When I learned about President Trump’s executive order indefinitely banning Syrian refugees from the United States, I was devastated. As a gay Syrian refugee who was able to build a new life in the United States, I had flashbacks to the terrifying months and years leading up to my arrival here.
As a new American and proud Californian, I was glad to see the Ninth Circuit ruling that refused to reinstate the executive order. But the future of the United States’ refugee program is still uncertain. I fear that others like me will be forced to face danger and possible death.
For many LGBT people around the world, reaching safety through the refugee and asylum process is crucial. LGBT status is criminalized in more than 70 countries, and even where it isn’t we often face discrimination, persecution, and violence. Many of us have no choice but to flee the countries where we were born and raised.
In Syria, LGBT status is a crime, punishable by up to three years in jail. While this law is seldom enforced, it sanctions homophobia and contributes to a dangerous climate for LGBT people. Growing up north of Damascus in the city of Idlib, I faced relentless bullying in school for being effeminate. When I was a teenager my parents discovered that I was gay and for many years I became a prisoner in my home, subjected to abuse and homophobia by my own family.
After the war began in Syria things for LGBT people got much, much worse. Bullying and discrimination gave way to brutality and violence.
One day in 2012 Syrian soldiers stopped the bus I was riding and they took me and other passengers to a secluded house. There they mocked me and mercilessly spewed anti-LGBT slurs. I was certain I would be killed. Miraculously, I was released.
Soon after I began to hear news of Al Qaeda’s brutal killings of LGBT people. I was terrified to leave my home, yet even there I wasn’t safe. I lived in constant fear that my father would reveal that I was gay and that I would become the next victim of Al Qaeda.
I decided I had to try to escape. I fled to Lebanon and then to a city near the Syrian border in Turkey, where I worked as an interpreter. Even there, I was in danger. I received death threats from a former friend who had joined ISIS. The terrorist group’s power had grown and its members had infiltrated the Turkish border town. I knew I could not stay and I could not go home.
I had become a refugee. After UNHCR referred me for resettlement consideration, I went through countless detailed interviews with U.S. officials, background checks, and a wait that seemed endless, before finally being approved for resettlement in the United States. I was overjoyed and relieved.
I arrived in the United States in June 2015. It is difficult to fully recover from living in constant fear, but I have managed to move forward. I love the life I have built here in San Francisco. I can work, be my true self, and help others. I recently founded an organization, Spectra Project, to support LGBT refugees fleeing persecution around the world.
I never thought I would be able to help other LGBT refugees or share my story publicly. But in December 2015, I became the first openly gay civilian ever to speak before the U.N. Security Council. I had the full support of the United States government—a situation that would’ve been unimaginable in Syria, where my own government rejected me.
Last summer I was a grand marshall of the LGBT Pride Parade in New York City. Surrounded by thousands of cheering supporters, I felt a sense of belonging. I was finally free. I’m saddened by the stark difference between the warm welcome I have received and what this executive order represents. I yearn for my LGBT friends in Syria and around the world to experience the love of the American people that I know is characteristic of this country.
While we don’t know yet what the Trump Administration will do next, it seems clear that it still falsely believes that banning refugees will protect the United States from terrorists. But refugees aren’t terrorists, President Trump. We’re human beings fleeing from terror and longing to live our lives in freedom and safety.