Imperfect Strangers

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Mohamed and Ahmed push through the wall of burly, beefy men and force their way up the stairs to the roof-deck bar. It’s Saturday night at the crowded Chelsea gay destination known for leather and fetish displays—like the man downstairs polishing patrons’ shoes on his hands and knees—and these boys are ready to mix and mingle. Mohamed’s lanky frame is squeezed into skinny jeans. The 25-year-old cuts a bohemian figure—with his dark eyes, sharp features and big shock of shoulder-length hair—as he parts the bare chests and biceps in front of him. Sticking close by, 31-year-old Ahmed looks more casual and clean-cut dressed in a dark blazer, his black jeans and hair perfectly combed and gelled in place.

In other Chelsea bars these two might not stand out—a couple of young ethnic boys carousing with other twentysomethings—but here they look exotic among the mix of bellies, baseball caps and bearded men. It’s this all-American aesthetic, however, that draws Mohamed and Ahmed week after week.

The two find a place to sit and smoke Marlboro Lights, switching easily between Arabic and English while they check out guys. Ahmed holds his plastic cup to his lips and sips on a vodka and soda. The two don’t drink much, though: It’s more of a prop for their spectator sport. After an hour or two of joking, watching and walking a loop of the place, Mohamed and Ahmed manage to attract a gaggle of new admirers. The guys are interested in the two lean boys, but it’s not simply because Mohamed and Ahmed are young and good-looking: It’s their answer to the inevitable query about why they’re in New York and where they came from.

“From Iraq,” Mohamed says, with a wry smile, followed by a dramatic pull on his cigarette. He’s repeated this line before, and it’s apparent he takes pleasure in the big revelation. “We’re here on a refugee visa. I’ve been here for two months. And you?”

It hooks them every time. The model refugee.

It’s a hard act to follow. They are only two out of the over two million Iraqi refugees who have fled their native country since the American invasion in March of 2003. That sort of knowledge can certainly add pressure to a casual encounter and make a simple surreptitious kiss in one of the downstairs corners seem somehow more significant. So, if at the end of this night nobody gets any refugee love, the two Iraqis aren’t overly concerned. Plus, Mohamed claims to already have a few would-be suitors located in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Brooklyn. Ahmed also says he recently turned down an invitation to move in to the posh downtown digs of a guy he met here a few weeks ago. Neither of them is in a rush to commit to a boyfriend or settle down: After all, they have each other.

“Mohamed is like family,” Ahmed explains. “He understands me; we’re from the same place.” He surprises Mohamed with a spontaneous embrace. “We’ve been through so many of the same struggles. Being here with him here, it just makes everything better.”

It’s surprising that the two have become such close confidants. Back home in Iraq, they came from vastly different worlds. Mohamed grew up in an upper-middle-class Sunni family: his father a diplomat, his mother an attorney. Ahmed, on the other hand, comes from a largely working-class Shia family located south of Baghdad. While Mohamed sleeps late, Ahmed, who has worked in sales and in street markets since he was young, works long hours for six days a week at a Middle Eastern grocery store in downtown Brooklyn. When Ahmed decides to have a big night out with Mohamed, he may only get three hours of sleep before he has to turn around and go back to work. Mohamed usually sleeps well past noon.

But none of those differences seem to matter now. The duo finally hop down from their perch and make their way through the dark hallways, out the door and back to Brooklyn where they’ve been living with their friend Jennifer Utz, whose advocacy and persistence has made it possible for Mohamed and Ahmed to make a home in New York.

Jennifer, 31, traveled to the Middle East in the spring of 2007 to report from Jordan and Syria on the exploding Iraqi refugee crisis for Democracy Now!, the New York–based radio program where she worked as a producer. She ultimately made five reporting trips to the region, and soon realized this wasn’t a story she could leave behind. While there, she met Mohamed, a Baghdadi living in exile in Jordan and later Syria.

“I liked him from the moment I met him,” Jennifer explains. “We have a lot in common; we’re both from families who really pushed education and gave us a lot of opportunity. The main difference was that his life was put on hold from the war and all of the chaos in Iraq.”

Utz decided she wanted to help Mohamed move to New York, so she began the difficult task of applying to be his sponsor, engaging in a long battle with the overlapping bureaucracies of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Finally, this past July, Mohamed left Damascus to end up in Jennifer’s Carroll Gardens apartment.

