strong is my mother’s willpower!’”
We walked up a narrow stairway and down a hall lined with trash cans to a thin wooden door. When Karla opened it, we saw Flor sitting on the bed on the right side of the room, a pencil in hand, working on her French homework while practicing her pronunciation under her breath. She stood up, all of five feet tall, her wiry black hair shot through with white in a ponytail, and said, Bonsoir! The cinder-block walls were painted white, and the beds, a few feet apart, were narrow. On the right side of the room was a tiny sink and a hotplate surrounded by a few dishes, and on the left side was a small, bare bathroom. There was just enough space for two people to move around without bumping into each other, but as Karla put it, “In reality, we invade each other’s privacy because there is just one room.”
Karla and I sat on her narrow bed, while Flor situated herself across from us on her bed. Flor and Karla had the same round cheeks that flushed whenever they were happy. We talked about Estrella, a trans woman whom Karla had introduced me to in San Salvador, who had received asylum in the U.S. and legally changed her name to Michelle. While Karla studied French in Switzerland, Michelle studied English in the U.S., something that brought them both joy given that they had been forced out of school in El Salvador due to discrimination. Over the two years of our relationship, Karla and Michelle often wrote me on Facebook, initially to discuss individual cases of injustice against trans women and later to celebrate the simple things they had always wished to do but been denied: to study, to work the job of their choice, to watch a same sex couple walk down the street peacefully hand in hand.
“I remember that when I started to express my gender, [the teachers] ordered me to cut my hair,” Karla said, looking back on her childhood. “I remember that my school teacher and director, who was named Francisco, said that because I identified as gay, I was ordered to collect shit from the toilets, from the latrines. I was ordered to collect rotten sludge for being queer. All those things force you not only to leave school but to abandon your studies. They condemn you, they condemn you to being poor, to pursuing sex work, to not being able to feed yourself, to ending up in prison because you have no preparation, no work, no home.” Karla, like Michelle, had faced discrimination in El Salvador from a young age. She remembered that when she founded COMCAVIS TRANS, she didn’t know how to turn on a computer. “Nobody was ever going to teach me, so I taught myself how to use Excel, Microsoft Word. I learned out of pure necessity,” described Karla. The last time we all saw each other on a street corner in San Salvador in August 2017, Michelle and Karla were both afraid of being assassinated by gangs, unsure of the future.
When I left their apartment that night, Karla and her mother were practicing French together, looking over their homework, reviewing their professors’ corrections, finding joy in an educational process they had both been denied for a lifetime. They began: un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix and worked their way up to 100, their bodies relaxed, their faces hopeful. “If it is going to take me 10, 15 years to learn French — it will take you less,” said Karla to Flor. “I am going to die trying,” she added, laughing.
Two months later, in early December 2019, while at home in Mexico City, I received a WhatsApp message from Karla: “I wanted to share my happiness. Today I received official notice that my asylum has been approved.” She attached a letter that she had written to share with family and friends. She wrote, “The road has not been easy, neither for my family nor for me, with episodes of depression, nostalgia, despair, loneliness, tears, furies and others. But here I am, enormously grateful with life for giving me a new opportunity to advance in peace, secure, calm, happy, free, and without risk of losing it at any moment because of my gender identity and my work as an LGBTI human rights activist in El Salvador and in the region.” Reading it, I remembered sitting in her office in San Salvador in 2017 as we weighed the threats against her life. She mused, “I believe, and I am very clear, that the country does not need martyrs. And I am very clear that I serve more alive than dead.” And so, in the land that first legally recognized her as Karla, she leaned in for the long haul, continuing to do the daily work that over time changes lives — mine, her mother’s, yours.
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*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
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Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and the author of More or Less Dead. She writes and produces radio for National Geographic, Time, CNN, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Las Raras Podcast and Oxford American.
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Editor: Mike Dang
Fact-checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo