Facing 15 Years in Prison, or Death, Gay Iraqi Couple Settle in US
“To be gay in Iraq, it’s very dangerous. You lose your family, and you lose your friends, you lose everything almost.”
Speaking to KUOW Radio in Seattle, Nayyef Hrebid and Betu Allami have told of the lengths to which they have had to go to be together. When they met in Ramadi in 2004, Hrebid was working as an interpreter for the US Marines and Allami was a soldier in the Iraqi army. The constant danger of the operation was stressful, and the two would relax in a safe house in the evening, sharing a meal and their thoughts in the back garden.
“Because, you know, we see dead people. We fight. So what we talk about is our life and past, about how we feel, about where we like to be in the future. And that was very beautiful in that difficult moment,” Hrebid explained. Against the backdrop of daily danger, the two men, who both hid their sexuality, developed feelings for one another. Allami confessed his love for Hrebid after four days.
To be gay in Iraq is to risk torture and murder. In a 2011 report, Human Rights Watch highlighted a campaign of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture of gay men orchestrated by the Mahdi Army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad. There is a suggestion that Iraqi security forces colluded in the crimes.
“Iraq’s leaders are supposed to defend all Iraqis, not abandon them to armed agents of hate. Turning a blind eye to torture and murder threatens the rights and life of every Iraqi,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.
In 2004 Allami, as a member of the armed forces, could have faced 15 years in prison for his relationship with Hrebid. In theory, homosexuality is not a crime in Iraq (outside of the police and security forces), but the reality is much different. Prevailing cultural and religious values mean that the law is the least of a gay person’s worries: the threat of familial or societal ostracism, or even murder, is great.
“To be gay in Iraq, it’s very dangerous,” Hrebid told KUOW. “It’s losing your life. You get shame to the family. You lose your family, and you lose your friends, you lose everything almost. That is why there is other ways to be gay, just between you and maybe the other person.”
The men kept their love secret for 5 years, meeting when they could, always aware that by following their hearts they were risking death. Then, in 2009, Hrebid had to leave Iraq as militants targeted him for his work as a translator. He was able to move to Seattle with the help of a US Marine captain. But he left Allami behind, and so began years of contact over Skype and phone as the pair tried desperately to reunite.
Allami was able to flee to Beirut, and then to Vancouver in Canada. Hrebid was able to travel across the border to visit the man who would eventually become his husband – they celebrate their second anniversary on Valentines Day. It wasn’t until early 2015 that Allami was given permission to join Hrebid in Seattle, where the couple now live in an apartment Hrebid describes as “a palace”.