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 do you see yourself now in Washington, D.C.? Do you feel like you’re a part of the city, or do you feel like an outsider?
I feel like a part of the city. I mean, I felt like that in New York as well, even though I only lived there for years. I think for me, I was really aware from early on that I need to really immerse into the local experiences rather than isolate myself into like communities of color or religion that might be familiar to me because I realized as a Middle Eastern, as a Muslim, you are the minority of the minority. And if I’m settling, if I’m considering this country home…I mean, I know the experience of the minority, I know the experience of being Middle Eastern and Muslim, and this is not really what I need if I want to actually really adopt this country as home. So, that I think helped to build my American identity more than anything else.
Do you feel like a person in exile?
I think the experience of the bureaucracy with my asylum application made me feel so… I mean being or having a pending asylum status in the US is very limiting… […] I kind of left those abusive relationships, like the professional ones specifically. It felt a little bit normal. I felt like: OK, I’m growing up, I’m doing what I need to do. I’m not able to travel. Yes, there are limitations, you know, professionally. But it didn’t really stop me from growing up, from pursuing some of the things that I want to do. At some point I I kind of like even stopped caring about when the asylum would come or is the asylum approved or not.
What do you think of the idea of diaspora?
[…] For me, it’s temporary, it’s not permanent. I think part of the experience is just adopting really this country. Not to patronize the US, but if I made the choice to be here, that I made, so Syria is the home I didn’t really choose, America as the home I really chose. […]
I’d probably say maybe I’m American of Syrian origins or American. I mean, again, this might be even for a lot of Americans…But for me this is what America is really about. It’s not really about the Green Card or the US passport. It’s really about the experience and believing in the experience itself and I guess to some extent maybe I’m more believer in the American experience and the American dream more than probably a lot of Americans at this point. But that’s what makes the experience unique I guess because as long as you have hundreds of thousands of people waiting to come here every year. Those are the people who are bringing kind of like the new blood to the experience and making sure again like the ideal of the American dream continues. I mean they will still try…Many of them would fail, but some would be successful. And then again, they will continue to kind of keep the lights on for the people at the other end of the tunnel. Which most people would think like you will take that about immigration in the US but it’s not where we’re at in our country.I mean, I think this is where we really need the shift because in a way for our community, I think many came here with the idea that this is a temporary movement until things become better in Syria and in the beginning of the uprising is Syria. I think we all left Syria with the same mentality. […] Looking at where our community is, a lot of people have created like some bubbles in the places they are living and because they’re wishing to go back. So at the end of the day the bubbles might be comfortable, it might be good for them, but they ask for a community in in exile, in a sense, but by their own choice.
What about the role that your mother tongue in your life? Do you think in Arabic?
I mean I was going to get to that…not in a negative way, so I used to think in Arabic. But that used to limit then my ability to write and express myself in English. Because to express yourself in a language, you need to think in that same language. It’s super hard to think in one language and then translate when you were speaking. That was kind of like I needed to overcome over the years being able to think and speak and write in English. I think Arabic has a central part of my life. I think when I go really deep, I still cannot go really deep in English. I have to go in Arabic and for me it is the main thing that really connects me to come back to my heritage in a sense. […] Arabic is the kind of texture that connects a lot of communities in our region, the language and the culture itself. So, it plays that role, but kind of like keeps connecting me back. […]
I think the experience of refuge opens your eyes to your choices. And no, Syria was the home I was born into, not the home I chose, but it’s still home. For me, my wife is the family I chose. That doesn’t mean I don’t like my family, but I have a preference for the choices I’ve made. I mean, I would have felt the same way If I was in Syria, about what you choose and what you do not choose. For me, freedom is really about that. Not to be an orientalist, like I am finally free. It helps you assess the situation yourself, top-bottom.
Some people leave the country and they just want to divorce everything. I’m not divorcing the country, I’m reassessing the nostalgia we have for our countries. And it doesn’t mean that we hate it, but I feel like our experience really opened our eyes about the situation we used to live in. It’s not only top bottom. Without actually having that assessment, we’re not going to be able to like rebuild. I’m not turning my back to the country. I just want to make sure that I have the right assessment.
Sami11name changed is a political activist and refugee from Syria who has been living in the US since 2011. After two detentions, Sami decided to leave Syria and fled first to Lebanon and Egypt with his family. Since September 2011, Sami has been living in Washington, D.C. in the USA.
Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Sami in the summer of 2022. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interviewee wished to remain anonymous, therefore we have changed his name.