Producer, Educator & Writer
Originally published in KQED news.
Starting at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 31, Ziad Reslan began walking nearly 40 miles from San Francisco to Mountain View to raise money for LGBTQ+ Afghans and refugees who have been affected by the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan two months ago.
Despite a coalition of U.S. troops and their allies airlifting over 100,000 people out of Afghanistan in August, many Afghans who identify as LGBTQ+ were unable to flee and remain in the country fearing persecution.
“Of all the bad news we’ve gotten over the last two years, nothing has been harder to hear than what happened in Afghanistan,” Reslan said.
According to a March 2021 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, consensual same-sex conduct is criminalized in as many as 69 countries, and when people are convicted, at least 10 countries still use the death penalty.
Reslan, who grew up in Beirut with a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, came to the U.S. at age 17. As an out gay man, he said he’s been thinking of the LGBTQ+ refugees whose experiences have been much harder, “with so many countries criminalizing their very existence.” His walk he said, is an “ode” to the many miles refugees must cross every day to get to safety. ‘We complain about traffic. We complain about staying on 101, but people who don’t have a choice have to run from their country and have to walk many, many, many more miles just to get to safety.’Ziad Reslan, San Francisco resident walking to Mountain View
“Being a gay Arab man who grew up in the Middle East, I honestly cannot think of a better place to be out and gay than San Francisco,” Reslan said. For him, it’s this dichotomy that prompted him to bring attention to the many members of the LGBTQ+ community around the world who don’t enjoy the same freedoms.
For many tech workers and Googlers like Reslan, the commute along the peninsula to Mountain View is a familiar journey. “We complain about traffic. We complain about staying on 101, but people who don’t have a choice have to run from their country and have to walk many, many, many more miles just to get to safety,” Reslan said.
The idea started just 10 days ago, but already he’s raised over $3,500 through his GoFundMe campaign and $22,000 internally through Google matching grants. All proceeds will go to a San Francisco-based organization called Rainbow Street that works specifically with LGBTQ+ refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
“We as an organization envision a world where queer people everywhere can live with dignity,” said Alex Sayde, who is on the board of the organization. Rainbow Street partners with activists and care providers in the region to provide immediate and long-term solutions for queer and trans people “experiencing persecution or disenfranchisement,” he said.
“Usually we work with people who are in crisis or those who face immediate danger,” he added.
Though Rainbow Street doesn’t have staff on the ground in Afghanistan, they have received requests for assistance from those fleeing Afghanistan, Sayde said. And while he noted that there are many organizations focusing on migration assistance and resettlement, one of the reasons Rainbow Street exists is to fill the gap in providing support for those “first steps when a queer person in the region is in crisis,” he said. “Many people will eventually need to speak to a lawyer if they want to migrate, but that first night they may not even know where to find a lawyer.” Sayde will join Reslan for part of the walk. MORE RELATED STORIES‘Welcome to America’: Afghan Arrivals Greeted by the Bay Area – and Its High Cost of LivingBiden Delay on Refugee Cap Complicates Efforts for Bay Area Resettlement AgenciesCambodian Refugee Leaves San Quentin With COVID-19 But Avoids ICE Detention
Reslan’s walk comes in the wake of efforts by the Human Rights Campaign to bring attention to the plight of Afghans following the Taliban’s takeover. At the end of October HRC, along with several other human rights organizations, presented the Biden-Harris administration with 10,500 signatures on a petitionurging the adoption of a 10-point action plan on behalf of LGBTQ+ Afghans.
The first point asks the administration to prioritize the evacuation and resettlement of “vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people” and ensure that short stays in other countries are temporary by speeding up the refugee process. Thousands of Afghan refugees are still on U.S. military bases. The U.S. has also recently begun rolling out new forms of sponsorship allowing communities to sponsor Afghans through a new program called sponsor circles.
In San Francisco, Reslan said the most important thing for him is “just to think for one day of how hard it is to be an asylum seeker, how hard it is to be a refugee.” Through his walk, he’s hoping to reconnect with where he’s from and “celebrate the freedoms we have here,” he said.
The journey for Reslan, and roughly 10 others who will be joining him at different times along the way, is expected to take at least 12 hours. He’s hoping to be done shortly after 9 p.m. on Sunday.