A month later, Ahmed moved in. Jennifer and Mohamed had met and befriended Ahmed while in Syria, and he was later resettled in Syracuse, NY, by the government, where he knew no one. Once he was able to wrangle a job in New York City at a Middle Eastern grocery store, he asked Jennifer to agree to be his “anchor.” Now, she’s responsible for guaranteeing that the two men have housing, food and job-search assistance. Her less tangible role is as cheerleader and motivator, cultural translator, city tour guide and sometimes worried “mother” when the two stay out late partying.

“Jenny is such great friend,” Ahmed says, noshing on olives. The unlikely trio sits in the living room of the two-bedroom apartment, and Mohamed circles Jennifer with a pair of scissors as Ahmed looks on.

“You know I don’t want anything over-the-top, right?” Jennifer says, starting to sound worried. A single line in Arabic calligraphy is tattooed on her inner right forearm that translates as, “What heals me, also destroys me.”

Mohamed bops his head along to the dance beats of Rihanna’s “Disturbia.” After a moment of deliberation he begins to snip, littering the floor with dark, reddish strands.

“Where is Popeye?” Ahmed asks. Jennifer rolls her eyes. She knows they’re teasing her about her boyfriend Jared. Because Jennifer is tall and lean, they call her Olive, or “Zaytoona,” in Arabic. That makes Jared “Popeye,” who was quite popular on Arabic TV when they were young.

“Mohamed gives the best haircuts I’ve ever had,” Jennifer says as she pulls on a black jacket and asks his advice on whether she should wear a pair of boots or sneakers to complement her outfit.

“Boots,” says Mohamed, whose cell phone suddenly starts blowing up to a hip-hop ringtone. “Definitely boots.”

On nights like this, it’s like a never-ending slumber party, and these are the sort of moments Jennifer cherishes most. But lately it’s been getting tense having two gay Iraqi roommates in her crowded apartment. Mohamed’s magazines litter the table and floor. He found a bed with wheels in the lobby of the building, and it now sits in the middle of the living room. Jennifer’s second bedroom, where Ahmed sleeps rent-free, is also where the two keep all of their belongings. It now looks like a college dorm room after a house party: clothes scattered and hair products tossed everywhere. And it’s one of the reasons why Jennifer has been pushing them to look for another apartment. For one, she can’t afford to cover the rent anymore, and she’s also tired of feeling like a parent. She loves the “kids,” as she calls them, but now she’d like to love them from a healthier distance.

“I think they’re making up for lost time,” Jennifer rationalizes, referring to the late nights out at Manhattan gay bars. “My boyfriend and I stay at home and watch movies, and the ‘kids’ go out until all hours. They make me feel like an old granny!”

But the granny act gets tiresome sometimes. One night she asked them to stay in and clean up the bedroom, but instead they stayed out until 3 a.m.

“I was so pissed at them,” says Jennifer. “Damn teenagers.”

Mohamed’s knack for hair, makeup and fashion is something he acquired while working as a model in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. He was scouted by a modeling agency at 18 and traveled to Beirut and Istanbul to model in runway shows and in print campaigns. He still pines for the days of hanging out and drinking champagne with the Middle Eastern fashion glitterati, but all of that came to a halt in 2003 when American bombs rained down on Baghdad during his 20th birthday party. Two years later, as the country unraveled under the occupation, extremist voices gained sway. Then Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Supreme Shia authority, issued an anti-gay fatwa decreeing that homosexuals “should be killed in the worst, most severe way.”

In 2006 a man from a religious militia told his mother that his whole family would be killed if they didn’t kick Mohamed out of the house. His past work as a model was no secret and even his time as a child ballet dancer was suspect. The orgy of sectarian, political and religious violence reached a crescendo in 2006. Now, the smallest infraction could lead to harsh punishment meted out by any number of competing militias in Iraq.

“I had a friend who was shot and killed in the street,” Mohamed says. “His ‘crime’ was wearing shorts.” It was a chilling time, when extremists were assassinating barbers in Baghdad for shaving beards and giving Western-style haircuts. To be a gay  man in conservative Iraqi society before the U.S. invasion was already a near-impossible proposition. In the increasingly polarized Iraq after the U.S. invasion, in which one of the most secular countries in the Middle East quickly became a bloody battle ground between competing strands of militant and sectarian forms of religious extremism, it was close to a death sentence.

Most of the liberal or secular professional middle classes were fleeing or had already fled, so Mohamed followed. He first traveled to Amman, Jordan, where he enrolled in business school. While there, his aunt, who also lived in Jordan, introduced him to Utz, whom she had started working with as a translator.

