Resettled in the Heart of America: Part 5

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Shadi Ismail (to the extreme right) with his flatmates at his home in Idaho. (Angie Smith)

Fleeing Syria for “Freedom to Live”: Shady’s Story

Since the start of the Syrian conflict and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, the United States has provided significant aid assistance, but accepted far fewer Syrian refugees than other host countries.

While U.S. president Barack Obama set a target of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 30, only about 1,000 refugees arrived from Jordan in April as part of the “surge program.” Most were relocated to Kansas City, Missouri. Meanwhile, Germany, with a population of more than 80 million, has pledged 35,000 places for Syrian refugees, and Turkey currently hosts 2.7 million, although under a “temporary visitor” status. More than 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, a small country of about 4.4 million citizens.

With a population of more than 300 million, the U.S. has resettled about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the war began, a paltry number, as most humanitarian agencies describe the low intake. The State Department has announced plans to accept another 8,000 Syrian refugees, and more than 15,000 are being screened for eligibility. But the process takes an average of 18–24 months.

With more than 13.5 million Syrians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and more than 50 percent of the population currently displaced, it is easy to forget that each individual has a story, and that each struggle is unique. While brutal fighting between the Syrian regime and various opposition forces is the most obvious cause of the humanitarian crisis, there are other complex, interlinked reasons for a person to flee Syria in search of a better life.

In Shadi Ismail’s case, his sexual orientation was his primary reason for fleeing his homeland. Homosexuality is illegal under Syrian law, punishable by up to three years of imprisonment. Public torture and execution of homosexuals are considered accepted punishments under Sharia law by both the Islamic State and al-Nusra, a Sunni-Islamist militia that is often referred to as the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. But in Shadi’s case it was the painful betrayal of his trust by his own family members that made life in Syria impossible.

Shadi escaped from Syria because he feared his family would punish him for being gay. He led a clandestine life in Jordan for three and half years, interviewing every three to six months with UNHCR in the hopes of being granted refugee status. Life was just as hard in Jordan as in Syria. Every time an employer found out he was gay, he would be fired and sometimes beaten up. As a result, he was often homeless, living in secrecy and with an imposed sense of shame. When he was finally granted refugee status and came to Boise four years ago, he says, he found tolerance and acceptance. It is in this small northwestern city of just over 200,000 people that Shadi feels like his life really began.

Shadi’s Words:

My family found out I was gay and they burned my arm – this one here – with charcoal. They tried to burn the “gay” out of me. I ran away because I knew I would be killed. I ran away from my dad and my family to Damascus to join my mom. But my mom was scared of my dad, so she sent me back to him. She told me, “Stay home today, I need you.” But then I looked out the window and I saw people coming. I saw my cousin and other familiar faces. So I jumped out and I ran. I had nothing with me. They would have taken me to my dad and … you can imagine what would have happened.

Did you know, I am the first Syrian here in Idaho and also gay? I didn’t speak English before but learned quickly. Now I work for a food-processing company. I am a team leader of a department. It’s amazing as I have never been to school. The resettlement agency did a very good job. They showed me how to interview for jobs and ask for applications. I received a lot of help when I first came to America. Since I started my job I said, “I don’t need the help anymore.” So I returned all of the stuff they gave me and said, “Give it to other people who need it.”

From the first day, I have loved Boise. Everything – the green, the people. We have a phrase in Arabic: “Heaven without people is not heaven.” The people here and the attitudes are like heaven for me. We never lock the door because we don’t need to. If you get lost, you can ask anyone for help. I got offered a few jobs outside of Boise, but I don’t want to move.

Before moving to Boise, I never said openly that I am gay. Only in my heart I said I am gay, but never out in the open in Syria or Jordan. Here, I can say I am gay and I am proud of it. For example, my boss at work, she is very Christian, but she does not care if I am gay. She cares that I am doing a good job and I am a nice person. I am just trying to build my life and people here respect that. American people respect anyone trying to build their lives. In my opinion, they love seeing anyone working hard to put their lives together.

Sometimes I get very homesick. Sometimes I feel I am on my own. I have lost my language and my boyfriend. We broke up because I am here and he is back in Jordan. He was my first love. We were undercover and everyone thought we were best friends. That was the worst.

Recently, I have heard a lot of people here saying they don’t want refugees here. They have a right to be scared, but look at the other side. Refugees were here well before the Paris attacks happened. Bad people are everywhere. I can’t tell them what they should do because the feeling should be in their hearts. But if they open their hearts they will change a lot of peoples’ lives, even one person like me as I might have been dead by now. If they open their minds, they will see that a nice word from them could change someone’s life. Love is an amazing feeling.

This series has been produced in collaboration with Stronger Shines the Light Inside – a photography project that tells the collective story of resettled refugees in Idaho in the lead-up to World Refugee Day on June 20.

Posted in Refugees Deeply.

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