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Meet the LGBTI Refugees Who Are Fleeing Syria for the U.S.

6 minute read

ISTANBUL: Jaafar Moustafa and Hasan Salem are counting down the days until they can board a plane in Istanbul, each with a one-way ticket to Oakland, California, and escape from the trauma and tragedy of their native Syria.

Moustafa, 26, and Salem, 30, are part of a very select group. They are among the 18,336 Syrian refugees whom the United Nations has recommended for resettlement in America since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Compared to the more than four million people who have escaped Syria, that number seems tiny—and it is. But most of the refugees the U.S. will try to take in for resettlement have extremely dire medical needs or can never return home because they will almost certainty face political, religious or social persecution.

For Moustafa and Salem, returning to Syria would be suicide. The two friends left the port city of Latakia, Syria on May 10, 2014. It’s a date they will never forget. The city they ran from remains under the grip of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose war with an array of rebel groups has killed over 200,000 Syrians and displaced millions more. But neither Assad’s brutality nor the fear of their hometown one day falling under the control ISIS are why these men abruptly fled their home. Both Moustafa and Salem are gay, and they left Latakia because they were outed.

“We could never be out of the closet in Syria,” said Moustafa. “You can’t tell people that you’re gay and live a normal life.”

After relatives found emails between the two about a LGBTI conference in neighboring Turkey, staying in Syria was no longer possible. Moustafa was afraid his uncle would kill him, and Salem feared his own father would murder him. So the two packed what they could and flew to Istanbul together, joining the more than 1.5 million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey.

Moustafa and Salem were lucky—in Istanbul a UN caseworker deemed them highly vulnerable refugees. Because they are at such high risk of becoming victims of a hate crime, they fall into the category of refugees most in danger and best suited for resettlement. When refugees like Salem and Moustafa face having their fundamental human rights violated, resettlement becomes the most appropriate solution, according to UN regulations.

Salem and Moustafa’s caseworker determined that America would be the safest place for them. When they left Syria, they had no connection to California. To this day, they have no clue why the UN recommended they be resettled in the U.S. and not somewhere in Europe, though family ties and language skills are factors when finding refugees a new home. While Moustafa and Salem have no relatives in America, they both speak some English. Their basic English skills could now be why their potentially lethal “outing,” has become a blessing in disguise.

“I feel very lucky, of course,” said Salem. In California, “society will accept me.”

But while these two no longer have to live in fear of their families brutally attacking them, they are leaving the only home they’ve ever known for a new life in a foreign country.

Peter Vogelaar, head of Affiliated Services at the International Catholic Migration Committee, says refugees like Salem and Moustafa who ICMC helps resettle in America are told, “streets aren’t paved with gold. There are a lot of challenges. Making ends meet is going to be very hard to do.”

Once the UN recommends a refugee in Turkey to be resettled in the U.S., non-profits like ICMC in Istanbul are summoned to provide the asylum seeker everything from a thorough medical exam to a translator for an in-depth interview with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS agents are tasked with ensuring the refugee poses no security risk to the U.S. Salem and Moustafa also had to respond to a series of questions designed to confirm they truly would face death at the hands of their relatives if they were to return to Latakia.

When Moustafa and Salem land in California next month, U.S.-based non-profits will help them find work and classes to improve their English. Before they land jobs they’ll be eligible for U.S. federal assistance, like food stamps, but won’t be given a stipend to get started—as refugees are in Europe. The responsibility will ultimately be on them to make their resettlement successful.

Of the 18,336 refugees the UN recommends the U.S. adopt, only about 1,500 of them have already completed the lengthy resettlement process and moved to America. It’s not clear how many of them are LGBTI. “In some countries of asylum, gender identity may make refugees particularly vulnerable and in others it may not,” said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

With White House pledging to take in at least 10,000 Syrians this upcoming fiscal year, Moustafa and Salem are part of a pioneering group of refugees. They say they are up to the challenge of adapting to a new country—a prospect that seems significantly less scary after surviving wartime Syria.

The two will arrive in their new country emotionally scarred from experiencing Syria’s civil war. Since their hometown remains under Assad’s control, Latakians were not pounded daily with barrel bombs from the Syrian Air Force. But even so, Moustafa says life in Latakia is, “still miserable.” If you dare to publicly speak out against the relentless regime, “they arrest you immediately,” he says. And the crackling of gunfire they frequently heard reminded them the front was not so far away.

“War, blood, I saw many things,” said Salem.

While Salem hopes to continue his career as a computer technician, Moustafa intends to seek a position in social work once in Oakland. He wants to be an LGBTI activist and help other gay refugees. And above all else, they want the freedom to be “out” in the open.

