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.
We’ll start with your sort of decision making process and reasons for leaving.
Can you give me some reflections about it ? Was it forced?
So, my decision for leaving Egypt I think started maybe around three years before I left. I never wanted it to be…like it wasn’t a plan. I wanted always to go do my Master’s and come back and I loved what I do. I love being a human rights journalist and I loved working on safety and security as well with people who are working on hostile environments. Then, because of my participation in the revolution and my work as a human rights journalist covering human rights abuses and social issues in Egypt, I have been targeted by the government for multiple years in a row and things only escalated and then since 2013, it became worse for me and it kept going worse and getting worse all the time. And then there was a period of time where the NGO that I used to work with, multiple people there were arrested, kidnapped in the middle of the night from their houses. So that was an additional sign to what has been happening before, of like calls and threats. For context, I spent almost two years receiving calls and threats from secret services that I would be jailed, killed, kidnapped, or raped, if I didn’t stop what I’m doing. And they literally tell you like: We’ll come and get you, we know where you live, – so stuff like that. And then when all of these things kept happening with people I know, friends and it got like closer to my core circle as well, it became evident for me that: OK, now maybe it’s time that I have to leave.
At the same time, they started preventing people from leaving the country and arresting them from the airport, or kidnapping them from the airport. And what I mean by kidnapping, is more like enforced disappearances. So like they take people and then just put them somewhere. No one knows where they are. No one knows if they’re alive or for how long. So it varies from one person to another. Another thing is I I got even more worried for my safety, because I am queer. And it is not the best idea to be in Egypt, so that is an additional thing. I am not religious, I rejected all religions and I was raised in a Muslim family so that also they didn’t help and other personal reasons as well for family reasons.
What did your migration route look like? Did you leave Egypt directly to the US or did you stop somewhere?
Because I managed to leave Egypt through a Master’s degree I traveled directly to the U.S. so I didn’t have any other spots… The system in the US is not supportive of someone staying at all or welcoming. So for example in Europe, your years that you spend there as a student, they count towards a residency or any type of other paperwork that you have. In the U.S., it doesn’t. If you stayed here for like 10 years as a student, it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t count towards anything. So for me I did my masters degree here, the two years didn’t count for anything. Then I stayed for a year to do training here. So the same visa process, and when I was doing the visa, this year I applied for asylum. The reason I didn’t apply the moment I landed, I was hopeful…
[…][he wishes to remain anonymous
Would you have stayed in Egypt if you had the chance or were you planning to leave anyway?
I was planning to leave but I was never planning not to go back. I would have always loved to go back. I know that. Because of my identities as well and by the way they come queer, I’m not religious. I’m blah blah all of these things, I don’t prescribe to the culture exactly how it is. Yeah, it’s very hard to live safely in Egypt, so my risk factors might be less, but they’re not really non-existent. So I know my life would have been easier outside, but I never, ever in my life thought of not going back. Not visiting, not seeing my family, my friends, I miss it.
How did you make the decision to leave then? Was your friends and family a part of that decision or something you decided on your own?
I think it’s more of a decision on my own. And some support from friends who understood what’s happening in Egypt. But my family did not like that. My family did not like at all the fact that I’m leaving at the time they didn’t know that not going back was in my mind because the last two or three years in Egypt were hell for me. So I was almost certain that I cannot go back. I just kept delaying and postponing the process in hopes that I can maybe…then it kept getting worse and worse. But my family was completely against this decision. I have two friends who understand a little bit what’s happening in Egypt. The Egyptian as well, but they’re not in the field of human rights. They’re not in the field of journalism. So sometimes, if you’re not exactly in the field, you know things are really screwed up. You know things are really hard, and they’re really tricky. But you still don’t understand the magnitude of being under this threat so it’s very hard to explain to someone that is not in the field working with people who have been jailed or tortured and stuff like that or build threaten how bad it is. […]
For me honestly, because of the type of work I do or did in Egypt, that led me to leave, and because of the choices I had to make and I didn’t have any emotions to deal. I couldn’t have the luxury to do it. I couldn’t also have the luxury to take care of my family’s feelings at that time. And they would not really understand. Family is like the only thing they see is that they want to see me. So the thought process is biased and for me it it can’t be biased, it can just be safe at the time.
L. (they wish to remain anonymous) is a 30-year-old queer activist, human rights journalist, and refugee from Egypt who has been living in Washington, D.C. since 2017. Because of their participation in the revolution and their work as a human rights journalist covering human rights abuses and social issues in Egypt, they have been targeted by the government for several years in a row, and things kept escalating. L. left Egypt in 2017 to begin their Master´s degree in the United States.
Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with L. in the fall of 2022. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interviewee wishes to remain anonymous.