I’m in such a strange situation.
I was born into a homophobic culture, raised to fear the straight society around me. Syria, the land where I was born, is steeped in homophobia, fuelled by Syrian traditional values, laws and the endless preaching of religious clerks.
Together, these elements make the lives of anyone who strays from the straight lines of sexuality and gender a living hell.
Yet, I stand here fighting for the rights of the straight Syrian men who used to terrify me.
When Canada’s new Liberal government first announced it would welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, I rejoiced. I knew that a good percentage of the refugees would likely be lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Their arrival here would considerably expand the Syrian gay community in my new home country of Canada.
I dreamt of finding more folks who are like me: people who understand the meaning of being a Syrian refugee coming to a completely different culture, people who speak my language, understand my jokes. I envisioned a future where Syrian gay culture enriches the Canadian mosaic and adds new voices to the gay community in Vancouver, which right now can seem alienating in its overwhelming white-ness.
Then came a new announcement on Nov 24, 2015, naming the groups that will actually be welcomed to Canada. Single mothers, traditional family units and LGBT people made the cut as priorities for the Liberals’ refugee resettlement plan. Straight, single men did not.
First I was happy: one step closer to my vision of gay Syrian culture coming to Canada. Then came the realization: the only group of people not prioritized are single, straight, male refugees.
The stereotypically homophobic straight men who used to scare me — who made me hide my sexuality and fear for my life in Syria — are now isolated and rejected from a safe haven, based on their sexuality.
I couldn’t help but identify with them. These are people denied basic human rights based on their sexual orientation. The similarity between my situation back in Syria, and their situation now, is striking.
Why were those men denied refuge in Canada? The answer is simple, yet no one seems happy to hear it: The general stereotype of a terrorist is a male, straight, lone Syrian refugee.
This change, of course, follows the horrendous, bloody act of terrorism that shook Paris — an attack perpetrated by neither a Syrian nor a refugee.
Media outlets approached me in the past week to comment on the update to the resettlement plan, volunteering me into a role that I didn’t ask to play. I became the spokesperson of the gay Syrian refugee. The expectation was that I would greet the Canadian government’s announcement with joy.
I am joyful. I’m bursting with happiness as I hear that more gay folks will find sanctuary in Canada the same way I did.
But I also have to be critical of the world’s view of what a terrorist is. I have to be skeptical of what this plan means to the straight Syrian men who equally deserve to escape a war in Syria.
Many young Syrian men have had to escape the country as I did, fearing the Syrian regime would force them into the army and put their lives at risk to do the regime’s bidding. Others have fled their homes, forced away from their families, fearing the Islamic State would force them to become soldiers in a terrorist organization.
I support prioritizing the most vulnerable groups in the resettlement plan. I am all for bringing single mothers, LGBT folks and families to Canada to find a new life here.
However, I think that anyone who applies to come to Canada — looking for a bright future away from terrorist organizations, dictatorships and refugee camps — should have the right to come, provided they pass the appropriate screening checks and security measures.
Will these men bring with them the homophobia of home? Possibly. But I would rather stand on the reconciliation side, bridging the gap between them and us, helping them see the right path towards a world without discrimination based on sexual orientation, be it against gay people or straight.