Syrian-born Subhi Nahas knows he is lucky to be alive. A gay man, he understood that his life was in danger every moment in his homeland.
“If you’re discovered by your family, they cut all ties,” he told a packed house at a San Francisco Jewish Film Festival event held at the Castro Theatre last weekend. “Many people were killed because they’re gay, and that makes me feel responsible” to speak out.
Nahas, who now lives in San Francisco, joined the July 22 panel discussion that followed screenings of two films on the topic of refugees, past and present.
Other panelists included Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS, the Jewish organization that has been protecting refugees for 130 years; and Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services for Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. Nahas was one of the refugees settled by JFCS East Bay. KQED radio host Michael Krasny served as moderator.
The afternoon began with the screening of “Stranger in Paradise,” which highlighted issues faced by refugees from countries plagued by war, oppression and government-sanctioned violence against the LGBT community.
Nahas, who founded Spectra Project, an organization that helps LGBTQ refugees resettle in the United States, spoke in favor of admitting more refugees, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to slow immigration. He said several Middle Eastern countries consider homosexuality a crime punishable by death.
That discussion was followed by a screening of “Voyage of the Damned,” a 1976 film that dramatizes the story of the St. Louis, a ship that carried Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939 and was turned away by the United States and Cuba, returning the refugees home to certain death.
“There are analogies to the Syrian crisis and the Jewish refugees during the Holocaust,” Hetfield said. “The Holocaust didn’t start out as the Holocaust. It started out with mild discrimination which escalated. The world did nothing.”
All three panelists noted the hostilities of the current U.S. administration toward refugees.
Hetfield spoke of the “landscape of xenophobia” in the Trump era. “The landscape has changed,” he said. “For 37 years we worked closely with the U.S. government. The government is now adversarial, which is why we had to bring them to court.”
Weiss noted that the cost of living could make it challenging to resettle refugees in the Bay Area.
“It’s tough to be starting a new life in the Bay Area, what with housing costs,” she said. “We are dependent on working with our communities. People want to stand up and support refugees because it’s against our American values to be hostile to refugees.”
Weiss added that some Bay Area residents have been opening their homes to refugees, including some who had done so more than once. “I’m blessed to be doing work in this community,” she added. “We work with temples, churches and mosques.”
“It takes a generation for refugees to settle in,” noted Nahas. “LGBT refugees are the most vulnerable because they don’t have families to settle in with.”