The Lonely, Heroic Work of a Gay Libyan Refugee Living in America

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.

Late last week, in a West Village townhome, Hass Agili scrolled past the Facebook messages containing death threats and hate speech, past the harrowing notes disgracing him and his family, and tapped on a message from a college student living outside Tripoli. For privacy reasons, we’ll call him Ali. He’s 18 years old, and the cover photo on his Facebook profile is an image of Hass standing in front of the Statue of Liberty.

Their message chain is written in both Arabic and English, mixed with heart emojis and screenshots from secret LGBTQ Facebook pages with posts praising Hass. Exchanging messages with Hass, a gay Libyan who successfully gained refugee status and resettled in the United States, is like talking to a celebrity, says Ali. Ali asks Hass for advice on how he, too, can escape Libya, and wants to know what the U.S. Supreme Court ruling partially reinstating the travel ban means for potential refugees like him. Ali risks his life by sharing so much with Hass about how he survives as a gay person in Libya. If anyone were to find these messages, he would be outed and likely killed. Ali is just one of many gay Libyans now coming to Hass for help.

“They are really scared and desperate to get out,” said Hass.

Out of the nearly 85,000 refugees admitted to the US in 2016, Hass was the only Libyan, and there hasn’t been another since. He’s now 34 years old, living in New York City with a Social Security number and refugee status that expires this month. As required by law, Hass applied for a green card, and now he waits on the status of his application.

“I worry that the Trump administration and repercussions from the travel ban might affect my application. But nobody will tell you anything. There’s nothing I can do but wait and see,” said Hass.

In the meantime, Hass has found purpose in advising gay Libyans on how they, too, can find refuge from a country with harsh realities for gay individuals.

Hass arrived in the U.S. six months before President Donald Trump listed Libya among the Muslim-majority countries whose nationals would not be allowed entry into the United States, but it wasn’t until a month after the executive order that word of Hass’s story spread. A CNN story emerged that detailed Hass’s escape from Libya. It explained how, in 2011, after the Gaddafi government fell to the Arab Spring, the situation for gay Libyans was dire. Hass remembers watching videos of gay people he knew being beheaded.

“They put him in the center of a soccer stadium,” Hass said, “with kids and men and women watching, and killed him. He was a nice guy. We went out for drinks once.”

Hass was outed as gay by a university classmate shortly after. He was ostracized and harassed. No longer safe in Tripoli, he scrounged up $300 dollars and set off for Jordan, then to Lebanon and, later, Slovakia. Hass spent 563 days enmeshed in the dizzying process of seeking refugee status with the UNHCR and jumping through every hoop required of the few who are granted resettlement in the United States.

“I had six in-person interviews, went through I don’t know how many federal agencies”—there were eight—“had three sets of fingerprints taken and a retinal scan.” Hass arrived at JFK Airport on June 6, 2016, thanks in large part to the support of journalist Andrew Solomon, who Hass met while Solomon was reporting in Tripoli in 2005. Hass now lives with Solomon and his family.

Hass’s story made a splash in English-speaking media. The CNN video was viewed over 1 million times and the article reached over 150 million people on social platforms. Quickly thereafter, it went viral in Libya after being translated into Arabic.

“I immediately got all these messages on Facebook, English, and Arabic, from around the world,” said Hass. The messages convey everything from support to disgust, and collectively, they paint a salient image of the seldom seen complexities that gay refugees face.

“A friend from high school, he’s actually a Libyan refugee in Norway, sent me an angry message. He said, ‘Did you ever think of your family before doing this? You’re a horrible person,’ ” said Hass. Other past classmates taunted him on social media. “They made fun of my mother, for some reason, and started arguing that I’m not even Libyan.”

The death threats came, too, from both home and abroad, from people of every creed. One note from a New York City resident read We are in the city. We’ll find him, and we’ll kill him.

The cultural hostility against homosexuals makes Hass hesitant to engage with fellow refugees or Libyan communities in the U.S. “To many of them, I am like a dirty animal. To them, gay is sodomy, simple as that. They’d say, ‘He deserves to die and no one should shed a tear on you.’ ” This, compounded with the rejection of human diversity and celebration of exclusionary nationalism that has rapidly spread since the 2016 election, further isolated Hass.

