News Articles

The Libyan refugee who made it into the US before the ban - CNN

Jetlagged and jittery, Hass walks through the arrivals door at John F. Kennedy International Airport -- eyes darting left and right, scanning the sea of strange faces in front of him.

He spots someone: A woman from Catholic Charities jumping up and down to catch his attention. She holds a sign, a big one.
"Welcome to New York," it says.
Hass sighs in relief. After more than two years -- two years of bouncing from place to place, of hiding his true self -- he has finally arrived in a place he can call home.


A company of one

In the fiscal year ending 2016, the US admitted 84,995 refugees, all from different walks of life and different parts of the world. The only thing they had in common was that they were all fleeing. Poverty. Persecution. War. Most came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Myanmar.
Hass was the only one admitted to America from Libya.
That's a bittersweet realization for him.
Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily blocking all new refugees entering the country. Seven Muslim-majority countries are affected especially hard. Among them is Libya.
Had his long, never-ending paperwork stretched into this year, he wouldn't be here. He would be caught up in the sea of people who are no longer allowed in because they are not American citizens or permanent residents.
The stakes were great for him. Had he not made it to US shores, he doesn't know what fate awaited him.
Hass is a gay man, from a country where it's illegal to be one. Where gays have been thrown into jail or, in some case, executed. That's the reason CNN isn't using his last name. His family is unaware of his orientation, and he worries about their security.
He spoke to CNN from the house that once belonged to poet Emma Lazarus. Her sonnet, "The New Colossus," is inscribed on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty.
"Until I got here, I didn't know who lived here. It makes me feel like I live inside the Statue of Liberty," he said. "I cannot imagine me starting a life in any place else better than this."
He's certain that's the same for every other refugee -- the "homeless, tempest-tost," as Lazarus put it.


The moment it went wrong

Before the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, Hass was studying to be a doctor, a dream he's had since he first saw a doctor in a show on TV.
When he went to vacation in Tunisia during break one year, he left his laptop with a friend.
He returned to find his friend's demeanor toward him had changed. He stopped answering his calls or speaking to him.
"I soon learned that he had looked at my browsing history and saw some gay websites," Hass said. "He had read some chats I had had with men."
Word of Hass's sexual orientation spread around the university. He soon became an outcast, shunned and insulted.
"That was it for me," he said. "I was scared. I didn't know what might happen."
Medical school became unbearable. The fact he couldn't explain to his parents why he stopped going also ate away at him.
"I could not tell my family something like this," he said. "It's something unacceptable. This is something you cannot talk about."
He worried about his siblings. They'd be harassed and shamed too if people found out about him.
"You have to be from the culture to understand what it means there," he said.


A time to leave

Shortly after, the Arab Spring took Libya and the Gadhafi government with it.