Gay and Syrian: One refugee’s journey to San Francisco
San Francisco Film Festival's “Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America” introduces us to four young LGBTQ refugees who came to San Francisco from the Congo, Angola, and Syria. The Syrian man in that film, Subhi Nahas, was taken in by a couple in Oakland when he first arrived.
He shared his story with KALW's Eli Wirtschafter in February 2016. Since then, Nahas founded a non-profit called Spectra, that aims to support LGBTQ people in North Africa and the Middle East. He no longer works for ORAM.
Dangers at home
Subhi Nahas remembers the exact day when he knew he’d have to leave Syria. It was the Spring of 2012. He was twenty-four, on a bus, going to university to take a final exam. It was the last exam he needed to graduate.
He says they came up to a checkpoint, and a group of soldiers stopped the bus. They checked the IDs of all the young men, and then they pulled Subhi out from the rest of the group.
He described what happened next.
“They take you to a room and put you in a chair, where you’re all alone. The chairs, and the table, and the ground, they’re full of blood.”
These were Syrian government soldiers. They were cracking down on rebels who opposed the president, Bashar al-Assad.
And although Subhi had nothing to do with the civil war, these soldiers decided to pick on him anyway. They’d noticed that he looked different. He acted effeminate.
He says for thirty minutes they harassed him and called him homophobic names. He was scared for his life.
“And that moment I was like, feeling that - yeah that's the end of it,” Subhi says.
It wasn’t. They let him go without hurting him.
But after that, Subhi was too afraid to go back to school.
“When I came back home I was saying to myself, ‘What's the point of staying in Syria, while you cannot complete your studies? Without this, you cannot do anything.’”
The soldiers who messed with Subhi were from the Assad regime. But a few months later, rebels opposing Assad took root in Subhi’s city, Maarat al-Numan. They belonged to Al Nusra Front, which is the Syrian branch of Al Queda. For Subhi, they were even worse than the regime. He remembers them announcing that they would “cleanse the city of sodomites.”
“So I cannot go to university, I cannot go out,” Subhi remembers. “So I have to stay home all the time. But, then, staying at home was not safe too.”
"If you're not safe outside and you're not safe inside, you better run. Nobody's going to save you."
Like many LGBT people who become refugees, Subhi felt threatened by his own family. His parents never accepted the idea of a gay son. Subhi lived at home with them, but his father didn’t speak to him.
“Sometimes we did not even say good morning to each other,” says Subhi. “Even when we speak, he never expressed his emotions or feelings...Except when he’s really angry and he wanted to express how angry he is.”
One day, they were in the kitchen. They had a fight, and his father lost his temper.
“He grabbed my head from the back and he just smashed it into the kitchen counter.”
Subhi still has a scar on his chin.
“If you're not safe outside and you're not safe inside, and your family will not protect you from your father because your father has anger management issues, you better run,” Subhi says. “Nobody's going to save you.”
He immediately made plans to cross the border into Lebanon, where he had a friend he could stay with. This journey was legal, but he had heard horrible stories about gay people who were raped as they tried to get across. So he bribed a taxi driver to deal with all the checkpoints. Subhi sat in the back of the cab and pretended he couldn’t talk.
In refugee limbo
He stayed in Lebanon for six months. And then he moved to Turkey, where it was a little easier to be gay.
“It was a different, completely different experience,” says Subhi, “especially exploring myself, exploring my sexuality, trying to understand my body more.”
He even went to his first gay pride parade in Istanbul. It was there that he met a lawyer from a group called ORAM — the Organization for Refuge and Migration. They’re based in San Francisco and they advocate for LGBT refugees around the world. He kept the lawyer’s card.
“I never knew that my life would be threatened the next week after meeting them,” Subhi says.
Subhi started to get threatening phone calls.
“Because of what you're doing, promoting this perversion,” Subhi remembers the caller saying, “either you stop, or you deserve to die.”
He discovered that the caller was a friend of a friend who had joined ISIS. Subhi remembers at one point getting forty calls in a single hour.
He contacted ORAM and asked how to get out of the country. They told him about the UN’s Refugee Resettlement Program.
"You need somebody to be with you, and you need somebody to help you in the first steps."
Syrian migrants in Turkey have two basic options if they want to settle in another country. They can travel to a country like Germany, hoping they receive asylum, or they can petition the United Nations for resettlement.
To register with the UN's resettlement program, a refugee must be part of a persecuted group, such as a religious minority. LGBT people are covered by the program. But the UN submits less than one percent of all refugees for resettlement. When Subhi applied in 2014, there were already three million Syrian refugees.
“I never knew that my case would be really accepted,” says Subhi.
The UN only resettles people who are part of a persecuted group. One of those groups is LGBT people.
The application process took almost a year. He did interview after interview, screening after screening, until one day the Department of Homeland Security sent him a letter saying, effectively, “Your case has been deferred for further investigation, thank you.”
Subhi says this was the hardest part – not knowing if they’d ever get back to him. His friends at ORAM tried to keep his hopes up.
“They were like, calming me, helping me to, you know, digest the whole thing,” Subhi says.
And then suddenly, with no more explanation than before, he found out that he was cleared.
Subhi flew to California on June 4, 2015. He even knew who he was going to live with; an older gay couple in Oakland had agreed to be his sponsors – to host him in their home.
Home in the Bay Area
Fred Hertz and his partner gave Subhi a room in their house in North Oakland. He lived there for two months before finding other housing.
Fred got involved with LGBT refugee rights five years ago.
“Here I am this successful gay lawyer living a liberated life,” says Fred, “when someone comes forward saying there are gay people in trouble in other countries, how could I say no?”
He had donated time and money to ORAM, but hosting a refugee in his home was a much more personal commitment.
Fred says his biggest concerns were “things like, ‘oh my god, what if he gets here and has a nervous breakdown and locks himself in his room and doesn't come out for six months, what am I going to do?’”
But they got along like family. They especially enjoyed cooking Mediterranean food together.
Recently, Subhi went back to Fred’s house to prepare an elaborate lunch.
Subhi shows Fred the way he learned how to cut a pomegranate without getting juice everywhere. The pomegranate goes on a roasted eggplant dish, which Subhi calls mlatash.
One of Fred’s commitments as a sponsor was to help Subhi with his paperwork. JFCS East Bay, Subhi’s official resettlement agency, gave Fred a list of all the appointments Subhi needed to get to.
When Fred wasn’t available, he got his friends to help.
Subhi explained why – especially for LGBT refugees – creating that kind of community is essential.
Whereas most refugees might be resettled into a community from their home country, “if you’re an LGBT, most of the time you're escaping from your own community, or you're escaping from your family, or you have nobody,” says Subhi. “So you need somebody to be with you, and you need somebody to help you in the first steps.”
Now, Subhi is working at ORAM – the same organization he reached out to when he was in Turkey.
Subhi shows me a poster that he designed with ORAM. It says the words "You Are Safe Here" in a dozen languages, in rainbow colors. They’re sending it to refugee offices around the world.
Subhi has had a remarkably smooth transition into the United States. Some help came from the government – when they first arrive, refugees get a small stipend, food stamps, and health care. And like almost everybody in the refugee program, Subhi’s on track to eventually get a green card and US citizenship. But what sets his case apart is the bond he made with Fred and the local gay community.
“It's a good feeling when you really know that somebody cares and loves you this much,” says Subhi. “It's life-changing.”
This story first aired in February 2016.