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.
Who supported you in the early days when you arrived to Washington, D.C., what did your network look like?
I mean, at the beginning it was people I’ve met in like around D.C. I think what helped me at the time, I mean continues to help me is that when I was detained early on, like in 2011, I was one of like the very few…a couple of friends in the US actually set up kind of like a Facebook like page for me when I was detained was kind of like got me some reputation among some people. So, when I’m meeting people many would recognize who I am and I guess at the time, because I was detained very early on, it’s kind of like automatically established like a link of trust and some people were very helpful, regardless, I guess. It was mostly locals. It was mostly me reaching out to locals and they’re helping out. Again, I mean, some people helped, you know, like they weren’t totally overboard and much help with everything. Others, they helped when, you know, I think it was easy for them to help.
Where do you get support today?
Back then, not to be dramatic…I had only myself. I think part of me was. I realized that it doesn’t make sense for me to reach out for emotional or otherwise support when my brother was under siege and my other two brothers were killed So, I felt like this is really…regardless of what I’m facing, I’m still in a kind of luxurious place and in the US you can trust people or some people on many levels, but not on emotional levels very quickly. So, the only person I trust is my wife right now. And that’s the source for my emotional support and I think also at the time, you know, back then being a refugee or a torture survivor was kind of like an appealing thing for a lot of viewers. This is slightly like the Africa tourism. It’s like: Oh, let’s see this kid. Yeah, we haven’t seen such a thing before. So, in a sense it brings a lot of attention, but also it made me feel early on forgive me about the term, but like a „piece of meat“. People are interested because of experience or background. It gets them exciting but maybe nothing else. So, I would always take a step back to assess the relationship, professional or otherwise like what it is for, like the relationship.
Did you have the feeling of being welcomed openly?
I did, yes. I guess the examples of feeling welcomed is not feeling excluded. I think that’s my sense of being welcomed. […] In the first few years, I didn’t really just stay in Washington. I’ll just travel around, talk about Syria, about my experience. And I guess the welcoming sense I got again that’s I didn’t get any negative feedback probably for who I am, for me being here. And I guess because people heard about my experience and I try to connect it as much as possible to the life they’re living…so storytelling in a way helped to build the bridge between me, a lot of communities, not only metropolitan communities or Syrian American communities…I mean, it’s probably something in our community, we’re not really super expressive about our feelings and our emotions. I think white people do that much more than we do…
In contrast, did you sometimes feel excluded or discriminated against because of your status as an asylum seeker?
Yes, that encounter with law enforcement I don’t think have happened if I was like a citizen or permanent residence in their mind. I mean, this is me analyzing, but like they didn’t really expect me to be able to connect to a lawyer or like understand the system itself. So, there is definitely kind of like this utilization of like the fear or the background I have. Even like the person I worked with basically exploited the fact that I’m a refugee also to pull a similar card. Yeah, so I mean there was that like exploitation part for sure… Actually, this is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. It has to do with the experience of refuge, but also it has to do with the experience of being a torture survivor. I think at the time for a lot of people, even in our community, like people who are doing advocacy or stuff like that. Being a refugee or being a victim of torture makes you a token. So, people who are doing something around this circle they always want to bring, you know, the refugee or like, you know the victim around for the event to be successful, for them to have that meeting… Sometimes people have good intention, but you know they do really bad practice. Other people have really bad intentions, bad practices. But at the end of the day, it’s all I’ve seen it with a lot of refugees, especially around the 2015/2016 refugee wave. There is always this utilization of the experience that refugees have been through. Just for like the sake of media or for reaching out or for building up, I don’t know…and sometimes I can forget intentions, but the results were horrible because you have those people who would show up, who would give promises, would raise expectations, come but then disappear and then move on to the to the next thing.
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.