Iraq

Still In Peril in the LGBT Capital of the Arab World

By Laura Dean
Friday, July 15, 2016, 11:22 AM

They had thrown his corpse in the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out…One of the tortures they used on him was a very strong glue to close his anus, after which he was given a laxative causing diarrhea that killed him.”

“Their bodies have appeared by the dozens in hospitals and morgues. How many have been killed will likely never be known…They stripped them naked and put diapers and bras on them. Then the Mahdi Army [Jeish al-Mahdi] beat them to death…as many Iraqis targeted in the killing campaign [of LGBT people] are forced to flee the country, the international community must recognize that they are under threat not only at home, but in the surrounding countries where they seek first refuge.”

From “They Want Us Exterminated,” a 2009 Human Rights Watch report.

 

BEIRUT, Lebanon—For Ali and Alex, Lillian and Diana, about whom I wrote last month, Lebanon is far from the safe haven they had hoped it would be; all four Iraqi gays and lesbians find themselves in a race against time: for Ali, unable to afford medical treatment, his muscular dystrophy will continue to worsen at a precipitous rate unless he is resettled to a country in which he can afford care. Meanwhile, the women have brought shame upon their families, who are still looking for them; Lebanon is very close to Iraq, and Iraqis can visit easily. The women hope to be resettled before their families find them.

***

“When I get home, I’m going to kill you,” Rawan’s father told her. Rawan is the friend who introduced the two couples and helped them plan their escape. Now her own life was in danger. Her father was in Mosul fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army and fellow members of a Shia militia, Jeish al-Mahdi, in January last year.

Her mother had called her father after she discovered that Rawan was a lesbian and in a relationship with a woman in Baghdad. “You are the thing I should be fighting, not Daesh,” her father snarled over the crackly line. “You are against my principles, against God, against Islam, against everything. If there is jihad, it should be against those things.” He instructed her mother to keep her locked in the house: “Don’t let her go anywhere until I come back, then I’ll kill her.” Her mother had confiscated her laptop and phone, but Rawan had one last recourse.

“Every girl in Iraq, if she wants to live a secret life, has a second phone.” She called Lillian, a lesbian friend who had fled Iraq for Lebanon with her girlfriend and another gay couple the year before by orchestrating a sham marriage. Lillian’s advice: Leave everything. Just come.

This wasn’t the first time that Rawan had fallen afoul of her very conservative father, nor even the first time he had threatened her life. In college, she told her family she was an atheist. Convinced she was possessed by a djinn, her family filled the house with incense and men reading Qur’an to try to exorcize it. When she started writing columns for local newspapers, members of her father’s militia came to the house and threatened her. Her father forbade her from writing and would sometimes shut off the Internet to prevent her from communicating with the outside world. When she repeatedly spurned marriage proposals, her family began to doubt she was a virgin—a family shame in conservative Iraqi society. They refused to believe otherwise until she told her mother that it was her parents’ own difficult marriage that turned her off to the idea. Her father would frequently enter into short-term temporary marriages with the widows of members of his militia, a fact that led to jealousy and many fights between her parents. Once, when she was offered a job in Baghdad and wanted to move out of the family house, her father threatened her with a gun. This time though, when she heard his voice over the phone, she knew his threat was in earnest.

***

Ali cannot come from standing to a sitting position on his own. Alex grasps his upper body, suspending his torso while Ali maneuvers his legs that no longer do as his brain bids them, to bend around the seat of the chair. Alex makes sure Ali’s feet are flat on the floor, his back against the seat. He does this wordlessly, as though trying to draw as little attention as possible.

The economy of Alex’s gestures belies the intimacy of their relationship. Only, perhaps, the tenderness with which he tucks Ali’s shirt back into his jeans suggests anything more than caregiver and patient. Ali has muscular dystrophy and relies on Alex to help him move around, and indeed, to survive. Alex does not let his fingers linger, even though they are in Beirut, the LGBT capital of the Arab world, far from the conservative mores of their native Iraq.

When their plane touched down on the Beirut tarmac nearly two years ago, Ali and Alex were euphoric. After years of persecution at the hands of their families and a society that spent more than a decade trying to beat and shame them into becoming “normal” men, they were finally going to be together. But life in Lebanon is much harder than they had anticipated. In a country where one in four people is a refugee—most fled the war over the border in Syria—services for them, from medical to resettlement, are stretched to the breaking point, and young men fall lowest in the hierarchy of the needy.

