Jetlagged and jittery, Hass walks through the arrivals door at John F. Kennedy International Airport — eyes darting left and right, scanning the sea of strange faces in front of him.
A company of one
Read More In the fiscal year ending 2016, the US admitted 84,995 refugees, all from different walks of life and different parts of the world. The only thing they had in common was that they were all fleeing. Poverty. Persecution. War. Most came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Myanmar. Hass was the only one admitted to America from Libya. That’s a bittersweet realization for him. Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily blocking all new refugees entering the country. Seven Muslim-majority countries are affected especially hard. Among them is Libya. Had his long, never-ending paperwork stretched into this year, he wouldn’t be here. He would be caught up in the sea of people who are no longer allowed in because they are not American citizens or permanent residents. The stakes were great for him. Had he not made it to US shores, he doesn’t know what fate awaited him. Hass is a gay man, from a country where it’s illegal to be one. Where gays have been thrown into jail or, in some case, executed. That’s the reason CNN isn’t using his last name. His family is unaware of his orientation, and he worries about their security.
In the shadow of Lady Liberty
He spoke to CNN from the house that once belonged to poet Emma Lazarus. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” is inscribed on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty. “Until I got here, I didn’t know who lived here. It makes me feel like I live inside the Statue of Liberty,” he said. “I cannot imagine me starting a life in any place else better than this.” He’s certain that’s the same for every other refugee — the “homeless, tempest-tost,” as Lazarus put it.
The moment it went wrong
Before the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, Hass was studying to be a doctor, a dream he’s had since he first saw a doctor in a show on TV. When he went to vacation in Tunisia during break one year, he left his laptop with a friend. He returned to find his friend’s demeanor toward him had changed. He stopped answering his calls or speaking to him.
“I soon learned that he had looked at my browsing history and saw some gay websites,” Hass said. “He had read some chats I had had with men.” Word of Hass’s sexual orientation spread around the university. He soon became an outcast, shunned and insulted. “That was it for me,” he said. “I was scared. I didn’t know what might happen.” Medical school became unbearable. The fact he couldn’t explain to his parents why he stopped going also ate away at him. “I could not tell my family something like this,” he said. “It’s something unacceptable. This is something you cannot talk about.” He worried about his siblings. They’d be harassed and shamed too if people found out about him. “You have to be from the culture to understand what it means there,” he said.
A time to leave
Shortly after, the Arab Spring took Libya and the Gadhafi government with it.
Hatching a plan
Hass scrounged together $300 for a one-way ticket to Jordan. He packed some t-shirts and a few pair of jeans. That was it. “I left behind in Libya…everything,” he said. “I have some stuff that you will never find them anywhere: your memories, your family. And I still miss them.” His brother drove him to the airport, but he didn’t know Hass had no plans of coming back. “Why didn’t you tell me so I could give you a proper goodbye?” he later asked Hass. “I couldn’t,” Hass replied. From Amman, Jordan, he went to Beirut, where he had friends. He began cold-calling embassies. Each one responded the same way: We can only help if the UNHCR refers you.
A deafening silence
Although Hass was granted asylum-seeking status, the process to obtain refugee status had just begun. He was told he would have to wait until March 2015 for the refugee status interview.
The long wait
Of the refugees the UNHCR deals with, it only recommends 1 percent for resettlement to another country. Refugees state their preference; the countries decide whether they’ll accept. Because he already spoke the language, Hass said he preferred an English-speaking country, “I don’t want to waste time learning a new language.” He was told someone would contact him in the next 40 days. “I had no idea what’s going on,” he said. “I was just waiting.” No country is taking in refugees, he was told. He’d just have to wait. Hass took up baking, just to take his mind off the agonizing wait. He became very good at it. If he was invited to a dinner, he’d bake. If he was going to a birthday party, he’d bake. Finally, on a July morning in 2015 — almost a full year after he left Tripoli — a phone call woke him up. “Hello, this is the resettlement office from the American Embassy,” the voice said. The embassy asked him to bring in contact information of anyone he knew in the US. He immediately remembered Andrew Solomon, a New York Times writer he met in Libya in 2005. “For some reason, I kept his business card all these years in my wallet,” said Hass. “When I got that, I checked my wallet and I emailed him.”
