Syrian refugee, gay activist visits Sierra College
When a soft-spoken Syrian refugee told his escape story to a Sierra College classroom on Saturday, it sounded like a taut Hollywood thriller: a young gay man, threatened and harassed by his hometown, family and Al Qaeda, flees Syria to neighboring Lebanon in a taxi. He bribes the driver and plays deaf and mute, knowing the risk that even his speaking voice could betray his sexuality, and passes through army and militia checkpoints until he reaches freedom – alone.
By the time Subhi Nahas was finished with the tale, silence and quiet crying in the audience broke into a standing ovation.
Presented by Prism-Q, a nonprofit resource center for LGBT people in Placer County, and working in partnership with Sierra College, Nahas was asked to speak about his experiences living in Syria as a gay man. Prism-Q President Denise Johnston said Nahas’ compelling story was worth sharing.
“We think it’s important to share the discrimination that people face here or (in) another part of the world. It’s an education event,” she said. “It’s a story that everyone should hear … putting a name and a face to a person who’s experienced such injustice.”
For LGBT people living in the Middle East, as Nahas explained, life was difficult well before Al Qaeda and ISIS emerged.
“Even before that, it was not a life. They don't call it a life because Syrian law criminalizes homosexuality by imprisonment for up to three years, and we were like outlaws in a way, and people did not recognize us and they didn't want us in the community. They thought that we were abnormal and unnatural things; we shouldn't be allowed to live and we should be quarantined,” he said. “One of the people that I heard – he said ‘They should all be quarantined, cured and then introduced again to the society.’ That was even before the war.”
Nahas recounted what he knew of Syrian society’s behavior toward the LGBT community: harassment, assault, violence, even honor killings by one’s own family, which are permissible by law. Nahas said one of his own friends had been violently attacked, brutalized, raped, stabbed and beheaded. Nahas’ own father had threatened him with a knife, and constantly monitored his behavior. The threat of being turned over to Islamic extremists hovered over his life. As videos have shown, this could have ended with him being stoned to death or thrown from a rooftop.
After escaping in a taxi in 2012 and finding himself not legally allowed to work in Lebanon, Nahas learned that he could assist refugees as an interpreter in Turkey. Fluent in English from years of schooling, Nahas was hired by an international non-governmental organization called Save the Children, and began his new life. Again the violence reemerged when a former schoolmate, now an ISIS operative in Turkey, threatened him with death, and Nahas was immediately moved to a safe house connected with a unit from the United Nation’s Higher Commissioner for Refugees. With the help of Save the Children, Subhi applied for political asylum in the United States, and though the vetting process can often take up to three years, the sponsorship of an international NGO got him to San Francisco after 11 months.
The culture shock of moving from the Middle East to San Francisco notwithstanding, Nahas has been surprised by racist rhetoric on television in the current election.
“I am still learning a lot about the politics in America, but when I see all this hate speech and people instigating others against each other, especially when it comes to sexuality, I see a pattern and I think that we should, the American people, should aspire beyond this pattern,” he said. “(People) should really learn and see from other cultures and things, what these fake teachings have done, and what people are doing with them.”
Sierra College was only the latest of many speaking engagements for Hahas, who was the first person to address the United Nations Security Council concerning the persecution of LGBT people under ISIS.
“When I arrived to the States … I had a naive thought that people know what's going on around the world to LGBT people. What I realized was that actually, nobody knows what's going on with LGBT people around the world, especially in the Middle East,” he said. “So I had this opportunity to go and testify in front of the United Nations and tell the world what's going on, what's happening through my personal experience, but at the same time I wanted to convey that this is not just me. It's everybody else. It's all the LGBT people, its women, even children … As an activist, this is the ultimate call that I want – I want people to know what's going on.”
With a group of friends, Nahas has created his own nonprofit, The Spectra Project, whose mission is “to help refugees, in particular LGBT refugees, in countries of transit like Turkey and Lebanon to have emergency support, education, access to health facilities and access to other facilities that they are denied access to.”
Asked what people in Placer County can do to help, Nahas said it starts with not turning a blind eye.
“Maybe volunteer some time, maybe spread the word, and talk about it,” he said. “Maybe just (don’t) look away from it.”
For more information about Prism-Q or The Spectra Project, visit www.prismq.org and www.wearespectra.org.