“Speaking English and hanging out with Jenny was like escaping my identity,” Mohamed explains. “I could forget all the day-to-day shit and stress, and we always had so much fun together.”

Jennifer had a way of understanding Mohamed. He had become a bit of a recluse, and she could coax him to open up. They went out shopping together, talked in cafés, listened to the latest hits from Beyoncé, which Jennifer would help Mohamed translate.

Only a few months after moving to Jordan, however, Mohamed was forced to move again. Even though he had a student visa, unlike the vast majority of the estimated 750,000 Iraqi refugees living in Jordan without documentation, he was picked up one night in Amman by the police, held for four days and then sent to the Iraqi border to be deported. At the border, one of the Iraqi guards warned Mohamed that it was too dangerous to travel back to Baghdad, and the guard helped him arrange transportation to Damascus, the Syrian capital where one of his uncles lives. Living in precarious legal limbo without a work permit in Syria, he moved in to a small apartment in a Damascus slum by himself, where he got in to the habit of sleeping all day and staying up all night watching American television shows. It was an easy way to pass the time and kept him safe. Every walk around the neighborhood was another chance taken on being swept up by the Syrian police and taken in for deportation. These were his darkest days: Mohamed slept as much as he could, which was his way of avoiding the grim reality.

“I never really felt like Iraq was my country, but being forced to move around like that, I was losing any hope,” he says. “So many times I just wanted to go back to Baghdad. I didn’t care what would happen to me.”

It was then that Jennifer discovered he’d been deported. She traveled to visit him in Syria and suggested he try and move to New York with to live with her.

It’s remarkable that Mohamed and Ahmed were able to make the jump to Brooklyn: In the last few years, the United States government has made it next to impossible for Iraqi refugees to make it to the States—even those with friends and family here. Of course, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is the root cause of the massive exodus, but as of this September, a little over 12,000 Iraqi refugees have been accepted for resettlement in the United States out of an estimated two to 2.2 million outside of Iraq. In contrast, Sweden, a country of some nine million people that has had little to no involvement in the Middle East and played no part in the invasion, has accepted over 40,000 refugees from Iraq since 2003.

Some argue that this is hardly accidental, and that the painfully slow pace of resettling Iraqis in the States is a predictable outcome of a determined, if unspoken, government policy.

“There’s a lot of bullshit political wrangling going on,” says Luis Carlos Montalván, a former U.S. Army cavalry captain and co-founder of Iraq Veterans Refugee Aid Association, a new campaign to bring more attention to the refugee crisis, and to deliver aid to Iraqi refugees throughout the Middle East. Montalván, based in Brooklyn, just returned from a trip to Jordan in August, where he was overwhelmed by the dismal conditions in which Iraqi refugees were living, many of them widows with small children. “The current U.S. administration and the generals don’t want to acknowledge the scope of the humanitarian disaster of this refugee crisis. If the situation in Iraq really were getting so much better, you’d have a massive return of refugees, which is not happening. And that is a metric of failure.”

Even in the special category of Iraqi translators, who literally risked their lives for American troops, NGOs or journalists—thousands of whom are languishing in exile, forced to flee Iraq after being targeted as “collaborators” by insurgents in Iraq—the numbers are scandalous. Out of the more than 1,300 cases being managed by The List Project, a campaign set up on behalf of this group or refugees, to date just over 100 have been resettled in the United States.

Ahmed is one of them. After training to become an English teacher before the war, he worked for a year as a translator for a U.S. Marine Corps unit south of Baghdad, beginning in 2005. Although he knew it was dangerous, it was a job he loved, and he still refers to the man who led his Marine unit as his best friend. But after two of his friends, also working as translators for the Americans, were killed in the street, his mother received a letter from a local militia warning her that Ahmed would be next.

In the fall of 2006, he left for Syria, and eventually applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) office in Damascus. Ahmed also stayed in touch with his Marine captain friend, now back in the United States after completing his tour of duty, who collected money from among his unit to send to Ahmed in Syria. He also always made sure to fold in pictures of buxom, naked women with the unsolicited money. While the moral support from his Marine buddies was appreciated, Ahmed was ultimately resettled in the States with little assistance from a crack U.S. government task force set up to prioritize and expedite these cases (if such an office exists—Ahmed never met any of its employees). Rather, Ahmed’s resettlement was largely due to the help of a Canadian immigration attorney who took his case pro bono, after Ahmed Googled “gay immigration law” and wrote an imploring email to the first firm that popped up on the screen. It was this attorney, Andrew Hwang, whom Jennifer ended up contacting as well, after she had befriended Mohamed and was pushing him to register as a refugee with UNHCR as well. For months, Andrew built up a dossier for the both of them, ultimately helping to get their cases fast-tracked by UNHCR. In those days Mohamed and Ahmed used to call each other almost every day to check on the status of their respective cases, which seemed to drag on for months.

