Barbara Khan on Fleeing to and Arriving in New York

In an interview with the We Refugees Archive team, refugee and South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan relates the reasons for why she decided to flee Pakistan, how she started over in New York City, and came to consciousness as a trans in New York. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start talking about you. What made you flee your home country? How did you come to New York City?

My name is Barbara Khan, I am a transwoman from Pakistan, originally born in Pakistan. Well, a little bit about my childhood, you know, being from Pakistan. I was born in a conservative, kind of liberal, but conservative family. Liberal in the sense that, you know, it wasn’t all about religion, especially for my father’s side. So, yeah, so that kind of freedom was there, that you don’t have to pray and all that stuff all the time… Growing up in Pakistan: First of all, there is no sex education, there is no one you can ask questions about sexuality. I was born dyslexic. I was slow. I still am. I was doing bad in school, and it wasn’t because you know, I wasn’t paying attention or something and they couldn’t figure it out. My father’s way of dealing with it was to scare me. And he thought that, if he’ll scare me, I’ll do a little bit better, which I didn’t. I did horribly in school. Whatever education I got is a kind of high school equivalent to here in America. And growing up around the man who is supposed to be responsible for your growth, your education, be that one and only protective figure in the house, with all that came his anger management issues, which of course, being that I was the first child, and I was the only male child, I became a target. Every week I used to wait for him to lose his temper and just take it out on me. From the age of like six or seven, it literally felt like… I used to pray. I used to pray. In the situation where you’re asking whoever is up there, God or, you know, Jesus or Bhagvan or anyone, to say: Please either take him away or take me away. So, it was that bad. And I’m someone who’s not dramatic, don’t like to exaggerate. I like to be humble and grateful for whatever I have. But it was pretty bad.

I literally felt like I didn’t belong in Pakistan. It was kind of suffocating from around the age of high school – 17 or 18. And of course, I forgot to tell you that I lost my mother, my own mom at like around five or six. I have a stepmom who was really nurturing; she was really nice. So, I basically told her that, (you know, one of my cousins lived in New York). It was like: You know what? If you take me there, I promise I’ll study better. I’ll make a life out of, you know, of whatever I have. That was kind of my plan to get out of Pakistan and that was the only plan, and if I would not have done so I would be either dead by suicide or my father’s beatings and his anger issues would have killed me. So, that plan kind of worked. Both my parents worked for the tourism department in Pakistan, and it was kind of easier to get a visa especially in 1994. And we came here as a family, my father, and my mother, and they basically dropped me off under the condition that I would go to school here, finish my school, get a degree, get some education, and then come back, get married… I had other plans. I got here and I felt like I needed to basically find my way because I had a six-month visa. And it felt like: You know what, before this expires, before I become an illegal citizen or not citizen of this country, I should do something. I went with my cousin to …there’s a place called Coney Island, and I found that there were some gay boys there. I followed them. I was like, you know what? I am new here. It’s only been two months and I need to have friends… And then a couple of people who are nice I befriended them. And then it felt like things are going to get better. I just felt like, you know, I can’t go back to that life. Just the whole trauma of the life in Pakistan… My father wasn’t the only person, in school also…I was sexually abused, raped…. On a daily basis I was called names…What my way of dealing with it was… I was timid child. I basically did whatever people asked me to do just to get out of the situation alive and well. And that’s what I did with my father too, I took his beating, I took abuse. It was like: Maybe tomorrow will be better, maybe tomorrow will be better. And thank God it did. I didn’t retaliate… Even at the age of 18, getting beat up by your father. I could have stood up to him, but I didn’t. There was respect. There was the fact that I still was under his control, his roof.

And at this point I feel like that was my way of surviving the situation. Until I saw there is a light at the end of the tunnel, which was coming to New York. Once I came here, of course, when I met these people who became my friends, they took me to the LGBTQ center. I didn’t even know… I had no idea that there was a center where you can actually meet people like yourself. I was also going through my whole sexual crisis where I would ask: Who am I? Because I felt like I was more feminine. I felt like I don’t know where to categorize myself or where to put myself.

