Syrian refugee Lufti Al-Kaer, who has taken refuge in the United States for about three months, still has the bright, hopeful face of a young man.
That’s a bit of a surprise, considering Lufti, 31, was cast away by his family in Syria for being a gay man and was persecuted for years by authorities before winding up in New York.
Lufti, 31, shared his story as he cooked a meal for nine guests at a long table set out in Mazeish Grill for the Displaced Dinners series, twice-weekly dinners cooked by a refugee.
He talked openly with his hands, with an almost imperceptible undercurrent of the shyness of someone who has only recently tasted acceptance.
The devastation in Syria began six years ago as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad but has become a civil war, leaving more than 300,000 people dead and leading an estimated 11 million Syrians to flee to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq in harsh conditions or risk death at sea while seeking salvation in Europe.
But in countries like Egypt and Iraq, homosexuality is a crime and there is no place for people like Lufti.
Lufti spoke about being arrested twice – once for attending a party in Bahrain and once in Dubai for going on a date with an undercover agent – as the first three courses were plated.
"They are not allowed to do private parties in the Middle East, all the Gulf, for gays," he explained.
After the second arrest, Lufti was deported to Syria in 2012, just as the uprising began. Listening to bombs and seeing smoke rise from the impact zones, Lufti decided to move to Egypt.
In Cairo, Lufti made a vow – “no nightclub, no private party, no date!” – but after his homosexual roommate was arrested, Lufti sought help from the United Nations. At that point, Lufti had been away from his family for seven years.
Lufti endured more than a year of meetings, a 12-hour interview and multiple background checks. Refugees to other countries fly free-of-cost, but refugees coming to America have to pay back the cost of their plane ticket, Lufti said, as the main course of rice, meat, eggplant and cucumber yogurt sauce was served.
Lufti arrived in New York City with $70 “welcome cash” in his pocket and took a $92 taxi from the airport to a friend’s apartment.
He wasn’t linked with the resettlement services he had heard about from friends in other parts of the country. Instead, Lufti said he had to apply for jobs, find housing and acquire assistance all on his own.
With help from the LGBT Center, he landed a job at Zara SoHo, where he is paid $2 less per hour than employees with “New York experience” and said he looks forward to taking English classes.
Over cashew-stuffed baklava, Lufti said he is terrified by how much freedom he has now, but he is looking forward to the Gay Pride parade.
“It’s the first I’m happy in New York. And I’m going to gay clubs, first in my life," he said. "I go to the Flash Factory. When I go there, I get pictures, 'Oh my God.'”
He misses Syria, but he doesn’t want to see what his home has become.
His hope is that despite President Trump’s anti-Muslim policies, the U.S. will still provide sanctuary. Many of his friends still need help.
“I don’t know why they stopped the refugees,” Lufti said. “We really need to start a new life in another country.”
Numbers of incoming refugees have dropped under President Trump, even though his executive orders to block refugees from Islamic nations have been denied by the courts.
Around 42,000 refugees have entered the U.S. since October 2016. The average wait time for a refugee’s application to enter the U.S. is 18 to 24 months. About 3,000 refugees a month entered the U.S. in March and April, two of the lowest months since 2013, according to the U.S. State Department.
Unlike other countries, refugees to the U.S. have to pay for their own airfare.
For more information on Displaced Dinners, visit https://www.komeeda.com/series/3. Tickets are $65 and goes toward helping Lufti start a new life.