Escape to New York

After war and violence, refugees build new lives in the city


Pierre, bearing the marks of injuries he received in Burkina Faso
Pierre, bearing the marks of injuries he received in Burkina Faso

Loubna Mrie reclines on a couch in her disheveled Bushwick apartment, a computer in her lap and a half-empty jar of Nutella by her side. She’s a petite 26-year-old with hair that explodes around her face in wild ringlets. As she talks in accented but fluent English, she periodically digs a knife into the chocolate spread and eats it with gusto.

“I have never felt like I’m an outsider in New York, because everyone here is a foreigner,” Loubna says. “Everyone here is broke. That’s the norm here. Living in shitty Brooklyn is not the exception, you know? And here, no one really judges you. Maybe New York is good for traumatized, fucked-up people, because you don’t have time to think of yourself. There is always something going on. You don’t really have time to be like, ‘Let me just sit and cry about what’s happened to me.’ ”

She pauses to consider this. “Maybe I’m one of those hipsters now,” she says with concern.

Loubna came to the United States in May 2014, fleeing the civil war currently ravaging her country, Syria. Last year, the number of asylum applications pending in the U.S. hit 194,000 — a number that is growing quickly. Loubna’s is one of those. The average time for a petitioner to wait for a decision is about two years, though many wait much longer, trying to navigate a complex and overburdened legal process that could mean the difference between life and death.

In the year ending September 2016, 5,028 resettled refugees ended up in New York State, about 6 percent of the total number of people granted asylum to the United States. But though New York City is home to a diverse population of immigrants, a mere 283 of those were resettled in the city.

New York has never been an easy city in which to start a life under the best of circumstances, and the high cost of living stymies formal refugee resettlement efforts. Those who arrive, like Loubna, with developed talents and international connections through their work are still thrust into the maelstrom of New York’s competitive cultural life. Others — those resettled with the help of aid organizations, family arrivals from troubled states, undocumented refugees from war and repression — are cut off from the only lives they’ve ever known and struggle to navigate through New York’s pitfalls and opportunities.

Refugees, both formally documented and not, flee situations that test their humanity and resolve. For people who have been subjected to torture and violence, or who are escaping political persecution, asylum in the United States means an end to the uncertainty and fear of not knowing if they will be sent back to the places they are running from.

The recent enactment of harsher immigration policies by the Trump administration, including a halt to the refugee resettlement program and more stringent asylum regulations, has immigrants all over the country nervous about their status — including those living in New York. Now new policies are prompting an uneasy anticipation of the worst from those who have already experienced it.

“The narrative coming out of this White House is that asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants are terrorists, are fraudsters, are criminals, and that is absolutely not borne out by the clients we work with,” says Jennifer Kim, co-director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the City Bar Justice Center, a pro bono legal advocacy group.

Loubna was an activist in Syria when the war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces broke out in 2011 — dangerous work at a time when people opposing the regime were already disappearing into jails at an alarming rate. The violence of the Syrian civil war has claimed dozens of family members and friends, including her mother. Loubna is adamant that she not appear to be a victim, but there is a nervous, haunted quality to her movements as she discusses that time in her life.

“My first experience with death was at a protest,” she says. “It was the first time someone fired at us. I was like, ‘No way is this happening,’ until I saw someone dropping dead. And my heart and brain just froze and I knew that I couldn’t do anything but run. I kept praying I wouldn’t get shot in the back.”

Loubna says she has since seen dozens of people killed in front of her. “Dude, it’s a civil war,” she says when asked for an approximate number. “You go to sleep in a place like East Aleppo, and you don’t even know if you will wake up the next morning.”

Though she had majored in English literature at university, Loubna, as a media activist during a war, learned photography out of necessity. In May 2014 she received a photography fellowship from NYU. Loubna moved to New York and applied for asylum a year and a half later, in 2016. Human Rights First, an advocacy group, is representing her. But it’s a difficult process, and with the sudden shift in approach to immigration policy brought on by Trump, she anxiously awaits the ruling on her application.

“Even if you have the best lawyer on earth, it’s not something that’s up to the lawyer,” Loubna says. “The only thing that the lawyer can do for you is just file your case and send it.”

At her apartment, she types on her laptop while sucking thoughtfully on her Nutella-covered knife. Loubna explains that despite the bigoted rhetoric about people like her, who are fleeing unimaginable devastation and carnage, she dislikes it when people say Americans hate refugees.

“Seeing the travel ban demonstrations [in January] really moved me,” she says. “I have never seen any demonstration in Lebanon or in Turkey welcoming the Syrian refugees. Those countries are supposed to welcome us because we speak the same language or we [share] borders. But we didn’t see any demonstrations like that. So, for someone who lives across the globe who is not really affected by this, to see them with their children, with their whole families, going to the streets to show love and support, that is what makes this city home for me.”

While she is nervous about her asylum application, Loubna refuses to dwell on the difficulties she now faces. She maintains contact with many other refugees, including friends who have been displaced all over the world. They keep in touch by instant message or Skype; Loubna says many are living in much worse circumstances than she is, desperate for the opportunity she’s been given.

