LGBTQ+ and Refugee Activist Enrolls at GS
Sitting on the stoop outside of his Greenwich Village apartment, incoming GS student Hasan Agili breathes a sigh of relief as he settles into a newfound sense of freedom. A gay couple had just passed by, walking hand in hand down the street. Agili could not help but to marvel at their openness after having spent years anticipating the day he would have a permanent home—a home where he was safe from persecution as a gay man—and he feels he has found it in New York.
Agili grew up in Libya, never quite feeling like he belonged. He taught himself English—listening to the Americans he saw on television to get the pronunciation just right. He went on to excel at the military academy where he attended school, and after graduating, chose to embark on a seven-year medical school journey at the University of Tripoli, the largest university in Libya.
Throughout medical school, Agili worked diligently in his science-focused courses and specialized his studies on surgical procedures. During his final year, with only a few exams remaining until he would graduate with his MD, Agili was outed by another student at the university.
“In Libya, being gay is not acceptable,” said Agili. “While gay people on the other side of the world are fighting for their right to marry, in Libya they are fighting for the simple right to live and be treated like human beings. In Libya, once people know you are gay, they dehumanize you. They think you only deserve to die.”
Agili attempted to finish his studies and fight the prejudice surrounding homosexuality that pervades Libyan culture, but in order to continue working toward his medical degree, he was ultimately forced to take courses in a different city where no one knew him.
Not long after his move, in 2011, after the Arab Spring uprisings, it became increasingly dangerous to exist as a known gay man. Agili continued working and studying for a time, but as the threats to his life became more apparent, he made the difficult decision to flee to Lebanon leaving behind his family, friends, and forthcoming medical degree.
It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was the first time I had talked—to a stranger, in an Arabic country—about the fact that I was gay. I was terrified, but found enough courage to speak up and tell my story.
Along with thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries, Agili applied for asylum in Lebanon. He struggled to navigate the lengthy application process and went through dozens of interviews that examined even the most intimate aspects of his life.
“It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was the first time I had talked—to a stranger, in an Arabic country—about the fact that I was gay. I was terrified, but found enough courage to speak up and tell my story,” said Agili.
Agili became a part of the one percent of refugees worldwide that would have the chance to be resettled in a “third country”—such refugees have the right to reside long-term or permanently in their third country and may have the right to become citizens.
From 2014 to 2016, Agili waited for a country to accept his application. One morning, he received the news that the American embassy would allow him to live in the United States. It would be a few more months of interviews and medical check ups before he was flown to New York City, but the promise of freedom and security was invaluable.
Not long after he arrived in New York, Agili’s story broke in the media. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to partially reinstate a travel ban for potential refugees, and with his personal experience, Agili was invited to appear on CNN and other networks. The CNN video was viewed over 1 million times and the accompanying article reached over 150 million people across social media.
“My interviews reached both gay and straight people back home. I anticipated the hate and backlash, which arrived promptly, but I was also contacted by many gay people in Libya, telling me how they consider me a hero,” said Agili of his time on CNN. “I don’t know about heroism, but I know I inspired in them the knowledge that maybe one day they could be safe, happy, and free.”
Agili became an outspoken activist for the LGBTQ+ and refugee communities, speaking at various public events and schools in hopes of shedding light on his life and inspiring hope in others around the world who face similar oppression.
In addition to his advocacy work, Agili hoped to continue working in the medical field. He discovered that, in the United States, he could not work as a physician since he had not officially completed his Libyan medical degree, and he could not apply to medical school because he did not have a bachelor's degree. If he truly wanted a career as a doctor, he would have to start over. While he reckoned with the reality of letting the years he had dedicated to medical school in Libya go to waste, Agili began working as an on-site medical interpreter for Arabic patients.
“I have always loved helping people, so I always felt the most comfortable in that role, or when I am in the hospital. I just feel I am in my element,” said Agili.
It took me three years since I got to the U.S. to find my peace about having to go all the way back to college and redo it again. I thought, ‘If I am going to do it, I will only do it in a special place where I will learn new things and face new challenges’—and GS is exactly that place.
His work was rewarding, but he found himself wanting to do more than just facilitate communication. Agili recalled visiting the Columbia University campus as part of a group tour and imagining what it would feel like to be a student. When he learned that the School of General Studies (GS) was designed for nontraditional students such as himself, he decided to apply.
“It took me three years since I got to the U.S. to find my peace about having to go all the way back to college and redo it again,” said Agili. “I thought, ‘If I am going to do it, I will only do it in a special place where I will learn new things and face new challenges’—and GS is exactly that place.”
Agili will join the incoming Spring 2020 class at GS. He is unsure whether he will take any premedical courses, or whether he will return to medical school, but he is looking forward to proving himself after all that has happened to him. For over seven years, his studies were focused on the sciences, and he is looking forward to studying humanities at Columbia.
“I am lucky to be in a place where I can be all of myself, all the time, and I am ready now to bring together the interrupted dreams I brought with me from Libya and the new ones I have hatched in the USA,” reflected Agili.