Joining the LGBTQ center, they actually gave me a lawyer who I sat down with, and he said: You have one choice, you can file for an asylum on your sexual orientation and pray to God that the American government accepts it… I’m talking about December 1995. In January 1996, we filed my affidavit, my case with the US Naturalization department to see if I could get an asylum. I was scared […]. I was praying, I was asking God to just give me this because I cannot go back. I just felt like there’s no choice. If this doesn’t work, I’m basically going to end my life.

What did you have to do to get that asylum, or to even apply for it?

What I was told was that I had to write an affidavit about my life in Pakistan and what I went through as a child, as the teenager and what actually happens to people who are out of the closet, meaning they don’t conform to the society in which they live, to the rules and regulations of the government openly. If you’re openly gay, openly queer…. So, at this point I became a member of this organization called SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association of New York City) Association. And there were people from Pakistan, a couple of them became my really, really close, good friends. And they have applied, which gave me so much hope… At the time I was writing my affidavit, they had applied already, and their approval notices would be coming in like a month or so and I was hoping, that in three, four, five month this could be me.

During this time, I used to live with my cousin…My cousin was married to this woman who was really nice, and his reaction to my coming out was… He said: You have never been with a woman; you don’t know your own sexuality. You are a child coming to this country. I was 19-20, but mentality, you know, I’ve never had openly said this to anyone. Of course, I had sexual experiences in Pakistan, and they were not all consensual. But to openly come out to my cousin, he first of all told me: Let me hire a sex worker, a female, for you to go through that process. So maybe if you haven’t tried something, his logic was… How would you know what you’re missing? And I was like: You are my cousin, you’re like my brother, please don’t do this to me. And that kind of triggered something in him where he said: You know what, get your act together, save some money, and get out of my apartment.

And that gave me the courage, that I can do something. I was kind of bummed. I was kind of scared, that at age of 21-22 I would have to get out on my own. But the only good thing which is happening in my life was that I had some sort of support system, and I had a job as a cashier in this pharmacy where I still work at. And those three or four months where I worked and saved money to pay the lawyer. I gave the interview and… The moment the interviewer asked me: What would happen to you if you would go back? I kind of burst into tears. I was like: I don’t know how important this is to you, but I feel like if it’s not my dad, if it’s not my own father, I can be killed by someone who would try to have nonconsensual sex with me or rape me…

I won’t be able to do all these things or say “yes” to whatever you want, and they could kill me. They could kidnap me and kill me, and my body would be found by authorities. And this is very common in countries where I come from.

Two months after I got the results that my asylum was approved… I can still tell you that the day I got the news, the letter, I just cried. I basically cried. I felt like somebody somewhere had listened to all these cries, all these prayers which I felt throughout and from the age of 16 till 19-20… There is someone who wants me to live and leave some sort of message: If you try, you can find your way. And that’s when I felt like I can stay in this country, feel faith, feel like I am wanted, feel like I can live with myself and to live as who I want to be. And that was the biggest thing. And I also think if I didn’t have the support system of my friends, also living in New York City, starting to live in New York City, my life from 1996 up until now, I don’t think I would have been the same person. I would not have been alive. Because in 2001 I was going through a breakup, lots of crazy news about people here, friends here, who were not feeling well, and I tried to commit suicide. Just with the pressure…thank God it wasn’t my time.

Let’s talk about the first few months in New York. What about language? Did you know English when you arrived? Did you try to go to school? I would like to know more about your support network that you were talking about already. Was there also support to get these things: to sign you up for language class, for instance?

My dad was like: Learn English, learn English, learn English, educate yourself. He used to pick us up from school and bring us to school and he was like: What does that billboard say?” This was our routine, and we will be like: Oh my God, he’s so annoying. Why can’t you just let us sleep – because that was the most enjoyable sleep a child could get in a car while your parents are driving. And I used to think why is he always pushing. When I came to this country, even though I still have a little bit of an accent, I had a huge accent. I used to be scared to talk. My first job was to paint an apartment. A friend of a friend asked me to paint an apartment and they will give you $400. This was 1996.

My father left me here with my cousin and he left me $150. And he said: Barbara, this is the $150 for you, this is the last amount of money I can leave you. You have to understand, you have three sisters. In a country where I come from, girls are responsibility of the parents, they have to get them educated, get married. You have to have enough money for the dowries. A lot of Americans don’t understand what a dowry is. He said: This is the last amount of money I am giving you. You are on your own.

