Safe at Last: A Profile of Subhi Nahas

November, 2017

Subhi Nahas knew he had to flee Syria to protect himself when al-Qaeda forces invaded his hometown in 2011 and vowed to “cleanse the city of all sodomites.” Worried that his voice and demeanor would get him into trouble, he hired a taxi driver to drive eight hours to Beirut and navigate the gauntlet of government and militia checkpoints, while he pretended to be mute and deaf. “It was very stressful,” Nahas recalled. “There were a lot of aircraft, gunmen, and extremists.”

Five years later, as he sits in a busy café in San Francisco’s Mission district, Nahas talks about his arduous journey as a gay refugee with a surprising lack of gravity. After all, he has recounted his escape dozens of times while applying for refugee status, and dozens more times since then as an activist. At 30, Nahas is well-coiffed and stylish. A scar on his chin, the result of his father’s abuse, suggests his turbulent past. 

Even before the civil war, growing up gay in Syria was “terrible,” Nahas recalled. Since he was 8 or 9 years old, Nahas was bullied, harassed, called names and beaten up for being effeminate. “Everyone was making fun of me and there were few people who wanted to be my friends. You hear about police arrests at places where gay people used to gather. The danger was clear. You should always be afraid. You should hide yourself. But if you’re effeminate, you are effeminate. You can’t hide that.”

Nahas said he always felt threatened both by his family and the government. Article 520 of Syria’s 1949 penal code prohibits any sexual relations “against the order of nature.” Gay men could be imprisoned for up to three years. “You don’t even have to be seen having sex,” Nahas said. “If you’re reported or suspected to be gay, you could get arrested.”

Without permission to work in Lebanon, Nahas spent almost all of his savings in the six months he was there. Eventually he found a translation job that paid enough for him to buy a plane ticket to Turkey, where he worked for a non-governmental organization to help other Syrian refugees. After attending his first gay pride parade in June 2013 in Istanbul, an acquaintance who had joined ISIS called him and threatened to kill him if he didn’t stop being gay. Nahas applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Countless interviews ensued. “I had to do the whole story again and again. They wanted to see consistency and everybody wanted to verify their own way,” Nahas said. “You had to tell them every single detail and share everything in your life with them, knowing that they will share it with the police too.”

After more than a year of waiting in Turkey, the United States granted him refugee status. But coming to the U.S. was “stressful,” he said. “The airplane kept on being delayed and I was afraid that they might cancel it. But once we were boarding, I felt great. I felt like I owned my life and it was the start of a new chapter.” Fortunately, Nahas had a sponsor in Oakland so he could choose San Francisco as his new home. “I knew about Harvey Milk and the Castro, so San Francisco was number one on my list. If you don’t have a sponsor, the Department of Homeland Security could give your case to a random state. You know how dangerous that could be for a gay person.”

Nahas stayed with his sponsor for two months until he got a job and an apartment. Finding work wasn’t easy: “I didn’t have any experience working in the States and I couldn’t build my resume in a war-torn country.” But his computer skills and Arabic helped him land a job as a translator. “I’m thankful that I had a lot of people who helped me build my resume,” Nahas said. “It would be almost impossible to find anything without them.”

After living in San Francisco for more than two years, Nahas has mixed feelings toward the city. “It’s everything I thought it would be when it comes to safety and finding a community,” he said. “But it’s a super-difficult city to establish yourself in, especially if you start from zero. It’s not as welcoming as I thought it would be.” Until he found his first job, he received a monthly stipend of $300 and $200 credit for groceries from the government. “I don’t understand how would you be able to sustain yourself in San Francisco with this money,” Nahas said.

The process of cultural adjustment was not easy, either. Seeing the gay community in the Bay Area “was a bit of a shock for me at the beginning,” Nahas said. “It was like an eye-opener and helped me to understand my sexuality better. The gay community helped me realize that I am entitled to my own body and emotions. I have a big baggage that I brought, and it takes a long time to find my community and find myself. It’s like carrying two watermelons in one hand,” Nahas said, borrowing an Arabic proverb that means taking on more than one can handle.

Despite these difficulties, Nahas is enjoying his new life. In addition to his day job as a translator, he’s founded the Spectra Project, a nonprofit that helps LGBT refugees in the Middle East and Northern Africa. “Being here feeling safe, respected, and welcomed, I felt responsible for all the people I left behind,” Nahas said. The Spectra Project sets out to provide legal, health, and educational resources to LGBT people and refugees who are in transit in countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, while providing shelter and food to those fleeing direct threat in their home countries. “I love both my jobs,” Nahas said enthusiastically. “I’m making a lot of connections and traveling around the country to talk about things that I love. It’s what I wanted from the beginning.”