Elie Ballan is the director of M-Coalition, an organization based out of Lebanon that works on promoting sexual health and rights of MSM throughout the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region.
MSMGF: Tell us a little bit about the context you work in.
Elie: M-Coalition works on LGBT rights in a region where it is 100% criminalized. The HIV epidemic in the MENA region is concentrated among MSM, IDU and Sex workers, with all the region laws criminalizing behaviors of these Key Populations, the HIV work is constrained and needs to configure safe and healthy environments to deliver to affected populations. It is important for us to bring out the voice of the LGBT community but it is not always safe in a region dominated by discriminative and harsh laws. Countries in our region are slowly digesting the fact that to abolish the AIDS epidemic in the region, it is important to work for and with Key Populations to eradicate new infections and AIDS related deaths.
MSMGF: Tell us about the general strategy/direction that your network is using in the HIV response within the region you operate in.
Elie: We believe that education is the first step in the battle for an AIDS free MENA region. Educate MSM on better care for their heath, on safer sex and knowledge on HIV (which does not really exist in a region where sex education does not exist). We also believe that educating the public and rounding up our allies would contribute to the growth of the community and decreasing new HIV infections and AIDS related deaths, which also opens up a window of communication among MSM/LGBT networks and HIV/AIDS organizations and paves the way to better communication and understanding. We also work with smaller communities and in country organizations to empower them and build their capacity to work and provide assistance on different aspects which allows them to grow. We also believe in the use of technology and social media in educating the masses and pointing out different issues which our community faces.
MSMGF: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Elie: I found out I had HIV when I was 20 years old, and I was quite alone during that time, without many NGOs to help or other individuals living with HIV to talk to. It allowed me to work with some organizations as a volunteer but I was still shy and afraid. It took many years before I could stand up for myself, learn to live with the stigma and face the MSM community in Lebanon. I slowly started getting more involved in activism work, and went on to start work with M-Coalition where I started to grow slowly but still feel incapable. It was only when I realized that I needed to be open about my HIV status that really started to grow. By coming out on facebook about my HIV I had taken a commitment to raise the cause of my community further. I am challenged everyday by being strong for myself and other around me, I am challenged in always having the energy to listen, or to lend a shoulder. However, I do find the courage to carry on, and to lend out a helping hand, or a crying shoulder, or sometimes a referral. This strength comes from the love I receive from my family, and from others around me, and from my previous pain and loneliness which I chose to not let those who seek my help have to face.
I am touched whenever someone from my community reaches out to me and shares their HIV status with me because they trust in me. That is the greatest gift I could ask for, for my community to trust me.
Attending my very first AIDS conference in Durban 2016, meeting all these amazing people, and being in such a place where living with HIV was not weird, or dangerous or evil, surrounded by these amazing people who have conquered and been places and overcome so much, all while drawing a beautiful smile on their faces that glows as they passed me by, that was when I decided that I wanted to share my story with the world and try and let this hope I got from those I met shine onto others who meet me.
MSMGF: Knowing that you work in a network that is part of a Consortium of other regional and global networks, what does it mean to you to be a member of a global community of activists? How important to you is it to be connected to other activists in different regions with different contexts?
Elie: This reminds me the story of the twigs and the bundle of twigs: alone we can be broken, discouraged and weak, but together we are strong and our voice has more effect. For the M-Coalition it has been a great learning opportunity, to see all these wonderful activists from around the world working for the same cause. We have felt that our voice has a louder reach together, and when our outcomes combined we can see our effect as a global community on the AIDS epidemic as a whole. This opportunity also helped us discover how our consortium friends have overcome challenges and how we as a network helped inspire others too. For myself as an individual I feel proud to be alongside such great activists who have poured their hearts and energy into saving lives. When the entire world has become one village, it just seems natural that the connection between us activist from different points of the globe become stronger, after all the song makes it much easier, “United we stand, divided we fall!”