Like many refugees, Ovileya Myrah is no longer who she once was.
But Ovileya was once Ovil, and that change has made her journey all the more arduous and her current situation all the more inspiring.
Born in Bangladesh as a boy, Ovileya knew herself to be female at a very young age. She spent many years at the mercy of bullying peers and the object of insults and harassment, even from her own family.
“My family made me feel that I have a wrong life,” she reflected. “Always I feel I’m not a normal human being.”
Today, however, Ovileya is living in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesvos, and she is officially, legally recognized as a woman. With the help of HIAS Greece, Ovileya recently won her case in court to have her gender changed on her identification papers.
The change was not only important for Ovileya’s mental well-being; it was essential to her getting the proper official recognition of her refugee status and receiving refugee benefits.
“Ovileya is a genuine refugee and she should have been recognized as one,” Vassilis Kerasiotis, Country Director of HIAS Greece, said.
First Ovileya was recognized as a refugee and then went to court to fight for the gender and name change recognition. HIAS took the case, realizing how important it was to Ovileya and how important it could be for others if a precedent was set. The court ruled not only in favor of the change from Ovil to Ovileya, but also a change in her surname, which neither Ovileya nor Kerasiotis was expecting.
“I wasn’t sure that the court would accept that,” Kerasiotis said just days after the decision. “It’s a progressive interpretation of the law.” Greece recognized rights of transgender people in 2017.
In the ruling, the court said: “...it can be concluded that the female gender, the name X, and the surname Y are for her the necessary and permanent characteristics of her personality, with which she is recognized in the family and social environment. The current inconsistency between the applicant’s appearance and her formal identification and documents poses a serious problem in her daily life and can cause serious confusion in her transactions.”
HIAS has helped Ovileya apply for the changes in documentation, and she is waiting for a new passport and a residence permit with her new gender identification.
“It is the best feeling when you can help people,” Kerasiotis said. “ It’s important. This is a small case but with a maximized impact.”
Ovileya is comfortable in Mytilene and can apply for Greek citizenship in three years. She has a job as a kitchen assistant where she helps cook traditional Indian foods, such as biryani and chicken korma. She has always wanted to be a beautician, but finding a job has been difficult. While she wants a better life, she recognizes how far she has come.
“Now I have a normal life. I must say thanks to HIAS and Vassilis,” she said. “I really appreciate.”
Looking back on her childhood and her road to escape it, it is difficult to imagine the emotional trauma Ovileya has endured. She speaks in even tones about being raped, kidnapped, her suicide attempts, and the inability to be in a safe place. In testament to her fortitude and her approach to life, she relates the events and then moves on with her story.
Today Ovileya has a partner, also a refugee, who she connected with on Facebook and met up with in the Moria camp on Lesvos. Usman is from Pakistan and he also escaped an unforgiving family and made his way to Turkey and then to Greece. When they were in the refugee camp together Usman protected Ovileya and they are outwardly a couple, participating in the Lesvos LGBTIQ+ Refugee Solidarity group. They have been in the press before, and a film director even has plans to make a short documentary about them.
With Usman and good friends who are kind and supportive, Ovileya has continued her change, starting her hormone medications several months ago. She sounds resilient, as ever.
“I will never hide myself anymore,” she said.
Asked about her future, her answer is a bit cryptic but also understandable.
“My plan is to start life,” she said.