“I already started to build my life here,” she says. “But those who have been in camps for like two years now, three years, waiting to be vetted, they are not able to come because Trump shut down the program.

“I’m not that worried about myself right now,” she continues. “But what worries me is in the future, if I had to leave at some point, you know? Because I came here and I had nothing. I built my life and myself from zero here, and I don’t think I will have the energy to do this in another country.”

As difficult as the asylum process is for those, like Loubna, who have legal representation, it’s utterly incomprehensible to many refugees unable to find lawyers to take their cases. And for asylum seekers from less privileged backgrounds, without an education or fluency in English, life in New York can be a daily struggle.

In a tiny apartment atop a five-story walk-up in the South Bronx, Cirandou Sombou, 27, and Pierre, 40, sit side by side on a green velveteen couch. Cirandou is an attractively round Mauritanian woman wearing a hijab; she works as a security guard. Pierre, whose name has been changed at his request, is a tall, thin man from Burkina Faso in a baseball cap. He speaks very little English, so Cirandou translates from his native French.

Cirandou herself has a difficult story. Not long after she was born, her father was jailed and tortured for political dissent in Mauritania, then in the midst of a war and still a troubled country. Her mother fled to America and received asylum when Cirandou was 7. Her father followed soon after. For most of her life Cirandou’s family lived in Cincinnati; she became a U.S. citizen in 2016. Cirandou has a 1-year-old son. Her husband, who is also from Mauritania, moved to the U.S. shortly after they got married.

Cirandou says her husband was the one who wanted to move to New York, and she agreed, somewhat reluctantly. She speaks of her time in Cincinnati wistfully, missing the quiet and affordability of the Midwest. After a long and fruitless search for another place in New York — the open tabs visible on her computer are mostly Zillow apartment postings — she’s looking into moving back there, if she can get her company to transfer her to its Ohio office.

Having grown up mainly in the U.S., Cirandou is fluent in English and immersed in American culture. Her roommate Pierre, though, whom she met through a friend, is here illegally, having fled his native African country last year because he is gay and homosexuality is not tolerated there. Pierre says that after word got around he was having sex with men, he was harassed and abused by the people in his town — a pattern of violence that escalated until he was eventually beaten almost to death.

“I got married [in Burkina Faso] and had children, just to cover up the fact that I’m gay, but the people in my town already knew what I had been doing and it didn’t work,” he explains, looking at his hands in his lap as Cirandou translates. “I’d try to act a little more manly, especially when I went out with my family, but people knew I used to hang out with gay people, so they would attack me. Eventually, I was tortured and almost killed. Now my family is secluded, in hiding.”

“He’s afraid even to call them,” Cirandou jumps in with concern. “I tell him, phone calls are all right, but sometimes he uses my phone just to call, because he doesn’t want anyone to know where his family is. They could be tortured too.”

Pierre explains that members of his own extended family were responsible for almost murdering him in Burkina Faso, after his wife called him at work and told him they had taken his 10-year-old daughter to be circumcised. Female circumcision, a practice also known as female genital mutilation, is supposedly meant to keep women “pure.”

“I went to tell the police because I did not want her to be circumcised and I was attacked again, this time by family members,” Pierre says. “They said it is part of our culture and with a father like me — when they were finished, they left me for dead. [The doctors] said I wasn’t going to make it, but thank God I did. After that happened, I knew I had to leave.”

According to Pierre, he knew someone well connected enough to procure him an American visa. But the favor wasn’t cheap, and he is now thousands of dollars in debt to this man. Most of the cash he now earns doing odd jobs under the table, such as washing dishes at restaurants, goes toward paying off the money he owes.

Pierre reaches into his mouth and pulls out a set of false teeth. Without it, his gums are empty and puckered.

“This is from when they attacked me,” he says with a lisp. “I still have a difficult time walking and bending over. Until now, I don’t feel safe, because my family is there. My mind is still on what’s happening [in Burkina Faso]. I still talk to my wife and kids on a daily basis, but I thank God that I found a way to be free. I have hope that I can help my family by being here. I don’t know if I should go back to protect my family, but if I do, they will kill me.”

And for undocumented survivors like Pierre, life in New York City is complicated beyond even the weight of their experiences and fear for family members back home: All the while, they must also cope with the near-constant worry that they’ll be deported.

“There are a lot of layers,” says Matthew Kennis of the Libertas Center, which provides support for survivors of torture and other human rights abuses. “There’s the layer of the trauma and the torture, there’s the layer of new beginnings and integration, all of that, and then there’s the foundational aspect of immigration status.”

