The Invisibles is a project dedicated to & centered around the lives of immigrants and refugees of America. These individuals who, often due to horrific circumstances have been forced to start their lives over, working humbly & tirelessly for their own American Dream. 


Sham Hasan and The Long Road To America


It must have been fate that led me to Sham Hasan. I had been given Sham’s name and email by a mutual friend who I had run into quite strangely the week before. I told Mark about a project that I was beginning, around the topic of immigrants and refugees.

Mark said, I know exactly the person you need to speak to.

I reached out to Sham the next day and his quick response bubbled with warmth, he said he would love to meet with me and would cook me fresh pita bread.

Sham and I met on a Friday afternoon in February at a café in Silverlake. I was immediately struck by his friendliness. He asked me how I was and what was new. He had a generous spirit and I felt immediately at ease. 
 
 We sat down and I began asking him about his story. I wanted to know everything.

Sham served as a US army linguist and a cultural advisor for three and a half years all over Iraq. He’s been in the US since 2014. He was able to leave Iraq through the Special Visa Program for Iraqi and afghan local nationals who provided faithful serves to the US in Iraq.

His life story is, for someone like me, having grown up in America, pretty much incomprehensible. Everything he told me was especially hard to imagine as we drank coffee, sitting in the sun, on a warm Los Angeles afternoon.

As he spoke I saw in my mind’s eye a land devastated by war. Broken down buildings. Abandoned houses. Dead bodies. Smoke and flames. Families torn apart by murder, death, re-location, and nebulous lists of missing persons. Children’s lives cut short. An entire nation of people in a constant fight for survival.

The reality is that Sham is a survivor…and the world that he came from, in many ways, is the worst world we could possibly imagine.

Sham grew up in a time of war. All his life, he lived his life haunted by the knowledge that at any given moment, he could die. Walking to the grocery store. Going to school. Going for ice-cream. Yeah, ice-cream. That’s how Sham lost 5 family members. They had all gone out for ice-cream when a suicide bomber killed them all.

Just. Like. That. 5 family members, murdered.

How does one recover or heal from such senseless violence?

In all, 6 of Sham’s family members have been killed during his time growing up in Iraq.

As Sham described the many warring factions in the country I couldn’t help but be confused. This group fighting that group. That group fighting this group that split into these groups. It seemed like everyone was at war.

In 2006, Sham was at a friend’s house when all of a sudden, a grenade exploded, he was beaten unconscious and then detained and tortured for 10 hours.

He was kidnapped because of a Peshmerga political affiliation his uncle had. The Peshmerga are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and are said to have played a big role in the capture of Saddam Hussein. His uncle was accused of being a traitor and was murdered by the same people who kidnapped Sham.

This event, rightfully, changed Sham’s life.

His family was forced to re-locate multiple times because of the danger in Baghdad. Sham and his family lived in constant fear.

When Sham arrived in America he says he felt “a freedom and safety I had never known before. I finally have a life free from the fear of death.” It was with great hope and promise that Sham came to the US.

He knew no one. He had very little money and no job. But through a series of miracles he ended up getting placed with a generous host family that helped get Sham on his feet. To Sham, America is a dream. A place where he can rise up and do whatever he wants to do with his life. A place where he is safe and welcome to be himself.

He dreams of being an actor, a singer, a dancer, and continuing to help refugees through his work with The International Refugee Assistance Project known as IRAP and other non-profits that work with refugees.

Sham is one of the most grateful and hopeful people I have ever met. His love for America is bigger than most of my American friends. America, quite literally, saved his life.

His journey continues to be arduous as he struggles with PTSD from his experiences in Iraq, the reality of leaving all your loved ones behind in a war-torn country, and the financial difficulty of starting over with nothing but your dream of a better life to sustain you.

But in the face of all of this, Sham wears a broad smile and extends his hand to anyone asking for help. He has become an advocate for refugees, speaking on their behalf and telling his story.“The reason why I’m here today is because every refugee deserves a second chance in life. I know what it feels like to have no home and have the fear of death be all that you can think about. Refugees are just people — teachers, doctors, and engineers, but they’ve had everything taken away from them. Terrorism made them stop living. Refugees are humans with dreams. Thousands of them are on the move now, from one danger zone to another. They shouldn’t be left behind nor taken for granted regardless of where they are coming from, who they are, what color they are, or what religion they believe in.” (Sham Hasan)

It’s really hard to put into words what I felt sitting with Sham. It was as if for a short moment, I stepped into his world… and I saw through his eyes, and felt through his heart, what it was like growing up in a country torn to bits by war. Losing so much. Fighting for your life. Fighting for a dream and a vision of a better life. As well as the tremendous victory of getting to America and getting a second chance at life.

