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The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration’s Neil Grungras, executive director, and San Francisco office staff Ali Khoie and Subhi Nahas spoke about the LGBTI Middle Eastern refugee experience in Turkey followed by arrival in the U.S. at a talk at the University of San Francisco.

An estimated 60 people turned out for the two-hour presentation, “The Middle Eastern Refugee Crisis: Personal Experience from LGBTQ Perspective,” at USF, Monday evening on November 9.

“The event was a stellar success,” said ORAM Board Member Frederick “Fred” Hertz, who attended the event.

Gay refugees Ali and Subhi told the audience their personal stories about why they fled from their homelands of Iran and Syria, respectively, and their perspectives on the refugee process. Neil spoke about the legal and political aspects of the refugee process and about the situation for LGBTI refugees in Turkey.

The audience was riveted by their stories throughout the evening. At moments the audience gasped and had questions about how “the people closest to you and that you are supposed to go to for a problem turned against you and into your enemy,” Ali said.

“It was so hard for them to not only leave their homes and their families, but also to learn about how much torture and discrimination they faced – even by their families,” Rya Fishman, a sociology pre-law student at USF, told ORAM. “And they didn’t have an outlet for their struggles.”

Rya’s family is from Israel, which has given her a sense of how difficult life can be in the Middle East, but she was raised in the liberal atmosphere of San Francisco, she said.

“I’m so happy they made it. I feel like it’s a good place for them to feel comfortable with their sexuality. It’s a fundamental basic right for everybody to have to be themselves,” said Rya. “I just wish all LGBT people across the world could make it here.”

She was so inspired by Ali, Neil, and Subhi’s speech on Monday that she’s volunteering with ORAM.

Audience members also responded to their stories of coming to the U.S. without family or community ties and how they experiencecd the challenge of fitting into the American- Iranian and -Syrian communities.

Some of the most poignant moments were moments when Ali and Subhi described the difficulties of their lives prior to coming to the U.S. and when Neil explained how few LGBTI refugees make it through the refugee process. “It made Ali and Subhi’s sentiments about how happy they are now in San Francisco compared to their lives before they left Iran and Syria so much more meaningful,” said Fred.

“The refugee issue is making a lot of momentum,” said Ali. “In this case, there are people getting out and they need help, even if people don’t know the LGBT community portion of it.”

Following the discussion people approached Ali and Subhi asking them how they could help, said Ali, heartened by the acceptance and kindness of people, especially from Iranians and the Arab world.

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