“UNSETTLED: SEEKING REFUGE IN AMERICA”
LGBTQ Refugees Share their Journeys
“Unsettled” reminds us that homosexuality is a crime in more than 70 countries, and is punishable by death in four. During the Obama administration, LGBT asylum claims began to rise, but under President Trump nearly 70% of all asylum claims were denied by the Department of Homeland Security and this is a historic low.
Junior Mayema is a gender-nonconforming gay man from the Congo, and Subhi Nahas, a gay Syrian refugee, are featured in “Unsettled” and given the extent to which Subhi Nahas would one day use his voice to spread awareness about the staggering obstacles facing Middle Eastern LGBT refugees like himself, it’s remarkable that his journey to a new life in the United States began with the critical decision to keep his mouth shut.
In late 2012, 25-year-old Nahas was finally fleeing Syria with a taxi driver he had bribed to take him to the Lebanon border and, if stopped, to go along with the ruse that Nahas couldn’t speak. After a lifetime of persecution and escalating danger in a country where homosexuality is illegal and where gay men were being killed by the Islamic State after the outbreak of civil war, Nahas was used to hiding his personality and “silencing myself, shielding myself,” to all but disappear.
He pretended to be deaf and mute, because he knew the moment he opened my mouth to speak they would pick up his sexual orientation; if he talked, he would sound too effeminate and killed immediately.”
Nahas is one of four LGBT refugees striving to make new lives for themselves in San Francisco who are profiled in Tom Shepard’s documentary. Shepard met Nahas and Junior Mayema, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2014 while volunteering with Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay. The nonprofit’s parent organization, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, had just received a sizable federal grant to support LGBT refugee resettlement.
HE thought it was an important time to make a film that humanizes the gay refugee experience since most really don’t understand their lived experiences. All refugees are vulnerable, but LGBTQ refugees are doubly vulnerable.
The American resettlement model has been “based on intact families being met here by members of their diaspora, maybe relatives or a mosque or community organization. But many gay refugees are escaping their families and the communities which have rejected them. For a gay Iraqi man, for instance, the last people he wants to see are other Iraqis, so LGBTQ refugees tend to be at much greater risk for isolation, and many deal with past trauma.
“For me, growing up in the Congo, there was no way I could ever hide who I was because I was gender nonconforming since I was very young,” said Mayema, 30 “I couldn’t fit as male or female. I was always in between.”
Mayema speaks about being in a Kinshasa hair salon as a boy with his mother, a pastor who is very homophobic, and refused to have a gay guy working there do her hair. She was very aggressive and said, ‘Do not touch me! If I have a child like this, I will kill him.” Mayema fled Congo for South Africa, yet found homophobia just as inescapable in Cape Town. After being repeatedly attacked, he registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and was granted resettlement in San Francisco. When he got on the plane, he finally felt safe, Mayema says.
. “Unsettled” follows Cheyenne Adriano and Mari N’timansieme, a lesbian couple from Angola and their wait to hear the verdict on their asylum petition at the San Francisco Homeland Security office, and later their marriage at San Francisco City Hall.
Shepard also examines “whether San Francisco is upholding its reputation as a safe harbor.” “It can be really challenging finding community and people to support you, even here,” Mayema said. He found out he is HIV-positive after arriving here, and he struggles throughout the film to find a stable, safe living arrangement.
Nahas was fortunate to be sponsored by an older gay lawyer, Fred Hertz, and his partner, who hosted him in their North Oakland home for the first three months after he arrived in June 2015. He now works as an Arabic translator and program coordinator at Uber. He also founded a nonprofit, Spectra, to support LGBT refugees. Nahas travels to Washington just months after arriving in the U.S. to testify at the first U.N. Security Council meeting on LGBT rights.
His appearance was widely publicized and brought Nahas a degree of fame. He received awards, appeared in magazine profiles and was the grand marshal of the 2016 New York City Pride Parade.
It was a difficult decision to tell his story so publicly, he said because he is so private. “But I knew I had to speak up and open the gate for others. No one else was going to.”
Shephard started this documentary before 2016. Up to then this country stood by its old policy of giving refugee to all those in need. In fact Shepard points out at the beginning of this documentary that half the population of the USA were born into immigrant families.
Shepard lets the stories unfold without comment other than to note that the number of refugees accepted into this country last year was the lowest ever. The visuals alone are enough to remind us just how low the US has sunk by downrightly refusing to providing these needy and desperate the safe haven they need just to survive.