A Gay Syrian Refugee Rebuilds His Life in the Bay Area

Subhi Nahas (L) with Fred Hertz, who hosted him for his first two months in California. (Eli Wirtschafter/KQED)

Subhi Nahas remembers the exact day when he knew he’d have to leave Syria. It was in the spring of 2012. He was 24, on a bus, going to his 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 singled out Nahas.

He describes what happened next. “They take you to a room, and put you in a chair, where you’re all alone," he recalls. "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.

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And although Nahas 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 30 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,” Nahas says.

It wasn’t. They let him go without hurting him. But after that, Nahas 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.’”

Dangers at Home

The soldiers who messed with Nahas were from the Assad regime. But a few months later, rebels opposing Assad took root in Nahas’ city, Maarat al-Numan. They belonged to al-Nusra Front, which is the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. For Nahas, they were even worse than the regime. He remembers them announcing that they would “cleanse the city of sodomites.”

Fighters with the al-Nusra Front drive in the Syrian city of Aleppo, flying Islamist flags in 2015. For gay refugees like Nahas, they were even worse than the Assad regime.
Fighters with the al-Nusra Front drive in the Syrian city of Aleppo, flying Islamist flags in 2015. For gay refugees like Nahas, they were even worse than the Assad regime. (Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

“So I cannot go to university, I cannot go out,” Nahas remembers. “So I have to stay home all the time. But, then, staying at home was not safe, too.”

Like many LGBT people who become refugees, Nahas felt threatened by his own family. His parents never accepted the idea of a gay son. Nahas 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 Nahas. “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.”

Nahas 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,” Nahas 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. Nahas 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 Nahas, “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,” Nahas says.

Nahas started to get threatening phone calls.

“Because of what you're doing, promoting this perversion,” Nahas 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. Nahas remembers at one point getting 40 calls in a single hour.

He contacted ORAM, and asked how to get out of the country. They told him about the U.N.’s Refugee Resettlement Program.

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 U.N. for resettlement.

The U.N. resettles only people who are part of a persecuted group. One of those groups is LGBT people. But there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees. And less than 1 percent of them are resettled by the U.N.

“I never knew that my case would be, like, really accepted,” says Nahas.

The 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.”

Nahas 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,” Nahas says.

And then suddenly, with no more explanation than before, he found out that he was cleared.

Nahas 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 Nahas a room in their house in North Oakland. He lived there for two months before finding other housing. (Hertz’s partner requested not to be identified for this story).

Fred Hertz with Subhi Nahas, at Fred’s home.
Fred Hertz with Subhi Nahas, at Fred’s home. (Eli Wirtschafter/KQED)

Hertz got involved with LGBT refugee rights five years ago. “Here I am this successful gay lawyer living a liberated life,” says Hertz. “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.

Hertz 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, Nahas went back to Hertz’s house to prepare an elaborate lunch.

A watermelon and feta salad Subhi and Fred made together.
A watermelon and feta salad Subhi and Fred made together. (Eli Wirtschafter/KQED)

Nahas shows Hertz the way he learned how to cut a pomegranate without getting juice everywhere. The pomegranate goes on a roasted eggplant dish, which Nahas calls mlatash.

One of Hertz’s commitments as a sponsor was to help Nahas with his paperwork. JFCS East Bay, Nahas’s official resettlement agency, gave Hertz a list of all the appointments Nahas needed to get to.

When Hertz wasn’t available, he got his friends to help. Nahas 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 Nahas. “So you need somebody to be with you, and you need somebody to help you in the first steps.”

Now Nahas is working at ORAM -- the same organization he reached out to when he was in Turkey.

Nahas shows me a poster that he designed with ORAM. It says "You Are Safe Here" in a dozen languages, in rainbow colors. They’re sending it to refugee offices around the world.

Nahas 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, Nahas is on track to eventually get a green card and U.S. citizenship. But what sets his case apart is the bond he made with Hertz and the local gay community.

“It's a good feeling when you really know that somebody cares and loves you this much,” says Nahas. “It's life-changing.”

This article first appeared at KALW.org

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