Google opened its doors to ORAM and experts in legal issues affecting LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees for a panel discussion during the tech giant’s annual “Giving Week” on December 2.
The Wednesday event was hosted the day after “Giving Tuesday” on December 1.
The discussion carried the weight of recent events that have carpeted the news from the refugee crisis in Europe, back-to-back terrorist attacks, and political backlash including a bill in Congress calling to halt the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S.
To help the dozens of Google employees who attended the event in person or via livestream on their computers grasp the situation, especially as it pertains to LGBTI refugees fleeing the Middle East, openly gay Google employees Ish Fofana and Kevin Steen invited three experts to speak at the tech giant’s Mountain View headquarters.
Gay Syrian refugee and ORAM staff member Subhi Nahas joined two other panelists, O, a gay Jordanian man who recently arrived in the U.S. and is only being identified by his first initial to protect his privacy, and immigration attorney and ORAM supporter Shawn Matloob.Ish moderated the panel discussion.
“It was a very educational evening with Subhi talking about the challenges of being an LGBT person in Syria and the drama of his life as well as the drama of O’s life in Jordan. Shawn gave a really clear perspective on many issues facing LGBT refugees,” said Peter Altman, the San Francisco director of ORAM, about the discussion.
Shawn clarified the difference between asylum seekers and refugees and the challenges both groups face in their respective processes as well as the processes adjusting and assimilating into American society.
Audience visibly touched
Like Google audience members, ORAM staff that were present at the talk, were visibly touched by the heartbreaking stories.
Both Subhi and O experienced their families’ and communities’ deep hostility and feared attempts to harm or kill them in their respective countries, they said.
“O told a very dramatic story, extremely dramatic,” said Peter, talking about O’s story about having to hide under a burka whenever he went out into public fearing he would be killed. “[He experienced] very, very severe persecution in Jordan. It was really stunning.”
Subhi talked about being a prisoner in his own home, held against his will by his father. He also told of militias who at one time stopped his bus and held him along with others in a house where they were tortured, but fortunately let go. Subhi’s father eventually attacked him and sent him to the hospital. He left soon thereafter.
Ali Khoie, who is the management consultant, of ORAM, conception of Jordan was redefined by the discussion.
“I used to think of Jordan as a little more open-minded than some other Arab countries, but it seems like the situation is definitely just as bad there although they have a very, very forward looking Queen Rania,” said Ali after hearing O talk about being gay in Jordan.
Ali was also surprised about the challenges asylum seekers face compared to his own experience as an Iranian refugee.
The process for asylum seekers is often long and arduous taking years to have their case come to fruition or be tossed back into the pool to be heard again, Shawn told the audience. During these long periods of time, asylum seekers aren’t allowed to work legally and it’s more expensive to live in the U.S. However, while it’s illegal for refugees to work in Turkey,the police look the other way and refugees are able to eke out a small living.
“It’s just very difficult compared to refugees,” said Ali.
Peter was fascinated by O’s shift in perspective of America by coming here. In Jordan, people believe that American policy is hostile to Islam, but in America O learned that was not at all the case.
“When he was in Jordan he was taught to believe that America was just trying to subdue Islam,” said Peter. “When he came here, he learned that we are really are all the same and he appealed for respect for the other.”
“He passionately appealed for the understanding and kindness,” Peter added. “He believes in the commonality of people.”
Shock and compassion
While there was an air of shock by Subhi and O’s stories and Shawn’s legal perspective, audience members began to ask questions about how they could help solve the crisis or chip in to help LGBTI refugees, Ali, Subhi, and Peter said.
“People want to end the war” in Syria and talk more about the initiatives ORAM is doing in Turkey, said Subhi. He also sees talking about refugee issues at corporations that have a stake in refugee host countries could help by developing reforms and strategies that could “support the economy through refugees’ employment.”
The concern expressed by Google employees was refreshing for Ali to see.
“It’s really nice to see that people here are actually starting to care more than on an emotional level, ‘I really feel for these people,’ but now it seems like people are moving beyond that point and say, ‘I care about these people and I want to do something for them,’ which is really good because beyond this point things get done,” said Ali.
“It was a really, really excellent evening. It covered a lot of ground. It had very profound moments, very touching moments, it was very educational, and I thought it was lovely,” said Peter, who will be returning to Google in the coming month to discuss fundraising opportunities for ORAM.