Barbara Khan: A Proud Refugee

In an interview with the We Refugees Archive team, refugee and South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan talks about her identity as a trans-refugee and New York as a city of refugees. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

 Apart of your identity as a transwoman, do you also have an identity as a refugee? Is this a label that you identify with?

I do. I did. I’m kind of proud of it… When you meet other people like yourself, you feel like, you know what, you’re not the only one. I felt like that. I had to run away. I did not belong there. I felt like if I would have stayed there, I would either be punished for who I wanted to live as, and I want it to be somewhere where I would be left alone to live my life. And that’s how I felt like in New York, being that it’s a big metropolis and every kind of person is here in New York from all around the world. And it is true that if you know how to find yourself, you can find yourself in New York. And if you have lived here and survived here you can live anywhere. So, I feel like I’m one of the biggest refugees. I am.

Would you say New York is a city of refugees?

I would say, yes, at least to me. I’m not sure how much of welcoming city it is nowadays where refugees like people from Syria, people from African countries, people from Muslim countries where queer folks are not wanted, are being subjected to different kind of abuse – it’s a huge refugee population here. You just have to find your community and you could live.

Has the worsening political situation influenced your life or your community in some shape or form? Do you feel changes or feel less safe in America?

The whole past government before Biden, Kamala Harris, the whole movement of “Make America great again” still has it marks… there are laws which are coming out in Florida or in Texas where they’re asking people to report parents who are getting treatment for kids with transsexual identities. And they’re kind of giving awards to people who would come up and bring these parents out. But at least we are in a democratic government where we can feel a little safe, when we didn’t four or five years ago. There are still laws where transwomen cannot use female bathrooms. All that is still there. But I feel a little safer when there is a democratic government. […]

I feel like voices like ours are important to be heard, because these are our personal experiences… But every story, every person is important and what we go through in our lives. If we tell our stories, it could help someone somewhere who’s also going through this or going through a hard time. And if I knew… if I had mentors, people to look up to, people to ask for help, not financially, but if somebody would have guided me in the right direction even when I came here to United States would have been so much help, so much easier… It would have been a great help. So, if this could help someone somewhere, anywhere – it could be in the United States or outside –to feel that, you know, things can be better. You just have to find yourself. You have to find the community, you have to find the support. If it’s not with your family, find a friend, find a well-wisher. Find a group of people who you can talk to because all we need is, you know how they say, love and support.

Barbara Khan was born in Pakistan. She came to New York City on a tourist visa in the 1990s and filed for asylum on the basis of her sexual orientation. She is South Asian LGBTQ+ activist and came to consciousness as a trans woman in New York  since her flight to the United States.

Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Barbara Khan in the spring of 2022. The interview was edited for length and clarity.