New York has given me that Refuge
In this film, refugee South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan talks about her migration from Pakistan and her life in New York as a trans woman.
How did you start over? Do you have a support network, a community there? How do you see the city that you live in? Do you have experiences also with New York City?
I’m not sure if I have a very strong support group here. I always say that I know people. I have some people whom I call friends. There are a lot of people from the university I work at here, they are here for one year or two years…I find it very difficult to make friends here. And this is to my surprise because based on my knowledge from popular culture I thought that Americans are easy to be friends with, but I realize that it’s not true. They are easy to talk to. They like this small talk thing, but I think they have their families, and they don’t need to be friends with you. I think some people also see me as transitionary, so they don’t feel like investing in the friendship or relationship. Most of my friends here are Europeans, but unfortunately some Islamophobic and some antisemitic remarks are among those people who are mostly Europeans and who are very brilliant scientists. For example, they’re asking me if I fast during Ramadan… […]
I heard them making some antisemitic remarks, mostly because the neighborhood that I live in is heavily Jewish…. I’m dating someone local for some time right now and even they do not really understand me. All their problems are first world problems to me, we have different experiences. It’s difficult for them to understand what I’m really going through and what it is like not having a place to live….
I visited New York City in my first couple of months here a lot. It is nice to have a love and hate relationship with the city… When I’m going to New York City it is an adventure, because I’m going to try to catch some cultural events. I tried to engage with some expat groups in New York City, which was successful for me back in Europe, but in New York I couldn’t get the same feeling. I find it as a place, where no one is caring about no one. If you fainted in the middle of the street, probably people would just pass by and do not care about you. Maybe for some people it’s giving the sense of freedom, but it’s also a bit scary to me… This individualism is too much for me sometimes…[…]. I like to explore, but through the end of the day, it’s so tiring, it’s smelly and crowded. It’s too much. I’m happy to go back to my small village.
Did you think about moving to New York?
I think I did, especially at the end of the first year. I remember, in the first year I complained here. Because all the places that I’ve lived before had a big city feeling. There’s nothing to do in the place that I live in…[…]
At the end of the first year, when I learned that, I’m staying for another year, I was like: OK, I’m going to move to the city because I feel like my soul is there… […].
And I like to talk to a few people that I know in the city, like some professors who are working in the city. One of them suggested me to stay with her. But she was living in Brooklyn, and when I looked at it, it was like a huge commute, like very long. And I realized that my budget was not enough for it… I thought it would be a bit stressful for me and financially it would restrict… […]. I still feel I would have enjoyed living there, at least for a couple of months.
New York is commonly portrayed as a city of refugees, and sanctuary city. What do you think about these terms and slogans for New York?
I don’t have a sense of New York as being the city of refugees or something like that. I feel that individualism maybe is impacting a lot. I know people who are Americans and moving to the city from Chicago and finding themselves very isolated and feeling lonely and moving back…I don’t have many friends here. When I go to the city, I usually go by myself and unfortunately, they don’t give you a table. So, they make you sit at the bar and everyone around you starting to talk to you when you are sitting at the bar. Sometimes I find it annoying, but sometimes it can be fun. But apart from that, I’m finding it like very difficult to really make true connection with people. I feel like people are getting uncomfortable when I say that I’m here because I lost my job in Turkey because of the situation.. It’s kind of uncomfortable making them uncomfortable. […] I know that some Turkish people are heavily engaged in social movements in New York City. And they feel like they have the support group…. It might have been the case for me too if I lived in the city. But living in the state that I live in is also impacting a lot, as far as I understand. Even when I went to that expat group meetings, when I say that I’m from this state, people are like, yeah… Someone told me that, even eight blocks in New York City is kind of a long distance. People think that it will be difficult to meet with you… And it’s kind of true, it’s time consuming. Because the trains are not like the subway. Here sometimes if you miss one train, you have to wait for one hour for the next train… I know Turkish people, who have their PhD’s in the U.S., who have been living in New York for the last 7-8 years and most of their friends are from Turkey. They have some coworkers like Americans or some other nationalities, but the people that they hang out with are the Turkish ones.
Hasan is a scholar with a PhD from a university in Europe. During their PhD they were working as a research assistant at the private university in Turkey and traveling between Turkey and the PhD granting country. In the summer of 2016, one week after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the university was shut down by the government in a one night, along with the 14 other universities. Hasan lost their job. In Fall 2018 they came to the U.S. with the Scholar Rescue Fund Fellowship, where they are a visiting scholar.
Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Hasan in the spring of 2022. The interview was edited for length and clarity.