To learn more about Sham please visit his website: http://www.shamhasan.com/

Stay tuned and follow along for more stories of courage.

“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

insta. @TheInvisiblesProject | email. Olivia@OliviaKatz.com

Shahan Sanosian & Life After Syria

After meeting with Sham he generously began introducing me to his wide network of non-profits who work with immigrants and refugees. He also scoured the internet searching for refugees in Los Angeles who I could do stories on.

Through his research he discovered Shahan, a refugee from Syria living in Koreatown. We reached out to Shahan and asked him if he would be open to sharing his story with us. Shahan was audibly slightly nervous and uncertain about it. He told me, “I don’t really have the most interesting story”.

I told him I bet he did, a­nd that I wanted to hear it.

Shahan agreed to meet with me, so we set a date and Sham graciously hosted us for tea and dates at his apartment in Silverlake.

Shahan seemed slightly shy and leaned back in his chair. He wore metal rimmed glasses that hid his eyes just a bit.

We met just a couple weeks after the most recent chemical attack in Syria and my instinct was just to ask Shahan how he was doing. Especially knowing that his parents are were still in Syria.

“It’s really uncomfortable thinking about all this stuff and watching the news. I try not to be biased. I’m not there anymore. I am not in the middle of the action. I can’t say for sure what we are being told by the media, if it’s exactly what’s happening. Everyone wants to tell you their version of the story.A lot of times, for example let’s talk about the recent events, the chemical attack. It’s been happening since the war started. Every year or every several months they come up with ‘Ohh they did a chemical attack and this and that’. Especially from my point of view, it’s not about vilifying the government, it’s about finding a solution. You want to put an end to this war. And obviously, the government is the main power, they still have some form of control over there, and I feel like, if the government falls, the same thing is going to happen like what happened in Libya and Iraq”.

He spoke about how fractioned the country is, with so many different warring groups:

“It’s not just Isis, there are other militant groups, fighting the government, fighting each other, fighting Isis…but since the government still has some sense of power, what is the alternative if we remove the president?In my opinion, the second power would be Isis…and they would start absorbing all these groups and get bigger and bigger. At least, if the government starts to gain control and they try to find a way to unite these groups, maybe they can fight more and gain more control of the areas”.

Shahan struggled a little to articulate himself as he worked through the language barrier as well as his own feelings about the conflict in Syria.

His voice was heavy and it was clearly not that easy to talk about “home”.

We took a break from talking about the news so I could ask Shahan more about his life before America.

He told me that his family is actually Armenian, and he was raised in an Armenian community in Syria. In the Middle East, families are very close and everyone is very involved in eachother’s business. He expressed that there are a lot of familial obligations and your family is always making their opinion known.

As an introvert, Shahan was hungry to have more privacy in his life and more permission to just be himself.

“They don’t give you the freedom to express exactly who you are. You always feel like you are acting just so that people accept you in your environment.”

So, it made sense given the war, the limited opportunities in Syria and intense community he lived in, that he was ready to get out.

When the moment finally came to apply for a master’s degree, he knew it would be in anywhere but Syria.

Shahan fell in love with a program based in Norway and underwent the application process. When he was accepted to the program he was overjoyed — Norway was his dream!

In order to even apply for a Norwegian visa Shahan had to fly to Jordan, where he was detained at the airport for hours before finally making it to his interview, at which point he was told he didn’t have the right paperwork. A series of mishaps and miscommunications ensued and it became clear that getting to Norway wasn’t going to happen.

The fact that most countries have closed their embassies in Syria makes the visa process just that much harder. Turkey, Norway, US, France, Saudi Arabia, and Quatar- have all shut down their embassies in Syria due to the violence.

He flew back to Syria feeling utterly disheartened.

That next year stuck in Syria was miserable. He had graduated from school but he had to provide a reason why he could not fight so he enrolled in an online master’s degree program.

Keep in mind, this is online school… in Syria. The internet barely works. There are constantly “electricity grey-outs” where the electricity is totally cut off, sometimes for 6 hours or more.