“When somebody writes you an email saying, ‘Please help me, if I’m sent back to Iraq I’ll be killed,’ you pretty much have no choice,” Andrew explains, recalling his uphill battle with the immigration and resettlement bureaucracy. “From all of my hundreds of phone calls and emails, I got the impression that Iraqis were essentially persona non grata everywhere. I’m very happy for them now, but it makes me sad to think that if they didn’t have Jen and I—two Westerners backing them up—Ahmed and Mohamed would probably still be back in Syria, or deported back to Iraq. Or possibly killed.”
Since his arrival in July, Mohamed has been out on a handful of modeling and casting calls, and he has applied for work at a string of retail stores in Manhattan—Armani Exchange, Banana Republic, H&M—but steady work remains elusive. Upon arrival, Mohamed received $425 in spending money from IRC and $900 to go toward rent and all other living expenses for the three months after that. The life of a refugee resettled in the United States is hardly one of luxury, although if anybody could make it seem so it might be Mohamed, who manages to pull off a kind of refugee chic, with his dragon tattoo on the shoulder and his fabulous outfits.

Much of the money that Mohamed saved from his modeling days was slowly depleted during his stay in Syria, and in August he had to send much of what money remained to his parents in Baghdad, when their home was hit yet again with mortar fire. This was the fifth time that their house, on a main avenue in Baghdad not far from the Green Zone, had been damaged by mortars, gunfire or the car bombs that still go off with disturbing frequency. Mohamed talks to his parents every week, and despite the relative successes of “the surge” trumpeted so often by American politicians, they tell him that life in Baghdad these days can still be summed up as “two days calm, two days very bad.”

Of course that’s one reason why Jennifer continually forgives the guy for sleeping late every day until two in the afternoon and hanging out at the apartment listening to music on her iPod instead of desperately looking for work. Habits developed over years of waiting, waiting and more waiting have proven difficult to break.

“After four years of staying at home sleeping and watching TV, it is hard to readjust to a new life,” Mohamed says. “Your body gets lazy. It’s scary because I dreamed about this for so long, but now I have to deal with all of the practical things. I have to change a lot about myself. And I’ve been away from modeling and dancing for so many years now;  I’m scared to go back to it. Ahmed is a little more hard-working, I admire that about him.”

But the time has come. Jennifer has lined up a new roommate who will pay rent for her second bedroom, so the boys have to get their own place. Jennifer is now working as a graphic designer and a freelance videographer, and she grudgingly takes a day off of work to go through ads on Craigslist with Mohamed. A few days later, the guys go out to look at a sublet. They’re polite to the gentleman who shows them the space, but the fact that $1,300 before utilities only gets you a rundown room in a messy, ramshackle apartment on an industrial block in Bushwick turns out to be quite shocking Iraqi to  refugees. On the way back to Jennifer’s place, they both doze off on the subway. When they are startled awake at the next stop, Mohamed jokes that it’s good practice—since that’s where they’ll be sleeping soon.

“It’s a very Iraqi thing,” he says in-between laughs, looking exhausted, his eyes bloodshot. “We have to laugh about things. Especially when they get really fucked up. Actually that’s when you have to laugh the most. And we are so fucked.”

They continue to make jokes: about sleeping on the subway, moving out to New Jersey, or even California, where Mohamed has some distant family and Ahmed’s friend in the Marines lives. One place they never talk about moving back to is Iraq.

“When I think about Iraq, I lose my mind,” says Ahmed. “I really see no solution; it’s such a mess. Forget about it, I’m never going back.”

Talking about Iraq puts Ahmed on edge, and he chain smokes out of Jennifer’s window. He’d rather think about how to make this city work for him. “Here you work hard for your happiness, and even if you find happiness, you keep trying to increase your happiness no matter what,” he says. “That’s the best advice I ever got about life. That’s what I’m trying to do here, to find an OK job, get a little place to live, work hard, and enjoy my friendships. That’s all I need, nothing fancy.”

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