The negative response spurred a bout of depression. “I felt like I had this IV in my arm, and there was this poison going inside my veins. It felt like I hadn’t left Libya,” he said.

But the messages from gay Libyans brought an unexpected salve. Despite only knowing a handful of other gay men and women from his life in Tripoli, Hass became an overnight hero among Libya’s LGBTQ community.

“All these gay people and groups in Libya found me and told me they watch the video every day,” he said. One of the first was Ali.

“When I responded to Ali, he could not believe it was me. And I could relate to that. I can imagine myself still in Libya, and the thrill I would feel if I could speak to that person, to know that this escape is doable. If someone can leave, I can too,” said Hass.

Many of Hass’s former counterparts wonder about the travel ban. Hass regrets that, to this day, he can offer them no material help. “I have to tell them that the U.S. is probably not going to be up for resettlement right now,” he said. “Even if they manage to escape Libya, and are granted refugee status, they won’t end up in the U.S.”

For years, as the UNHCR referred individuals with refugee status for resettlement—less than one percent of the more than 22 million refugees are resettled—the United States accepted more refugees than any other nation. (The year Hass arrived in U.S. so did 12,587 refugees from Syria and 9,880 from Iraq.) Those numbers have since declined. Last October, 9,945 refugees resettled in the U.S. In March 2017, there were only 2,070, according to the Pew Research Center. This coincides with Trump’s two executive orders stating that refugee admissions should observe a cap of 50,000; the Obama administration’s annual ceiling was 110,000. Of course, Trump’s pen stroke also excluded all nationals from six Muslim-majority countries, including Libya.

“It was already bad,” said Hass. “With the U.S. leaving the picture, chances hit the floor. Waiting times will be longer now.”

In his recent messages with Ali and other gay Libyans, questions arose about what subsequent rulings from the Supreme Court might mean for them as asylum-seekers.

“I told them it doesn’t look much better, unless someone has close family in the States,” Hass said.

Hass told me that If Ali did manage to leave Libya legally, he’d have to go to a neighboring country and maneuver his way to a city where the UNHCR has an office. He’d apply for refugee status and have to convince officials that he is indeed gay and faces persecution back home. While Ali is in a vulnerable situation, in the grand scheme of the global refugee crisis, he lands somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy of risk. If Ali managed to get to Europe, some countries—like Holland and the Scandinavian countries—would provide him an allowance while he waits on his application. But the odds of being stuck in limbo, waiting on emails, letters, interviews, and approvals for years, are higher than ever. The system is inflexible and unconcerned by its own complexity.

“I wish I could tell them it will work, that I could say, ‘This is exactly how it will happen.’ But it’s a gambling process. You put your life at risk and wait. Meanwhile, there’s nothing left in your country, you are running away for your life. So, you have to be willing to take the risk.”

The time to leave may never come for Ali. He’d need great financial backing to leave Libya and sustain him during the arduous application process. Hass tells him that it may not be until the end of the Trump administration that he can offer substantive help. Nonetheless, Hass remains Ali’s source for counsel and hope, and, in turn, Hass has come to rely on Ali and other gay Libyans to find purpose in his new life.

“It makes me feel like it was all worthwhile. One day, once I’m a citizen, I’ll be able to provide some real material help to these people.” Hass still wants to become a doctor in the U.S., but his chances of doing so are slim. He’d have to start over from the undergraduate level. He may have a better chance of forging a new path working with asylum seekers tied up in the fraught system.

Hass says that, if anything, his experience thus far has taught him about the tenuous and volatile role of the country he now calls home.

“Regardless of what’s going on in this country with Trump, people all around the world are still looking up to the U.S. … And being here now, I have to realize that when I’m fighting for my rights, I am fighting for everyone’s rights all around the world.”

Hass likes to think he will make the road easier for others who might follow someday—that his story, and hopefully Ali’s too, will alter our understanding of the term refugee.