#19 hope
Danny Ramadan

Hope Is Contagious

How would you feel leaving home for ever? For Danny Ramadan, a gay Syrian, the decision to flee was never his. It was made for him based on who he loved.

They say a smile and a yawn are the only two universally contagious things. There is something so innately human about the way people smile upon seeing you smile; there is something decidedly funny about a yawn race through a group of friends that started with a single, passionate late-night yawn.

So I wondered about hope. Is it equally contagious?

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” I remember whispering to myself as I crossed the border from Damascus to Beirut in July 2012, carried by my own two feet towards an uncertain future as a gay Syrian refugee.

No one chooses to be a refugee of their own free will. When I lived in Damascus, I did not wake up one day and decide to face the challenge of leaving everything I love behind. It is not a mountain to climb or a sea to swim. Being a refugee is a lifelong status that is forced on someone, all the people who are referred to as “guests”, “immigrants”, or “strangers”. The media, the governments and the public have bestowed this identity upon a whole generation of Syrians.

I did not want to be a refugee: Damascus was my home.

Personally, I did not want to be a refugee: Damascus was my home. I worked for a non-profit organisation, and set up a secret meeting place for LGBT-identified Syrians to hang out, watch gay-themed movies, learn about sexualities and gender identities, and have a safe space in a homophobic community.

Those roles fulfilled me. I was living a meaningful life in my own country, hopeful about my job, seeing it as a contribution to a more inclusive community in the city of my birth.

This life came to an abrupt end when I was arrested for my work in the LGBT community. Eventually I found myself forced to leave the country, my circle of friends, my small home on the outskirts of Damascus, and the blooming relationship I had with a handsome Syrian man I had met just two months before.

Hope is like a playful child. You might be able to shush it for a while, but it will come back to play hide and seek in your soul.

That fateful day of my life when I arrived in Beirut, I was lucky enough to be welcomed by the embrace of one of my best friends. It was the time I realised there was no turning back and I let go – finally – of my tears on his shoulders, while he comforted me, promising that “everything will be fine.”

Hope is like a playful child. You might be able to shush it for a while, but it will come back to play hide and seek in your soul.

As I tried to build a life in Beirut, I found an opportunity for working with the Washington Post reporting on the civil war in my country right next door. I found a circle of close friends, some of them Lebanese and others Syrian refugees like me. We would gather every other night in the room I rented in an old crumbling house in downtown Beirut. We would play cards, smoke cigarettes, share beers, laugh at funny YouTube videos, and play pranks on one another.

Hope – still tiny and small in my first couple of weeks in Beirut – grew larger and stronger through the small community around me. Then it blossomed like a flower when a Syrian-Canadian friend of mine got in touch with me. “Would you consider immigrating to Canada?” he asked.

… I knew that there would be no returning to that land for me.

I did not know what the future held for me back then. I didn’t know where my life would take me. Some days, I hoped that the civil war in Syria would come to a sudden conclusion. I hoped that peace would return to my city, and I would find myself on the road back to Damascus. Other days, I looked at the machine of war that is devouring everything and everyone in its way around Syria, and I knew that there would be no returning to that land for me.

“Yes,” I replied, freaking out a bit inside, “but how do I do it?”

My friend introduced me to a group of Canadians who learned about my situation and decided that they needed to do something about it. “You will be among family here,” one of them said over Skype, “you will find your true self in this beautiful country.” I smiled. Hope within me was growing bigger and stronger. I was certain: There must be light at the end of the dark, twisted tunnel, and I was walking in steady steps towards it.

After two long years, I finally woke up one morning to the ringing of my phone. It was the Canadian embassy calling for a final interview. The meeting was fast and easy. The Canadian officer smiled and assured me once again that “everything will be fine.”

A month later, I was on a plane to Vancouver, Canada. I was carried by the winds of hope throughout the flight; I could not stay in my seat for most of it. I was too excited.

… I had left behind my community, my little room, the nights of cards and beers, and the friends I cared for more than anything in the world.

Before I arrived, I did not fully realise that – once again – I had left behind my community, my little room, the nights of cards beers, and the friends I cared for more than anything in the world.

Hope can be a tricky little thing, right? It can blind you from seeing the challenges lining up ahead.

Alone, I tried to navigate this new culture that was completely different from mine. I tried to understand my place in the hierarchy of the society around me. I arrived with dreams of riding rollercoasters and enjoying sunny nights on a balcony overlooking the Rainbow Crosswalk in Vancouver’s gay village, but I did not account for the culture shock I felt. I did not anticipate the post-traumatic stress disorder that reared its head from behind my playful hope. Lonely, I travelled through the city looking for meaningful work, but no one would hire me.

I could not tell the people who had worked so hard to bring me here that I actually missed “home” (...)

One day, late at night, I sat in my home on the outskirts of Vancouver, drinking a beer. My only friend was Netflix, and I missed my days back in Beirut and Damascus. The worst of it was the fact that I could not share that with many folks. I could not tell the people who had worked so hard to bring me here that I actually missed “home” even if that was a normal thing to feel. “I should be grateful I am here,” I kept telling myself, “I should be thankful. I should be appreciative.”

Then, six months later, I suddenly realised that the solution had been in front of my eyes all along, but I simply could not see it. The little activist within me woke up and decided that there was another job for me to do. I could not go back to Damascus and Beirut, but I could bring them to me. I could work on turning Vancouver into a sanctuary city for other LGBT-identified Syrian refugees, the same way it had been for me.

Hope, once again, lit its little candle in my heart, and I was ready to go.

In July 2015, I started my first sponsorship group to bring a Syrian lesbian woman to Vancouver.

I started to speak out in the media, at public speaking events, and to whomever would listen about my personal story, about my path and my struggles. I started telling them about the other side of Syria: The proud people in it, my friends in the LGBT community and their challenges. People listened; they heard my stories and connected with them. They, too, felt that they could do something.

In July 2015, I started my first sponsorship group to bring a Syrian lesbian woman to Vancouver. A group of 14 Canadian sponsors joined in support of her. We threw fundraising events, and we asked friends for money and support. We managed to pull together over $46,000 in funds. The woman and her sister got the call for their final interview a bit over a month ago. They will be arriving in Vancouver any day now.

Hope – as I told you – is contagious. Other LGBT-identified Syrians heard about me and about my work. They started adding me on Facebook, telling me their stories, and asking for my help. Through the support of Rainbow Refugee Society, a local organisation from Canada, I was able to reach more groups of Canadians to privately sponsor more LGBT-identified refugees. Today, there are over eleven groups across Canada sponsoring gay, lesbian and transsexual refugees.

The little candle of hope within me is now a fire providing warmth across borders and across nations.

The little candle of hope within me is now a fire providing warmth across borders and across nations. Its sparks catch in the souls of other LGBT Syrian refugees who – like me – have almost let war and hate suffocate the delicate ember of hope.

As for me, my community here is growing every single day as more folks who speak my native language, who understand my culture and who laugh at my jokes come over. They are building their own futures, and I am here to help them.

Some of them are still waiting for me to find other sponsors and raise more funds. I tell them: Believe me, you should never lose hope. Everything will be fine.

Photo: “Maple Leaf pride (Gay Canada flag)” by Canadian Pacific
2014 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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