Couple seeking shelter from fires denied home for the night ‘as they’re gay’

A gay couple and their young child have said they faced discrimination and were denied shelter during the devastating wildfires in Rhodes due to alleged homophobia. Sean Palmer, 34, and Matt Smith, 35, were forced to evacuate their hotel in Pefkos on the east coast of Rhodes after receiving an emergency text message in the middle of the night on July 22.

They said they looked from their balcony and could see flames and ash falling from the sky “like it was snowing”. They were able to sleep at a local school, and were then offered a house to stay in temporarily. However, the offer was abruptly withdrawn when the homeowner discovered Sean and Matt were in a same-sex relationship.

The homeowner said he had been expecting a “family”, to which Sean responded, “We are a family”. But the owner said they are “not a man and woman” and left without taking them. 

Sean said: “I guess it’s up to them who they have in the house – you can’t really fault that, I suppose, but if we had been a man and woman then we would have been given a house. We were just absolutely gobsmacked.”

The family flew from Newcastle to Rhodes on July 18 for what was supposed to be their first family holiday with Tui.

A few days after landing they heard the news a fire had broken out on the island. Sean said: “The water and electric was on and off at the hotel. By the Friday, you could tell the fires had gotten a lot worse because you could smell the smoke.”

The next day Sean said the whole island saw the electric drop. He said: “It must have been around one or two in the afternoon. We were just sitting there, when the electric just dropped on the whole island. It just felt closer, because the fires had obviously reached the main electric supply.”

They manage to find a restaurant which was being kept going via a generator but could see the flames from their hotel balcony when they returned that night. Sean said: “We probably went to sleep around 11pm and left our phones on loud, just in case.”

He said less than an hour later they received an emergency text message from the government saying, if you are in Pefkos, evacuate now. Sean added: “We just went into panic mode. I just felt sick and thought is this really happening? How close is the fire getting? We went to reception and there were alarms going off everywhere. It just didn’t feel real.”

They were told to wait in the hotel car park where they were told “hundreds of people” were waiting for a bus to take them away.

Sean added that at that point they had “not heard anything from Tui or been contacted by a rep or anything”. The bus didn’t take them to the airport, instead dropped them off at a school. Sean recalled: “We were welcomed by a head teacher and it was literally a case of finding a room.”

Conditions were far from ideal, as he added: “We had to put towels on the floor for a bed. There was no electric, no water and as you can imagine, the toilets were absolutely disgusting.”

However the locals rallied and provided food and water during the night. Sean said: “At around 10 in the morning one Tui rep rocked up and everyone was asking questions but they didn’t really have a clue.”

A local told Sean they had found a house for him and his family to stay in as “you couldn’t get a flight off the island, there were no hotels free and Tui weren’t doing anything”.

Sean said: “About an hour later, a man turned up and started putting our cases in the car. He said, ‘I got told family’ and I said ‘Yeah, we are a family’. He said, ‘But you are not man and woman’ and I say: ‘Yeah, but we’re a family’.”

The man spoke to a teacher but then took their bags out of his car and drove away. The family then took on the offer of a room at a homeless shelter.

Tui eventually contacted them and instructed them to pack their bags and make their way to the airport. They were able to catch a flight to Manchester, where Matt’s father came to collect them and drive them home. Sean said: “We had been awake from six o’clock on the Saturday morning until 11 on the Monday. But we were just grateful to be back in the UK.”

Although Sean reported the homophobic incident to the British consulate, he does not have the name or address of the homeowner.

Tui has offered Sean a £250 voucher per person, a refund for the missed nights at the hotel due to the evacuation, and coverage for transportation expenses such as the cost of taxis to the airport and fuel from Manchester to Newcastle.

But Sean claimed he was told over the phone that the company would also pay for their flights home given they were repatriated and “did not have a holiday”.

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A spokesperson for Tui UK&I said: “We understand how distressing and difficult it’s been for those who had to leave their hotels and curtail their holidays due to the wildfires in Rhodes.

“We have offered Mr Palmer’s group a pro-rata refund for the nights of their holiday that were affected, as well as expenses that were incurred after flying back to the UK on one of our emergency repatriation flights.

“Mr Palmer has also been offered an additional holiday voucher as a gesture of goodwill. Unfortunately, Mr Palmer has rejected this offer. Our teams worked round the clock to offer support and we brought in many additional reps to help assist as soon as the situation escalated. They did their utmost in challenging and difficult situations, collaborating with the local authorities who managed the immediate evacuation.”

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