Warring groups target power plants, halting internet and communication and keeping everyone in a constant state of fear and confusion.

As the months passed by, it began to feel like he was never going to get out of Syria and Shahan felt very discouraged. It felt as though everything was working against him, everywhere he turned he was meeting obstacles. He couldn’t get out of the country. He couldn’t get a job because no one would hire him since he hadn’t done his military time yet. His online school was terrible and he could barely complete the work due to the inconsistent internet.

He began to think, screw it, maybe I will just go into the military.

Just when he was about to crumble and give up he heard about a program through a language school, where you could improve your English skills. The program was based in LA.

“I thought, ok, let me just try and see what happens”.

Shahan applied and within a month he heard that he had been accepted to the program.

He applied for the visa and flew to Lebanon to submit his paperwork.

He thought to himself, this is never going to happen, this is America after-all, it’s not an easy place to get to…and I am Syrian. There is just no way.

Within three weeks, Shahan was told “you have been approved”. (!!!)

Shahan and his parents were beyond relieved. Finally, the moment he had been waiting for. He packed his things and left shortly after for Los Angeles. He didn’t say goodbye to everyone, he just left.

Shahan arrived in LA in 2013, and although it hasn’t been all that easy, he is happy to be out of Syria.

When asked about how he feels about the current American government and relations with the middle east Shahan expressed that he rarely thinks about what is happening in the larger context of the world. He said he feels like he has no voice, like there is nothing he can really do.

He just wants his parents to be safe. He thinks about everyone and what is happening but he feels like there is nothing he can do.

Now he is in the process of applying for asylum and working for an IT company. Shahan’s future is uncertain as he could be sent back even though he has been approved to stay and work here while in this process.

Shahan sticks to the routine of working a lot and it serves as a distraction from his worries. Shahan typically spends his weekends in his room, in his shared house in Koreatown. He feels tired a lot and avoids social activities. He loses interest in what he is doing whenever he tries to watch a movie or listen to something.

Shahan seemed tired by the end of our conversation, “I don’t know what else to say or do about it. It’s just something we have to deal with.”

There was a palpable sadness in the air and I asked Shahan, “do you miss your parents?”.“…Yeah of course…”

Shahan’s voice felt strained, heavy.

“I try to just follow up with what is happening in Damascus because if you google what is happening in other cities it is indescribable. There is so much violence”.

The fate of his family is unknown and Shahan struggles every day knowing there is nothing he can do to get them to America.

It seems to me he is split between worlds, in this liminal state of being. He has been given the chance to start over in America. But his family remains in Syria, fighting for survival on a daily basis. He struggles to enjoy life here…and as I listened to his story, it reminded me of what people describe as survivor’s guilt. He carries a heavy burden of worry that he cannot seem to put down, never really knowing if his family will be safe.

We talked for a while longer and I took Shahan’s portrait in Sham’s courtyard before splitting ways. When I went home I couldn’t stop thinking about Shahan and I felt the story was incomplete. I asked him if I could visit him at his house in Koreatown to take his portrait there.

He kindly obliged me and I met up with him a week later. Shahan lives in a yellow house with pink bougainvillea creeping cheerfully over the driveway. It’s a shared house full of young people from all over the world. Shahan lives in a small room on the first floor, just to the left of the entranceway to the house. He has the only room with his own bathroom. It’s a modest room filled with his life’s belongings.

He doesn’t like living there very much, the woman who lives above him has tourettes syndrome and swears all day long. He says there’s a lot of drama amongst his neighbors.

Shahan seemed sad, slightly caved in, but at the same time he lit up a little bit when I arrived. He’s got a kind and sweet spirit, he’s clearly incredibly smart and has a lot to say if you give him the space to say it.

I asked him what he does on the weekends, he says he is often too tired to do much and he avoids seeing people.

We talked about his dreams and he told me how he had really wanted to be a musician. Sometimes he wonders if he should have fought for music rather than gone into computers.

I encouraged him to get out his guitar and told him that I wanted to hear him play sometime. I took a portrait of him in his room and then we hugged and parted ways.

While Shahan’s personal story may not be the kind you most often see on the news about Syria, it’s without a doubt a story of persistence, redemption and courage.

My prayer is that Shahan finds a way to lay some of his burdens down so that he can pick up his guitar and smile again.

Stay tuned and follow along for more stories of courage. @theinvisiblesproject on Instagram

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