It was only two months ago, when his plane took off from Turkey to take him to his new life in the United States, that Subhi Nahas said he finally felt safe.
“I felt like I owned my life for the first time, that I was going to be all right, and when I landed in America it was overwhelming,” Nahas told The Daily Beast.
Until then Nahas, a 28-year-old gay Syrian refugee originally from Idlib, a city of 1½ million residents north of Damascus, feared he would be murdered by ISIS for being gay.
A former schoolfriend who had joined ISIS told a mutual friend of theirs he wanted to kill Nahas.
The murders of gay men by ISIS, captured in horrific photographs—being thrown from buildings and stoned to death—have shocked and sickened the world, just as the brutal murderers of ISIS hoped they would.
On Monday, Nahas in person, and an Iraqi man known by the pseudonym of “Adnan” by phone from a secret location (as he said he feared for his life), made history by becoming the first people to address the United Nations Security Council on the persecution of LGBT people under ISIS.
Nahas told the Security Council: “I was born to a respected and proud family. I love my country, my culture, and my people. I am a refugee and I am gay.”
Nahas said he was at the U.N. both to bear witness and to implore the members of Security Council, “as emissaries of conscience, to rally your nations to save my people—those who are trapped in Syria and those who like me have lost everything and have become refugees.”
ISIS’s agenda, Nahas told The Daily Beast, is to “exterminate or kill gay people, and if it doesn’t catch them, it wants gay people to hide away and not have a chance to form a community, or it wants them to enter a forced marriage.”
To target gay people, ISIS operatives “look at how you walk, how you dress your hair, and certain standards they set that if you fall beneath, they assume you are gay,” Nahas said. “It is nearly impossible for gay people to meet, and if you try to meet online, you are scared of being monitored or of the fake accounts ISIS creates to trap gay people. Nobody is safe.”
ISIS uses phone records and social media to hunt gays, Adnan said.
“In my society, being gay means death, and when [ISIS] kills gays, most people are happy because they think we are evil, and Islamic State gets a good credit for that,” Adnan said, referring to the alternate name for ISIS.
“They hunt them down one by one. When they capture people, they go through the person’s phone and contacts and Facebook friends. They are trying to track down every gay man.
“And it’s like dominoes. If one goes, the others will be taken down, too.”
Adnan’s family would kill him, too, if they could find him. “If ISIS didn’t get me, members of my family would have done it.”
Reading Adnan’s shocking story,
the litany of prejudice and violence he has faced is awful enough—quite apart from the horrific stories he told of other gay men he has known who have been killed and persecuted by ISIS.
Growing up, Nahas told The Daily Beast, other children harassed him and wouldn’t play with him. His family, realizing he was different, didn’t accept him.
He maintains communication with his sister and hopes to re-establish a relationship with his mother, but his father has rejected him.
“They don’t like it,” Nahas told The Daily Beast about his family’s attitude to his homosexuality. “They rejected it. They considered it a disease. They wanted me to ‘cure’ myself, to do anything to change myself.”
In 2011, Nahas told the U.N., at the start of the uprising in Syria, government media launched a campaign accusing all dissidents of being homosexuals.
“Soon after, authorities waged systematic raids on locales where gay people met. Many were arrested and tortured. Some were never heard from again.”
In 2012, Nahas too became a target. “Soldiers stopped the bus I was riding to university,” he said. “They took us to a secluded house where they assaulted us. They noticed my effeminacy and they mocked me, calling me faggot, sissy, and other profanities unworthy of this chamber.
“I feared that one of them—or all of them—would rape and kill me. You see, those who condemn us for being different are often the ones who brutalize us sexually. Miraculously, I was released.”
Nahas said he watched in fear as a group of anti-Assad rebels led by the al Qaeda branch Jabhat al-Nusra took Idlib in October 2012.
After arresting and torturing one effeminate man, they announced at a mosque that they would cleanse the town of those involved in sodomy, Nahas said.