“It’s a liberal country and you can follow your dreams,” said Moustafa. His American Dream is to fall in love and eventually marry. It is a dream that could never turn into reality in Syria.

“I want to live a normal life. I want to feel safe. I want basic things that everybody should have.”

These Photos Show the Massive Scale of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Greece Migrants
Syrian and Afghan refugees warm themselves and dry their clothes around a fire after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, early on Oct. 7, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
migrant refugee greece
A migrant who recently arrived across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, watching a ferry in the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, Greece, on Oct. 5, 2015.Zoltan Balogh—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos Greek islands
An Afghan wades to the shore after arriving in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the coast near Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos island, Greece, Oct. 1, 2015. Filip Singer—EPA
Syrian refugees Lesbos Greece
Syrian refugees are covered with life blankets upon arriving to the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 28, 2015. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
migrants refugees Lesbos
Migrants and refugees arrive on Sykamia beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2015. Iakovos Hatzistavrou—AFP/Getty Images
Croatia Migrants
Migrants and refugees board a train by climbing through the windows as they try to avoid a police barrier at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
Croatia Migrants
A Syrian refugee boy cries while he and his family try to board a train at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015.Manu Brabo—AP
migrants hungary serbia border clash
A migrant holds his child during a clash with Hungarian riot police at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015.Sergey Ponomarev—The New York Times/Redux
migrants serbia
Migrants sleep on a highway in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
Hungary Serbia border
A wagon equipped with razor wire is placed at the border between Hungary and Serbia in Roszke, some 10 miles southeast from Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 14, 2015, to close the gap of the temporary border fence at the Horgos-Szeged railway line. Balazs Mohai—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos
A refugee reacts from exhaustion while swimming towards the shore after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 13, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis—Reuters
refugees migrants Hungary
Syrian people sleep inside a greenhouse at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Hungary Migrants refugees children
Syrian refugee Raed Alabdou, 24, holds his one-month old daughter Roa'a, while he and his wife hide in a field not to be seen by Hungarian policemen, after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
refugees migrants macedonia
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian police to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, on Sept. 10, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
refugees migrants Morahalom Hungary
Migrants run over a motorway from a collection point that had been set up to transport people to camps in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 9, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
syrian refugee migrant hungary
A young Syrian man from Damascus tries to evade the Hungarian police by sneaking through a forest close to the Serbian border in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 8, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
refugees migrants Serbia
Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary in Horgas, Serbia, on Sept. 7, 2015.Dan Kitwood— Getty Images
refugee migrant Lesbos
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Sept. 7, 2015. Angelos Tzortzinis—AFP/Getty Images
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A migrant scrambles to climb back aboard a rubber dinghy full of his fellow Syrians as they try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum in the European Union, late on Sept. 6, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A Syrian migrant aboard a flimsy rubber motorboat hands his one-month-old baby to Greek coast guards, who have arrived to rescue the boat full of migrants from dangerous waters near the border between Greece and Turkey, early on Sept. 7, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Greece Migrants
A young Syrian boy is wrapped with a thermal blanket as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 7, 2015.Petros Giannakouris—AP
Greece Migrants
Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Giannis Papanikos—AP
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, on Sept. 6, 2015.Marko Djurica—Reuters
migrant refugees train macedonia
Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border in Macedonia, on Sept. 4, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Italy Migrants refugees
Migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian Siem Pilot ship sailing along the Mediterranean sea, on Sept. 2, 2015. Gregorio Borgia—AP
Aylan Kurdi boy drowned
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Reuters
Migrant crisis
Dozens of refugee families, mostly from Syria, camped near the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 2, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Migrant crisis
A Syrian migrant bids farewell to the Hungarian volunteers who welcomed him upon his arrival in the European Union in Szeged, Hungary on Aug. 30, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
refugees migrants Hungarian-Serbian border
A father of a migrants family is arrested by the local police near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on Aug. 28, 2015.Attila Kisbender—AFP/Getty Images
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Aug. 27, 2015. Bernadett Szabo—Reuters
Hungary border fence migrants refugees
Hungarian soldiers install a wire fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia near Hercegszanto, 115 miles southeast from Budapest, on Aug. 25, 2015. Tamas Soki—EPA
syrian migrant refugee girl greece
A little girl from Syria looks out of a bus as the ferry she arrived in is reflected in the bus window at the port of Piraeus, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Macedonian police clash with refugees at blocked border
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Aug. 21, 2015.Georgi Licovski—EPA
Calais migrants
Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, Calais, France on July 30, 2015.Rob Stothard—Getty Images
Kos Migrants Greece
Life vests and a deflated dinghy are seen on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, following the arrival of Afghan immigrants, on May 30, 2015.Yannis Behrakis—Reuters

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