Cirandou says she tried to set Pierre up with an advocacy organization, but despite physical evidence of his injuries, they were told his case wasn’t strong enough. “He’s the type of person — he can’t trust anybody, so he’s afraid to tell a lot of people his story,” she explains. “I tried to explain to him that it won’t happen that way, but from his experience, he feels like they could knock on his door at any time and tell him, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ ”

Pierre is preoccupied by the thought that he will be swept up by the new immigration policies and sent back to Burkina Faso. He says fear of being asked about his immigration status keeps him from traveling far from his apartment or socializing much. “That’s my number one worry now,” he says. “This president says he’s going to get all the illegals out. I’m afraid that I will be one of those people. I came here for safety, and they want to send me back.”

“He doesn’t have many friends either, but since he came here, we’ve become very close,” Cirandou says, putting her hand on his. “We’re like family now. We eat together; we cook. We comfort him, because we know what it’s like. We all came here as immigrants.”

In a coffee shop near Union Square, Kevin, a handsome 39-year-old from Guyana with a shy smile, sips his drink as he talks. Kevin, whose name has also been changed at his request, came to the U.S. seeking asylum because, like Pierre, as a gay man, he could not live safely in his home country.

“If I displayed any feminine traits growing up, I was scolded for it,” Kevin says. “I was keeping the fact that I was gay a secret until my mom passed away…after that, I would be called names in my neighborhood and attacked. I had to move. I went to a different area and was basically experiencing the same thing from people.”

Kevin describes a pattern of relentless intimidation and violence that followed him as he moved from island to island in the West Indies, which culminated in a humiliating, abusive experience with the local police in Saint Kitts.

“One night my partner and I were out, just hanging out around the beach area, when some cops pulled up on us,” he says. “We didn’t know they were cops immediately, until we got out of the car and saw them. At the time, the crime rate was spiking with guns and stuff, so we initially thought we were being robbed….Then we realized they were police. They asked us what we were doing. Then they took photos of us in positions — like my partner is giving me head, stuff like that. They put their guns in our mouths, saying since we liked stuff in our mouth, feel that in our mouth.

“We got home, and then everything just sank in,” Kevin continues, looking at the table. “We just were bawling. We were shaking. I was upset, because here it is, happening to me again. I was worried for my partner, because he’s never experienced anything like that.”

An American friend explained to Kevin the process of requesting asylum for the reason of sexual orientation and told him he would likely be eligible. “He said, ‘You don’t have to live like that anymore, you know,’ ” Kevin recalls. ” ‘We can apply for asylum, and that will take care of it.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve never heard of asylum for being gay.’ He told me more about it, and I started researching it. It was a scary thought: Is that something that I really want to do? Do I want to come out like that?”

Kim, of the Immigrant Justice Project, explains that she often sees uncertainty like Kevin’s among LGBT refugees still grappling with their sexual identity. “We have clients within our LGBT community who have experienced a lot of harm growing up, and they come here and it’s still a struggle for them,” she says. “They might still be in the closet here because they’re living with family members or people from their own community. They’re replicating those systems of oppression that they were fleeing from, and it sometimes takes them longer to be able to be in a place where they feel safe and able to navigate what can be a really difficult asylum process.”

In Kevin’s case, despite discouragement from family members who worried what people back home would think if it got out that he had admitted in legal documents to being gay, the decision to apply for asylum, when it came, was a huge relief. “When I looked at how I’ve lived all my life, having this secret, having to live in fear, it just came down to ‘I’m going to take a chance,’ ” he says.

Kevin was granted asylum in September of 2015. He now lives in Brooklyn and works at the Anti-Violence Project, an advocacy program run by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. In a number of ways, Kevin’s is an asylum success story: He is now safe, he no longer has to live with a secret, and he is finding a niche in New York, working with the same organization that helped get him on his feet when he first arrived. At his bright, bustling office in the financial district, Kevin seems relaxed.

“When I come here, I know I’m going to work as me, and I don’t have to worry,” Kevin says, his eyes bright with tears, which are quickly smiled away. “That’s all we want: to just breathe, to live without having to think about it.”

But even in these promising circumstances, there is a major absence. Kevin’s partner, still in the Caribbean, is in the process of applying for asylum. Kevin worries for his safety, and the current political atmosphere is compounding his nerves.

“This administration is certainly looking to make asylum harder to get,” Kim says, pointing out that the new administration has further impeded an already overburdened, inefficient system. She notes that the administration’s aggressive rhetoric on the dangers posed by immigrants is not supported by any statistics or studies.

Those statistics — or the absence thereof — may be small comfort for those already building a life in New York. Loubna awaits the results of a vetting process that’s likely to take at least eighteen months, with approval far from certain. For someone who has been rootless and vulnerable for years, it is a painful feeling: to have escaped indescribable suffering and made a life, and yet to know it could be stolen from her at any time.

“When you flee a war and you come here with this huge package of shit in your brain and in your heart, it’s nice to find a place where you can settle down,” Loubna says. “This is where I want my children to be. Of course, they will always know about Syria, and at some point, hopefully, if the war stops, I will take them back. But I do want them to be raised in a place where they can grow. And I have grown so much since I came here.

“That is why I feel like, if my asylum application gets rejected, I will be heartbroken.”