The event last week “The Middle Eastern Refugee Crisis: The Personal Experience from an LGBTQ Perspective,” touched on a very specific group of minorities in the Middle Eastern refugee community. The event was put on by peer advisors Bisma Shahbaz and Aysel Demirbag, and international studies student and Foghorn EIC Nureen Khadr, alongside the International Studies department. We were honored to have Subhi Nahas, Ali Khoie, and Neil Grungas, speak to us here on campus. Nahas and Khoie are both refugees living in the U.S., and Neil is an immigration attorney from ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration) who gave the audience a legal framework to examine the process of seeking asylum and achieving refugee status.
Nahas and Khoie, like many refugees (especially those that identify as LGBT+), experienced a myriad of hardships in their home countries. Homophobia-based persecution leads to many diverse psychological effects. Those struggling to understand and live as their true selves are forced to hide their identity from their community out of fear of imprisonment, social isolation, and even death. Both men explained how the lack of support, the constant hiding, and the fear has led many to self harm and suicide.
Khoie, from Iran, described the struggles of living as a “stranger to the people supposed to be the closest to you.” Interestingly enough, Khoie mentioned that Iran has the highest rate of sex changes in the world, because in most cases undergoing a sex change is perceived to be easier than living as a LGBT+ individual in the Middle East. In a region where homosexuality is viewed an illness meant to be cured or grown out of, this event gave USF students a small glimpse into just how abrasive life is under such conditions and why many choose to flee everything they know in search of a more tolerant future.
Nahas is a refugee from Syria who was not only persecuted by his government but also by his own family because of his sexual orientation. Unlike many refugees, Nahas was able to leave Syria and eventually to tell his story to the audience of the United Nations Security Council. Nahas and Khoie currently live in San Francisco and work for ORAM, an organization that aids refugees in gaining asylum/refugee status, and helps in the transition process to their new homes.
Khoie similarly faced persecution by both his government and those close to him. Turkey served as the transit nation for both refugees, but being from different countries, they were not afforded the same rights as one another. Nahas, considered a guest, was able to obtain legal work. Khoie, not considered as a guest, but a refugee, was not allowed to work legally in Turkey.
Both men spoke on the challenges of living in a transition nation such as the language barriers, housing difficulties, ability to obtain legal work and the consequences of having to work illegally to sustain oneself (including involvement in sex work, discrimination, and ostracization).
After having been able to move out of the Middle East and to the United States, Khoie showcases both his joy and his transition struggles in the idea of being “born again in the U.S. at the age of 38”. Living in a country so very different from their home nation poses many struggles, the plight of a refugee does not end once they are relocated. Khoie and Nahas serve as examples of minorities within a minority-in the United States, they face discrimination based on that facts that they are an ethnic minority, a minority in being a refugee, and a minority in their sexual orientation.
“The fact that Subhi, Neil, and Ali were extremely cooperative and responsive made the process much more easier than I had expected. It’s important to have events that showcase the voices and stories that are marginalized in such horrible times,” said Shabaz.
In hearing the struggles of the speakers, the audience was reminded of the injustices occurring around the globe and may be inspired to contribute in whatever way possible to change the world from here. “It is easy to lump all victims of a conflict together, but some people are more marginalized than others, and we cannot ignore that fact, and it must be brought to light so something can be done about it,” said Shabaz.
Photo courtesy of Nureen Khadar