And it was kind of nerve-racking…My cousin was showing us areas. He’s taking us sightseeing and my father stayed here for 2 months with us, he would say: Go into this store (there was a store called “Payless”, there’s a sign outside the store which says: Help wanted). Go and ask what they require. I’m like: I don’t have papers. They’re not going to hire me. – So just go and talk. I would go in there and they would say: If you’re not legal, if you don’t have a Social Security card, we won’t be able to hire you.

That first job of painting an apartment… You learn from experiences. I’ve painted the apartment. It took me a week (I’ve never painted anything) to paint a two-bedroom apartment and at the end, after the work, the guy goes: Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you, that I can only give you $200. That was the first learning experience: Don’t trust people. Even though you’re in a new country and you think you’re protected and you’re going through the whole legalization process, and you have rights, it still felt like that you are different. I personally felt like: You know what, I am brown, I’m from a country where I have a huge accent, people can tell where I’m from. And also, the fact, that they could discriminate against me. Even in New York I come across people who called me names and they called me all kinds of weird names. At that point, I felt like: You know what, I’m not sure if I want to come out completely, but once I met my friends I felt like: Oh my God. You know what? They don’t have any accents, so I have to learn how to speak. And what would be the best thing was that, once I got the job as a cashier at the pharmacy I had to speak. I had no choice but to speak. Even with my heavy accent, Pakistani accent. That’s where I learned, my whole thing was just to listen.

The other thing that really helped me was, throughout my life being in Pakistan, I basically felt like I didn’t belong there. So, all I watched was “Sesame Street.” I watched all the English shows. I watched all the American movies. The first time I saw the movie “Bodyguard” I fell in love with Whitney Houston. This is how naive and ignorant I was. When I came here, I don’t think computers were so easy to get in 1996-1998 and books were available, so I would read a little. Back to the question: how I learned English, was to talk to people, friends who were born here, talk to them and watch more TV. I went to FID for a semester and then I dropped out. Because I was more interested in partying, working, and partying. The pharmacy was open 24 hours, so I would work from 4:00 PM in the evening to 12. And of course, when you’re 22-23 – at least I could talk about myself, I just was coming out into my own, so, I had all these friends from the group I joined- SALGA association, they would take me to clubs, they would take me to bars, and I was like: This is just like the movies, it is actually real, this is a gay bar. I did not even know that gay bars existed. I didn’t even know there was something called “lesbians.” I was like: Oh my God, these two women are actually kissing. And my friends would be like: Barbara, stop staring. And because I am from Pakistan, I’ve never seen two women kissing. You could see that even though whatever little exposure I got in Pakistan of the Western culture, I was still quite naive, quite out of place. All I wanted to do is to have good friends, have fun, cause as I was 19, I was kind of kept in a shell, shielded. And that’s how I felt.

The support network, the friends and I guess chosen family we could say, this was a complete coincidence that you found them, or were you deliberately seeking out this sort of community? Were you completely unaware of them before and stumbled across them? How did this happen?

As a child, who never had that loving childhood, I always seek people who I can give love and perceive. What I have learned in my life is that the best thing is to give and not expect anything in return. But when I came here, I had no clue how I would get legalized… I’ll tell you this really funny story and you can judge me all you want. My cousin and his wife took me to somewhere called „Coney Island“. Coney Island is a beach area. It has a boardwalk. It used to be in 1996, a horror movie kind of looking boardwalk. My cousin and his wife were being lovey-dovey, and I separated myself and I’m walking on the boardwalk, and I see men walking underneath the boardwalk and I’m saying: What is going on? Me being curious at the age of 19-20, I’m like: This looks fishy. I followed them. And my mind was blown away. I was like: People are actually having sex underneath the boardwalk. And that’s how I met the person, I remember his name was Peter…He also said that he came to this country as an immigrant. He is also applying for an asylum on the basis of his sexual orientation. And he said he’s not looking for sex, he is looking for a boyfriend. And I said: I am also looking for a boyfriend. That day Peter asked me: What are you? And I said: I’m sorry, what do you mean? He said: OK, so you think you’re gay? I’m like: Yes, I am. You know, I think women are beautiful, but I am not sexually attracted to women.

