29-year-old Shadi Ismail is in disbelief when he looks around at his current life in Boise compared to the life he lived full of fear and distrust in his hometown in Syria where his family tried to kill him for being gay.
The difference between his old life and his new life? “Being dead versus being alive,” Shadi said.
“I didn't used to trust people. I was dying every day, lying every day, hiding myself every day, scared every day,” Shadi said. “What if anyone finds out I'm gay? Like before. They found out I was gay at work and they kicked me out after being there for three years; but [in Boise] I go to work happy, I'm being myself, everybody at work knows I'm gay and they love me. They don't care.”
The feeling of acceptance is a new experience for Shadi. Instead of crying tears of sadness and pain, he now sheds tears of happiness and gratitude.
“You know sometimes when you’re so happy you cry because you can't believe this moment you are in?” Shadi said. “I don't believe that I am in this stage of my life. I can walk, and my boyfriend can walk next to me, and how happy I am, not afraid, not afraid to get killed or anything.”
Shadi resettled in Boise more than three years ago with no knowledge of the English language other than
“hello” and “thank you”, no job, no friends and no family.
One of his favorite stories to tell is of a woman he met on his first day heading into downtown Boise. Determined to learn the transportation system and make it on his own, Shadi headed down Curtis Street on his bicycle from the refugee resettlement group, and made it to 13th Street before realizing he was lost. He was scared to talk to a stranger for fear of being beaten, but he stopped a woman and showed her the map of where he was trying to go.
“She looked, and she grabbed my hand and walked with me across the street to where I was going and said, 'See this door? Good luck!'” Shadi explained. “And this was my first impression and first feeling about Boise and I just thought, 'God, I love this city.’"
Being able to walk around the streets of Boise and receive smiles from complete strangers is something Shadi never knew was possible.
“It opened really a lot of stuff in my heart I didn't know existed. It's amazing. It's like, 'really these people exist? and trust you?'” he said.
After arriving in Boise, it only took Shadi 15 days to find a job doing janitorial work for a company cleaning offices.
When he received his first paycheck he took it to the back and deposited it all except for a single dollar bill, which he has framed in his bedroom and intends to keep that way forever.
“It means a lot to me. The first thing I made. I did not get it from the agency or anything. I made this dollar!” Shadi said. “No matter how poor I get I will never spend it!”
Shadi has since moved up the career ladder and currently holds a management position for a food processing company overseeing almost 30 employees.
“They did not look at me for being gay, or Syrian, or anything. They did not put this in their mind. They put 'I’m doing a good job' and that's it,” Shadi said.
Shadi now has a close-knit group of friends whom he lives with and considers his new family. He says there’s nothing missing from his new life in Boise.
“I have a very amazing life, because Boise accepted who I am and didn’t judge me for being Syrian or being Arabic or being gay,” Shadi said. “I never felt love before except here; and I found love here. So it's my dream come true.”
Shadi has even recently rebuilt a long-distance relationship with his family in Syria, something he never thought would be possible.
“I still love them, they're still my family,” Shadi said. “I was a little boy when they raised me, until they found out I'm gay. I don't judge them for that, I don't, because they're in a different time. They don't accept it.”
Shadi says he doesn’t judge his family for the way they treated him, even though he feared for his life so much he had to flee the country.
“Whatever they did, it's a culture thing. I don't judge my dad for that. I don't judge my brother. Whatever they did, burn my arm or whatever, it’s in the past. I’m moving on,” he said. “We don't talk about my life because it's insulting for them and that's okay, I accept that. They're in my life still.”
Shadi recently marched in the Boise Pridefest Parade with his boyfriend and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and compassion offered up by complete strangers.
“Everything in me was feeling love. No hate. I wasn't embarrassed,” Shadi said. “I was walking and people were telling me, ‘welcome, we love you’ and all this kind of stuff and cheering me up.”
His new Boise family has taught his how to adjust to his new American life. Shadi now brags about owning a tent, going hiking in Idaho’s mountains, chopping down his own Christmas tree near Idaho City, and enjoys organic gardening and raising chickens.
When asked what he sees when he looks around at his new home, which his new family refers to as “the big yellow house”, he said, “Heaven.”