Gay and Christian, a scion of a Hamas family finally finds safety in US
After being denied asylum in Canada, the man now known as John Calvin chases the American dream in LGBT-friendly New York
Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.
A gay member of one of Hamas’s most important families will be allowed to stay in the United States, dodging what he termed “certain death” were he deported back to the West Bank.
John Calvin, 24, who does not use his birth name for safety reasons, fled his native Nablus to Canada in 2011, believing his life was in danger after his family discovered his conversion to Christianity. While in Canada, his situation became even more precarious after he came out as gay to his family over the phone.
Despite the mortal danger, his refugee application was suspended in 2012, and on December 31, 2014, he received an official letter of deportation from Canada. He then fled to the US, where he was detained for nearly seven months, before an American judge ruled he would be allowed to stay in his newest home.
The court ruled that deporting Calvin, whose father had threatened his life, would contradict the UN Convention against Torture.
Calvin’s father told CNN last June that his family “has the right to retaliate against” the escapee should he return.
According to a recent report by CNN, the father’s threatening statement during the interview was used to argue in court that Calvin could not be legally forced to return to the West Bank, where he faced possible torture.
Rather than being granted full asylum, Calvin was granted “deferral of removal,” a special title for those who are permitted to stay in the country in order to evade torture. Under these conditions, he cannot become a permanent citizen of the US and must apply for a work visa every year.
Calvin hails from one of Hamas’s most important families. “Islam [and] Hamas were the two things that my family revolved around,” Calvin told CNN last year. “It was not part of my family’s identity. It was the identity we had.”
His maternal grandfather is Said Bilal, the former head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Nablus, who oversaw the activities of its Palestinian branch, Hamas. His uncle, Muaz Bilal, was sentenced by an Israeli court to 26 life sentences in 2002, for dispatching suicide bombers to downtown Jerusalem in the late 1990s — killing 21 Israelis and injuring 300 in two separate attacks. Two other uncles, Bakr and Obada Bilal, a military Hamas field commander and an explosives expert, respectively, were released from Israeli prison as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in October 2011.
Calvin began questioning his family’s beliefs and actions when he was just 15 years old.
After what he called “a big fight” with his family, he sought shelter in Israel, where he was detained for illegally crossing into the country.
In prison, a brutal experience led the young Calvin to question his beliefs.
“A horrific incident happened to me in jail. I was raped by a Muslim man, and ended up getting assistance from Jewish psychiatrists and from the jail administration, which helped me through the worst thing that had ever happened to me in my life. That ended up changing my life entirely,” Calvin told The Times of Israel in an interview last year over the phone.
“The entire staff tried to help, including the prison warden… They tried to keep it quiet because of the culture in jail and even followed up with me after my release. This was not the image I grew up with about Jewish people,” Calvin continued.
“I lost faith in everything I knew,” the then-asylum seeker in Canada said. “My belief collapsed on itself and was absolutely destroyed. From that point on, I had to develop my own beliefs and ideologies [after being] exposed to the truth — that Jewish people were not the monsters I was taught they are. They were actually normal people who showed humanity and compassion in my time of need.”
By the time he was 18, Calvin converted to Christianity after years of secretly reading the Bible. But once his family had discovered his conversion plans, life for him at home became impossible. His father tried to stab him with a knife, and Calvin jumped out the window to escape.
After spending some months in a Palestinian Authority prison, where Calvin says he faced immense pressure to convert back to Islam, and learning his father planned to murder him, he fled to Canada, where he accepted a scholarship to study in a Toronto Bible college.
Despite suffering from immigration limbo in the US, Calvin says he is now fantasizing about his version of the American Dream.
“I’d go to law school, become a lawyer and then it gets a little [clichéd],” he told CNN. “A husband and two kids, and I guess happily ever after.”
Living now in the famously LGBT-friendly Greenwich Village in southern Manhattan, Calvin says he is fulfilling his old hope that one day he could live openly gay without fear of retribution.
“It’s like gay Bethlehem,” he said of New York.
Elhanan Miller contributed to this report