He was like: OK, that’s fine, but what I’m asking you are you a top or a bottom? And I was like: What is the top or a bottom? And there he was like: Well, God, you have so much to learn. I’m like: I am sorry, I don’t know. I am from Pakistan. I have no clue. Then he explained it to me. And I was like: OK. I felt like I was more feminine. And he was like: Umm, it’s not going to work out very well for you to find a boyfriend.

Peter was the person who, when I told him I have two to three months left, he said: Come to the LGBTQ center. There are some pro bono lawyers who come in every week, and they have these sit-down gatherings where they give out some information. Come with me and you could get some information about how to file for an asylum, if even you qualify for that. I went there. I still remember my lawyer’s name was Levy, he was from Canada. And he was also an asylee himself in New York, I guess the reason for him was also because he was gay. I met him and he said: Barbara, there is a group of South Asian people coming to this establishment next week. I want you to come and sit with us.

And that’s how I met my friends, who basically took me in. I don’t know how much you know about hijra eunuch, a transgender community in Pakistan and India. There are these transgender people who basically sing and dance and beg on streets. And that’s the kind of exposition of transgender person that I had living in Pakistan. I was scared of them because I felt like they’re loud, they are kind of obnoxious. They’re very, very poor. People would treat them really bad. I could not relate to them until I started transitioning and I was like: You thought you were better than them? Look at you now. You are a transgender woman, and you are exactly like them. And at this point I feel like I can connect with them more, than any other LGBT, LGBTQ people. Because as much as I say gays and lesbians and bisexuals are my people, my family, I identify as a transwoman, and I am very open about it. I don’t go announcing it in the subway station or at work. I always felt like I want to mingle. I don’t want to be loud. I don’t want to let the whole congregation know that: Oh, here comes Barbara, a transwoman. If somebody asks, I will tell them who I am. Otherwise, I mind my business and you know, knock on wood, up till now I haven’t gotten into some serious craziness. Because there were instances in my life where I felt like: OK, I think today is my last day on Earth. You think you are in New York, and you are safe, but…

And is it because of your sexual identity or because also racism?

The most recent episode… I’m someone who have never approached a man in my life, because I always felt like I am not good looking, I’m trans, so if I’m going to approach someone, they’re always going to either make fun of me or saying that they don’t…

So, I have driven for Uber as the driver for five years, from 2016 till 2019. And one night I picked up four boys – way younger than me. They were like 19-20 years old. I was driving them for like an hour and the kid who sat right next to me kept on asking me: So, do you have a boyfriend? And I said: Yes. And at the end of the ride, after the whole hour of him trying to either get my number or ask me out I told him just to try to turn him off, I said: By the way, one last time, I’m telling you please back off. I’m a transwoman. I am not everyone’s cup of tea. And instead of taking it as: Oh, thank you for being honest, you’re not my cup of tea. He started yelling and screaming. He would not close the door. His friends were literally 20 feet away, all four of them. They didn’t know what was going on. He started to call me every name in the book. And he said I should kill myself for being who I am. And he said if he had a weapon on him, he would have hurt me for not being honest, not being upfront. I’m like: I just told you about myself.

I have never felt since I’ve been in United States, I have never felt so unsafe.

I don’t know about you, but when I get really angry and you can’t do anything about it and tears would come out of your eyes, that’s how I felt. He would not close the door and because they were like 5 of them, I felt like if I would reach for the door, he could have hit me or something… I basically put my foot on the pedal and then I raised a little bit, the door closed really hard. He kind of ran behind the car. I dialed my best friend’s number, and this is midnight, and I said this is exactly what’s happening. I drove to the end of the block. I said: I swear, I want to go around, and I want to drive over him. And my friend: Barbara, it is not worth it. I said: I didn’t do anything. I’m crying, I’m hysterically crying, and I said: I didn’t do anything. I didn’t ask him for anything. And I didn’t approach him. So why is this happening to me? I’m working, I was professional… And straight from there I went to my best friend’s home, and I stayed there, and I haven’t felt so unsafe because I thought they have my license plate, they have my information. The company that I drive for, they could come after me and. It was crazy.
New York heute

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 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.