The winding road
The refugee resettlement process is rigorous and tedious. After the UNHCR, the US does its own vetting. Over and over again. This process involves eight federal agencies, six different databases, five separate background checks, four fingerprint and biometric checks, three in-person interviews and two inter-agency checks.
Then, it vets some more. If a refugee is allowed to come to the US, he or she faces another screening before embarking, and another security check at a US airport.
Solomon, the Times writer, took Hass’ case to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who wrote a letter of support for him. Hass’ first interview, in December 2015, began at 8 a.m. and went all day. “They will ask about every single detail in your passport,” Hass remembered. “I mean every single trip that you went to. And the details: where you stayed, the address of that place, what did you do there.” He passed his first round. He was ready for his interview with Homeland Security. For that, he’d have to fly to Slovakia because Homeland agents weren’t conducting interviews in Lebanon any longer.
The same questions
For those keeping count — and Hass was — it had been 563 days since he left Tripoli. In Slovakia, he was quarantined in a newcomers’ center for 20 days to ensure there were no health issues. “It was not easy,” Hass said. “It was like a prison.” He sat through another interview. For an entire week after that, he said he got a call every day from the same person asking additional questions. Then the final word came: The US would accept him as a refugee. He was set to arrive in June 2016.
On June 6, 2016, on an Austrian Airlines flight, Hass flew to New York City, tightly clutching a sealed envelope with the official documents for his new life. The customs agent opened the envelope, took Hass’ photo and fingerprints again. He walked out the arrivals door to the woman from Catholic Charties waiting for him. Hass was home.
A new life
Fate is a funny little thing. Andrew Solomon didn’t just help Hass in his resettlement process, he’s now housing him — in the same house that once was Emma Lazarus’ home. She wrote “The New Colossus,” the poem emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. Hass is now a big brother of sorts to Solomon’s son. At 33, he’s trying to resume his medical studies. “I was this close. I was an exam away,” he said. “I want to try and finish my studies and work as a doctor here. This is why I left. Because I wanted to make that dream come true.” It’s proving difficult: his previous classes won’t transfer; some schools have told him they’ll require him to restart at the undergraduate level. That won’t stop Hass though. Nothing has so far. Six days after Hass arrived, shots rang out at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando. Forty nine people died in the deadliest mass shooting in US history. “I had just run away from this,” he thought. “I escaped the country scared of this.” But that month, New York City also held its Pride Parade where he saw men kiss openly. “It took me awhile to believe it,” he said as he laughed. “I stood there for 30 minutes waiting for that to happen again.”
The next chapter
Resettled refugees are required to sit through orientation before arriving in their new countries. “Don’t expect that you come here and lay down and sleep,” he remembers being told. “You are here to work. You are here to make your life happen.” He’s already working part-time as a medical translator in New York-area hospitals. “I just want to be a normal person who live here being free — having his rights,” he said. “I want to have rights that I did not have back home. I want to pay my taxes and live my life and work — and be a part of society.”
He has already received his first tax form. He admits he has no idea what to do with it, but he’s enthusiastic about paying the amount. “I will probably be the only person in the country who is happy to pay taxes this year,” he said. Refugees also must repay the cost of their airfare within six months. His was $930 and he’s making payments. Hass is also legally required to apply for permanent residency a year after arriving. Five years from that, he’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship. Hass shared his story because he wants to show the extensive process refugees and asylum seekers go through. He hopes those in power, including President Trump, take a moment to listen. “I want to show what a refugee is,” he said. “Maybe show him how we think. We are actually human. We are not an alien. We are not terrorists also.” Hass will not let anyone define him by his status: refugee. “I want to say new American,” he said proudly. “Everyone here was a refugee at some point. Why just you don’t call me new American?”