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Syrian-refugee reconnects with sister after homophobia kept them apart for nearly two decades

Last Updated Jul 23, 2020 at 12:04 pm PDT

Danny and his now husband, Matthew, share a kiss shortly after their engagement at the 2017 Evening In Damascus (Courtesy eveningdamascus.com)

A Syrian-Canadian author describes reconnecting with his sister after years apart

Arabic language offers no kind words for LGBTQ2+ says author and advocate

Syrian family invents new words to describe queer relationship in positive manner

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) — When your government, the prevailing religion, and the majority of your society reject your very existence — coming out as a gay man is a dangerous gamble.

Danny Ramadan took that gamble when he was 17-years-old, living in Damascus, Syria, resulting in ejection from his family home, forcing him to leave his 11-year-old sister behind.

“I felt ostracized but now looking back at it, I see how my family was reacting the way my society is teaching them to react,” he explains. “I don’t think that she understood what was going on specifically. She just had an older brother and then later on she just didn’t,” he says.

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The Syrian-Canadian author, public speaker and storyteller is sharing the personal details as he reflects on his past and the opportunity to have a new relationship with his younger sibling.

Rebuilding a relationship that was torn apart by homophobia has been difficult, says Ramada, especially because the Arabic language has no positive references for queer people and family roles are referred to in a gendered manner.

Siblings become refugees

It all began when his sister liked a Facebook photo post about a year ago and Ramadan reached out to “say hello to a complete stranger,” he says.

“Part of our relationship-building process is … her coming to terms with my queerness. It’s a slow and sometimes painful process, but I’m trying my best to be patient. From her perspective, my queerness goes against everything society, family and religion ever told her,” he writes on Twitter.

Ramadan is the founder of An Evening In Damascus, which, since 2015, has assisted 10 Syrian refugees and one African family to find safety in Canada, but Ramadan been helping queer people for much longer than the five years the event has been running.

After being kicked out of his home, Danny ran an underground support network for queer and trans people in Damascus, a dangerous undertaking that started him on a long path of activism.

Since the last time he saw his sister she’s grown into a woman, gone to college, and become a refugee just like him which “helped connect the two of us more and helped provide a space for us to build empathy towards one another,” says Ramadan.

Facebook messages turned to WhatsApp messages and eventually into Skype calls but language remained a major barrier for the reunification of the family (Ramadan is working to sponsor his sister to come to Canada).

Ramadan says his sister met her husband in Jordan after she left Syria because of the ongoing civil war and the pair have a daughter Ramadan has become quite close with.

“The child and I made a beautiful connection, I have to say. She never had an uncle from the mother’s side before so she felt an instant connection to me and wanted to explore what it means to have an uncle,” he says.

The husband of your uncle on your mother’s side’

It soon became clear that introducing Ramadan’s husband to his niece was going to be a challenge, not because of fears of rejection but because there’s no word in Arabic for your uncle’s husband.

“The biggest challenge that we had in our communication over the past year is that we were trying to have a conversation in Arabic about who I am as a man who is queer who is married to another man,” says Ramadan.

In Arabic there are different words for aunts and uncles from your mother’s side and the aunts and uncles from your father’s side and different words for their spouses.

“Arabic has some very interesting very derogatory ways of describing homosexuality and rarely if ever would have any way to describe homosexuality in a public light,” he says, adding his sister’s English isn’t strong.

He says it was important to overcome those barriers because if he was going to become a brother once more he wanted to be represented as his whole self and not have his queerness hidden or ignored.

“Of course you don’t have a word for the husband of your uncle from your mother’s side: that’s a word that doesn’t exist so we sat down, we talked about it and decided we would come up with a new word altogether.”

Now, Matthew, Ramadan’s husband has taken on a title which has never existed before: Joz Khalo, the husband of your uncle from your mother’s side.

“He is probably the first person to ever own such a familial title in Syrian,” says Ramadan.

He says he’s treading lightly going forward with building this new sibling relationship, after holding the pain of the separation close to his heart and private for years.

“I’m starting to have hope this relationship will be truly, a sibling relationship and it was important for me to honour this because it’s a story that doesn’t only reflect who I am … it’s also a story about connection with family that I know a lot of immigrants who happen to be queer would also connect with,” he says.

Ramadan is currently just two weeks away from his sixth-annual An Evening In Damascus, an event that has become far more than a fundraiser for the local Arabic queer community.

Attendees, volunteers, and those who’ve benefited from the funds raised say Ramadan has created a safe space that allows queer Arabic people to be themselves in a way that’s never existed before.

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The evening brings the community together alongside drag performances, belly dancing, incredible Syrian food, culture and music.

Of course, COVID-19 means 2020’s soiree will take place online — but Ramadan has ensured food, which is central to Syrian culture will still be served.

You can help more LGBTQ2+ refugees by purchasing tickets to the July 24 event.

You can also purchase a ticket for a refugee at the same time.

NEWS 1130 is a proud media sponsor of the event which will take place virtually on July 24.