It was Friday night, and my best friend Sam said: “I want to show you something.” We ride bicycles two miles across Boise, Idaho. We come to a place called The Balcony. It is a gay bar in Boise. I don’t know this. I am just new here. I don’t know gay bars. There is nothing like this in Syria. We went late, around 11:00 p.m. But there is a man at the door who wants to see ID. “I don’t have,” I said. I wasn’t speaking much English then. I look at Sam. He translates for me. Sam says to me, “How about your papers?” He means my refugee status papers. I don’t have anything to prove who I am but my paperwork from Homeland Security. A 901 paper, or 109 or something. I was just coming to the United States, and this is all I have. But the bar does not know this document. So they don’t want to accept it. The man says, “No, this is no good.”
I was nervous. Because before, in my experience, people can be dangerous. They will kill you if they have the chance. I don’t trust people. Because of what happened in Syria. I lived in a small town, called Qardha. I had to leave my house after my father walked into the living room and found me kissing a man. He burned my arm and cut my hair, and said that if he ever caught me with a man again, he would kill me.
The second time, I did not let my dad cut me. I just run away. He walked in on me with another man one day. I was on the third floor of our house. But I just ran away. I escaped through the window and jumped onto the roof of my grandfather’s house and then into the woods. I slept there the first night, in the woods. Then I go to Damascus, to stay with my mother. My parents divorced when I was three and I know my father doesn’t speak to my mother. I spent a year with her there. I knew my father’s family must be looking for me, but in Damascus I had no problems at first. I was normal, having my life, working and everything.
I got a job at a restaurant. It was American-style place, and the owner knew I was gay and he was very supportive. Working there it was really just me and another guy, an Iraqi named Sam. I know Sam is gay the first time I saw him, but at first we hate each other. He was acting pushy, and he is a very tiny guy, being pushy. But then we became best friends. We were together twenty-four hours every day. At work, they help me rent an apartment, and Sam lived with me. Not boyfriend, just friends. Everyone always ask us how we have so much to talk about. We talk so much about the future—where to go, what we want to do. He talked about America, and being in LGBT community, making house, all kinds of stuff. It was fun to talk to Sam, because he was extremely wise.
Then one night Sam called me and told me to not come to work again. I was scared. But I went to work to see what was going on. I saw his face was pink and his neck looked cut up. “What happened to you?” I said. He told me, “Your brother was here. They know where you work, you need to leave.” They had hurt him. Sam had fought with them. He did not tell them anything. He was a hero for me. “Where am I gonna go?” I said. “I have no place to go.” Sam is smart, very smart. He had already run away from Iraq because same things happened to him there. Sam told me, “Go to Jordan.”
The next day we went to the government, we got passports, and I went to Jordan. I took a taxi there, to the border. I knew I could make a case with the U.N. office in Jordan for refugee status. The U.N. can’t protect you in your own country, only another country. Sam knew a lot about the process. He taught me. Because he had already applied, when coming from Iraq. At the U.S. Embassy in Syria, I heard that ninety percent or maybe ninety-eight percent of people don’t get approved, but the chance is better
in Jordan. I was in Amman for three years waiting for my application. I worked at a shawarma place and an ice cream shop. I had my first real boyfriend there. I worked as a bartender. I walked four miles to work because I had no car. And then my application was finally approved. When I applied for asylum, they ask you to put three options. I wrote America, Canada, and America. I arrived in the United States on May 12, 2012.
I go to Boise. Sam had been approved in 2011 and went to Boise. He was there already. The caseworker asked if I know anyone here, and I say, “Yes sir—I know Sam, and here is his address.” They say it helps to go somewhere you know someone. I knew nothing about Boise but I didn’t care. I was just so happy to be anywhere but Syria.
When I got to Boise, I had to go to an English-language school. I had the address downtown. I rode my bike. I followed the bus downtown, but then got lost and couldn’t find address. I spoke no English, but I saw a woman, and I said “Hi,” and the lady looked at the address and grabbed my hand and walked with me across the road and showed me the door and told me good luck. This was my first impression of Boise. People are nice. And when somebody does make fun of me or make joke about being Arabic, other people stand up and say how wrong it is. A lot of people stand up for that.
Pretty soon after came that night at The Balcony. I remember I was wearing shorts. What do you call military colors? Camouflage. Dark camouflage shorts. And the bouncer was just shaking his head at my paperwork. I got the paperwork at the airport, in Jordan. It was in a bag and was sealed. They told me, “Keep it with you.” The bag says U.N. on the side. But the bouncer still looks at the refugee papers. I think we cannot go in. Luckily, we have an American with us, and he knows people there. So the supervisor from The Balcony comes over, and he read the papers, and he’s like, “Yeah, he’s fine. It’s okay. He can come inside.”
It was overwhelming. I walked in and then cannot believe what I see. The bartenders were shirtless, and music loud, and people dancing. Guys kissing guys. And a guy and a girl. It was all mixed. Crazy night. It was too much to process in my head. First time I see club like that. Let’s say, my mouth was open all the way. I was shocked, like, wow. We don’t have this in Syria. Sam bought me drink, and I just start watching people. Here they are having fun, and who cares? I did not dance that night, I just try to enjoy everything. People start talking to us. Sam translates. People are friendly. This was my first night at The Balcony. Later I meet my boyfriend Ian there. Now we are engaged. We will buy a house and want a kid one day. Ian makes fun of me because I like birds. My favorite morning thing is to make coffee and watch the birds. And listen to my special music, by Fairuz, a famous singer. She sings songs about me—about a boy named Shadi—but it’s sad songs. It’s a story of a kid who is lost, and then she finds him, and then she lose him again. Twenty years she’s still waiting for him. It’s sad, but people make it as fun, because my name is Shadi. In the song it says, “Where is Shadi?” And people say to me, “We find Shadi. We find him right here.”
Story by: Jen Percy / Photos by: Kathryn Harrison