A couple of years ago, when I envisioned who came to America as refugees, I envisioned poor women with bunches of kids who had lived in squalor in some godforsaken corner of the world. Of course that was before I started to look into the Refugee Resettlement program run by the United Nations and executed by the US State Department.
This is an article that is so informative on so many levels. It’s about how two gay Iraqi guys came to live in America and how their status is enhanced when they go out to New York gay clubs because they are “refugees.” I bet I’ll get a bunch of ‘phobes’ thrown at me for even reporting this story (homo, xeno, Islamo). The article opens with a scene in a gay club:
The guys are interested in the two lean boys, but it’s not simply because Mohamed and Ahmed are young and good-looking: It’s their answer to the inevitable query about why they’re in New York and where they came from.
“From Iraq,” Mohamed says, with a wry smile, followed by a dramatic pull on his cigarette. He’s repeated this line before, and it’s apparent he takes pleasure in the big revelation. “We’re here on a refugee visa. I’ve been here for two months. And you?”
It hooks them every time. The model refugee.
It’s a hard act to follow. They are only two out of the over two million Iraqi refugees who have fled their native country since the American invasion in March of 2003. That sort of knowledge can certainly add pressure to a casual encounter and make a simple surreptitious kiss in one of the downstairs corners seem somehow more significant. So, if at the end of this night nobody gets any refugee love, the two Iraqis aren’t overly concerned. Plus, Mohamed claims to already have a few would-be suitors located in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Brooklyn. Ahmed also says he recently turned down an invitation to move in to the posh downtown digs of a guy he met here a few weeks ago. Neither of them is in a rush to commit to a boyfriend or settle down: After all, they have each other.
How did they come to be in the US? I guess you are thinking they were persecuted in Iraq because fundamental Muslims hate homosexuals. They probably were, but it seems that an American radio producer, Jennifer Utz, liked them and brought them home to New York. I didn’t know that individuals could pluck refugees from war-torn countries and resettle them.
Jennifer, 31, traveled to the Middle East in the spring of 2007 to report from Jordan and Syria on the exploding Iraqi refugee crisis for Democracy Now!, the New York–based radio program where she worked as a producer. She ultimately made five reporting trips to the region, and soon realized this wasn’t a story she could leave behind. While there, she met Mohamed, a Baghdadi living in exile in Jordan and later Syria.
“I liked him from the moment I met him,” Jennifer explains. “We have a lot in common; we’re both from families who really pushed education and gave us a lot of opportunity. The main difference was that his life was put on hold from the war and all of the chaos in Iraq.”
Utz decided she wanted to help Mohamed move to New York, so she began the difficult task of applying to be his sponsor, engaging in a long battle with the overlapping bureaucracies of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Finally, this past July, Mohamed left Damascus to end up in Jennifer’s Carroll Gardens apartment.
A month later, Ahmed moved in. Jennifer and Mohamed had met and befriended Ahmed while in Syria, and he was later resettled in Syracuse, NY, by the government, where he knew no one. Once he was able to wrangle a job in New York City at a Middle Eastern grocery store, he asked Jennifer to agree to be his “anchor.” Now, she’s responsible for guaranteeing that the two men have housing, food and job-search assistance. Her less tangible role is as cheerleader and motivator, cultural translator, city tour guide and sometimes worried “mother” when the two stay out late partying.
But, when you read the story, you will see she is finding them tiresome and would like to see them move on. Kind of makes me think of someone who took in a cute puppy but found it not so cute to discipline when it’s peeing on the floor and eating the shoes.
The money supplied by the taxpayers of the US through the International Rescue Committee is not adequate. Ahmed has a job, but so far things are not going well for Mohamed who I suppose must be realizing that “refugee chic” only goes so far.
Since his arrival in July, Mohamed has been out on a handful of modeling and casting calls, and he has applied for work at a string of retail stores in Manhattan—Armani Exchange, Banana Republic, H&M—but steady work remains elusive. Upon arrival, Mohamed received $425 in spending money from IRC and $900 to go toward rent and all other living expenses for the three months after that. The life of a refugee resettled in the United States is hardly one of luxury, although if anybody could make it seem so it might be Mohamed, who manages to pull off a kind of refugee chic, with his dragon tattoo on the shoulder and his fabulous outfits.
So much for starving women and children.