Village Voice 05.10.2017 : Page 26

28 May 10 -May 16, 2017 work with,” says Jennifer Kim, co-director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the City Bar Justice Center, a pro bono legal advocacy group. Loubna was an activist in Syria when the war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces broke out in 2011 — dangerous work at a time when people opposing the regime were already disap-pearing into jails at an alarming rate. The violence of the Syrian civil war has claimed dozens of family members and friends, including her mother. Loubna is adamant that she not appear to be a victim, but there is a nervous, haunted quality to her movements as she dis-cusses that time in her life. “My first experience with death was at a protest,” she says. “It was the first time someone fired at us. I was like, ‘No way is this happening,’ until I saw someone dropping dead. And my heart and brain just froze and I knew that I couldn’t do anything but run. I kept praying I wouldn’t get shot in the back.” Loubna says she has since seen dozens of people killed in front of her. “Dude, it’s a civil war,” she says when asked for an approximate number. “You go to sleep in a place like East Aleppo, and you don’t even know if you will wake up the next morning.” Though she had majored in English literature at university, Loubna, as a me-dia activist during a war, learned photog-raphy out of necessity. In May 2014 she received a photography fellowship from NYU. Loubna moved to New York and applied for asylum a year and a half later, in 2016. Human Rights First, an advocacy group, is representing her. But it’s a diffi-cult process, and with the sudden shift in approach to immigration policy brought on by Trump, she anxiously awaits the ruling on her application. “Even if you have the best lawyer on earth, it’s not something that’s up to the lawyer,” Loubna says. “The only thing that the lawyer can do for you is just file your case and send it.” At her apartment, she types on her laptop while sucking thoughtfully on her Nutella-covered knife. Loubna explains that despite the bigoted rhetoric about people like her, who are fleeing unimagi-nable devastation and carnage, she dislikes it when people say Americans hate refugees. “Seeing the travel ban demonstrations [in January] really moved me,” she says. “I have never seen any demonstration in Lebanon or in Turkey welcoming the Syr-ian refugees. Those countries are sup-posed to welcome us because we speak the same language or we [share] borders. But we didn’t see any demonstrations like that. So, for someone who lives across the globe who is not really affected by this, to see them with their children, with their whole families, going to the streets to show love and support, that is what makes this city home for me.” While she is nervous about her asylum application, Loubna refuses to dwell on the difficulties she now faces. She maintains contact with many other refugees, including friends who have been displaced all over the world. They keep in touch by instant message or Skype; Loubna says many are living in much worse circumstances than she is, desperate for the opportunity she’s been given. “I already started to build my life A s difficult as the asylum process is for those, like Loubna, who have legal representation, it’s utterly incomprehensible to many refugees un-able to find lawyers to take their cases. And for asylum seekers from less privi-leged backgrounds, without an education or fluency in English, life in New York can be a daily struggle. Loubna Mrie: “I came here and had nothing. I built my life and myself from zero here.” here,” she says. “But those who have been in camps for like two years now, three years, waiting to be vetted, they are not able to come because Trump shut down the program. “I’m not that worried about myself right now,” she continues. “But what worries me is in the future, if I had to leave at some point, you know? Because I came here and I had nothing. I built my life and myself from zero here, and I don’t think I will have the energy to do this in another country.” In a tiny apartment atop a five-story walk-up in the South Bronx, Cirandou Sombou, 27, and Pierre, 40, sit side by side on a green velveteen couch. Ciran-dou is an attractively round Mauritanian woman wearing a hijab; she works as a security guard. Pierre, whose name has been changed at his request, is a tall, thin man from Burkina Faso in a baseball cap. He speaks very little English, so Cirandou translates from his native French. Cirandou herself has a difficult story. Not long after she was born, her father was jailed and tortured for political dissent in Mauritania, then in the midst of a war and still a troubled country. Her mother fled to America and received asylum when Cirandou was 7. Her father followed soon after. For most of her life Cirandou’s family lived in Cincinnati; she became a U.S. citizen in 2016. Cirandou has a 1-year-old son. Her husband, who is also from Mauritania, moved to the U.S. shortly after they got married. Cirandou says her husband was the one who wanted to move to New York, and she agreed, somewhat reluctantly. She speaks of her time in Cincinnati wist-fully, missing the quiet and affordability of the Midwest. After a long and fruitless search for another place in New York — the open tabs visible on her computer are mostly Zillow apartment postings — she’s looking into moving back there, if she can get her company to transfer her to its Ohio office. Having grown up mainly in the U.S., Cirandou is fluent in English and im-mersed in American culture. Her room-mate Pierre, though, whom she met through a friend, is here illegally, having fled his native African country last year because he is gay and homosexuality is not tolerated there. Pierre says that after word got around he was having sex with men, he was harassed and abused by the people in his town — a pattern of violence that escalated until he was eventually beaten almost to death. “I got married [in Burkina Faso] and had children, just to cover up the fact that I’m gay, but the people in my town al-ready knew what I had been doing and it didn’t work,” he explains, looking at his hands in his lap as Cirandou translates. “I’d try to act a little more manly, espe-cially when I went out with my family, but people knew I used to hang out with gay people, so they would attack me. Eventu-ally, I was tortured and almost killed. Now my family is secluded, in hiding.” “He’s afraid even to call them,” Ciran-dou jumps in with concern. “I tell him, phone calls are all right, but sometimes he uses my phone just to call, because he doesn’t want anyone to know where his family is. They could be tortured too.” Pierre explains that members of his own extended family were responsible for almost murdering him in Burkina Faso, after his wife called him at work and told him they had taken his 10-year-old daughter to be circumcised. Female circumcision, a practice also known as female genital mutilation, is supposedly meant to keep women “pure.” “I went to tell the police because I did not want her to be circumcised and I was attacked again, this time by family mem-bers,” Pierre says. “They said it is part of our culture and with a father like me — when they were finished, they left me for dead. [The doctors] said I wasn’t going to make it, but thank God I did. After that happened, I knew I had to leave.” According to Pierre, he knew some-one well connected enough to procure him an American visa. But the favor VILLAGE

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