“More arrests followed, and many more men were tortured to confess their sins. Some were killed. They and other Islamist groups executed more accused homosexuals that year.”
These arrests and executions continued unnoticed by the outside world, Nahas noted. After ISIS took over, it stepped up the violent attacks on suspected LGBT people, proudly publishing the images that we in the West are so revolted over.
“At the executions, hundreds of townspeople, including children, cheered jubilantly as at a wedding,” Nahas said. “If a victim did not die after being hurled off a building, the townspeople stoned him to death. This was to be my fate, too. I was terrified to go out. Nor was my home safe, as my father, who suspiciously monitored my every move, had learned I was gay. I bear a scar on my chin as a token of his rage.”
Two months later, Nahas seized the chance to escape to Lebanon, where he stayed for six months. It was there, he told The Daily Beast—while working as a graphic designer and translator—that he met gay people for the first time.
He then moved to Hatay, Turkey, where he worked as an interpreter for other Syrians.
“Death threats followed me to Turkey,” Nahas said. A former school friend from Idlib named Khalil had joined ISIS. “He relayed through a mutual friend that he wanted to kill me, aiming to go to paradise. He then called me from inside Turkey threatening that ‘I would see his face soon.’
“I was terrified. [ISIS] operatives circulated freely where I lived, and it was only a matter of time before I would be found and killed.”
By this point Nahas had already been recognized as a refugee by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and was awaiting resettlement to a third country.
He also founded the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration (ORAM), an NGO dedicated to building the capacity of governments and refugee agencies to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees like himself.
“As a refugee and a gay man, I am proud to be assisting LGBT and other vulnerable refugees,” Nahas said. “I am especially proud to help train the very refugee agencies which returned my life to me.”
Jessica Stern, executive director of International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission, said the minimum number of executions for sodomy for which ISIS has claimed responsibility is 30.
“ISIS-established courts have claimed to punish sodomy with stoning, firing squads, beheadings, and by pushing men from tall buildings,” she added. “ISIS advertises these killings to give the impression of as many executions as possible. We know that the fear of ISIS has fueled violence against LGBTI persons by other militias and private actors.”
Neil Grungras, ORAM’s co-founder and executive director, said the LGBT refugees the organization helps have faced persecution from all quarters—family, community, police, military, and groups like ISIS. “The abuse, threats, and persecution they face occur on multiple levels.”
The state-sponsored murder of gay people may include stoning and being thrown off buildings (in Syria) and hanging (in Iran), but much of the violence, said Grungras, was non-official and involved the police targeting gays and raping or abusing them, blackmailing and extorting money from them, or jailing them and allowing them to be raped by other prisoners.
The U.N., Grungras hopes, will help facilitate the quiet work of groups helping LGBT people in countries like Syria and Iraq, helping take them out of harm’s way and ensuring their safe passage to the West.
There are an estimated 400 LGBT Syrians in Turkey waiting to be resettled to safe country as Nahas was, said Grungras.
LGBT refugees often are persecuted by other refugees, Grungras said, and some are too scared to come out to U.N. officials and agencies, making the task of helping LGBTs escape persecution that much harder.
In the name of “all vulnerable refugees, Syrians, LGBT persons, and others terrorized by intolerance,” Nahas thanked the U.N. for its compassion.
“[ISIS]-controlled Syria is increasingly perilous for all minorities, but especially for those whose differences from the rest are reviled—sexual and gender minorities, religious minorities, and those who follow the call to voice their conscience.”
Nahas said he had witnessed “the annihilation of civility and humanity…For my compatriots who do not conform to gender and sexual norms, the eleventh hour has already passed. They need your help now.”
The message he wanted to convey to the ambassadors, Nahas said, “is that LGBT people have their own voice and want to be represented in the U.N. and in the governments, and be integrated into the systems and be part of the development of their countries and policies.”
He said he hoped his message delivered “integration” and proved “LGBT” was not “terminology invented by the West, but there is an LGBT community in the Middle East and in Africa, and they stand together and they want their rights, too.”