The UN cut off aid to Alex, because, as an able-bodied man, he’s considered eligible to work. But there’s very little work to be had and for people like Alex, shifts are rarely shorter than 10 hours. And because of Ali’s illness, Alex can’t leave him alone for that long. Furthermore, because the two came to Lebanon on a tourist visa, he doesn’t legally have the right to work anyway.

Meanwhile Ali’s medical condition is getting worse all the time. He has had no medical assistance since he came to Lebanon in 2014.

“Every day I discover a new part of my body that’s gone. I lose movement, and I can’t do anything about it,” says Ali. “I notice each day [that] things get worse, bone by bone. It’s harder and harder for me to move my hand. I know that if a joint in my hand goes, it won’t come back…and that is very painful.”

The couple had an interview for resettlement with the Canadian embassy. Embassy staff told them that within two weeks they would call, but it’s been more than three months and they haven’t heard any word. “Every time the phone rings, I imagine it’s the embassy and this situation will end,” says Ali, “My life hangs on the ringing of the telephone.” Once in Canada, Ali will be able to get medical attention that will slow the deterioration of his body, but in Lebanon, he doesn’t have the money to pay for private care.

And it’s not just the medical problems. The boredom gets to them at times too. “We are free 24 hours a day, [but] we hardly go out of the house,” says Ali, “but what’s important here is that we are together, we complete each other,” he adds, looking affectionately at Alex.

***

Other relationships have weathered the transition less well.

A few days after the ominous phone call with her father, Rawan and her girlfriend found themselves in a cramped apartment in Dahieh, a largely Shia area of South Beirut. Rawan couldn’t help but blame her girlfriend for their predicamentㅡher girlfriend’s father had overheard them on the phone one night and under beatings and threats, she had confessed the whole story to her parents. “One of you plays the role of the man and one the role of the woman?” Said her girlfriend’s father. “That’s how they see it, it always has to be a man and a woman somehow.” Rawan shakes her head. It was her girlfriend’s mother who called Rawan’s parents.

Soon after they arrived in Beirut, the two broke up. Her girlfriend moved into another apartment, leaving Rawan alone. Down the hall, Rawan’s friends Lillian and Diana were arguing too.

“Since we came to Lebanon, Diana and I had many problems,” says Lillian. When they arrived, they moved into a women’s shelter run by a Catholic religious organization where they were housed in a room with one other woman. “The [other women] knew we were lesbians and they tried to cause trouble for us,” Lillian explained. They took away their chairs at meals forcing them to eat on the ground, and made rude comments as they passed. Once, their roommate tried to hit Diana. Lillian intervened. They stayed there a month before moving to Dahieh. But things weren’t easy there either.

“Dahieh is all Hezbollah, they’re the same as Jeish al-Mahdi,” said Lillian. Their neighbors were constantly asking questions: “Why are you two girls alone? Where are your families? This is the first time I’ve seen two girls from Basra not wearing hijabs.” Lillian and Diana uncovered their hair as soon as they stepped off of the plane in Lebanon. At first they didn’t go out or even look for work for fear someone would find out who they were and send them back to their families.

“In Iraq, there is a tribal system; if a woman escapes from her family, that family will be shamed,” Lillian says. “They can’t go out in public without people saying that their daughter is a whore. As long as she is gone, they will have that shame. How to expiate it? Honor killing.” Even in Lebanon, she knew that she was far from safe. “Lebanon is what, an hour by plane from Iraq? It’s not hard for Iraqis to come here. They are looking. They just haven’t found us yet.” Their only hope is that they will be resettled before they do.

A few days after they arrived, Diana’s family called and told her that the jig was up: they knew the marriage had been a sham and were coming to Lebanon to find her. Diana threw away her SIM card in terror but she lives every day in fear they will make good on their threat. Diana’s fearfulness irks Lillian.

“She was always afraid, afraid our families would find us. Her worries affected me, until feelings between us cooled. We were living like sisters at the end but there was no other choice,” said Diana. Neither had the money to move into her own place.

Around this time, Lillian and Rawan were spending more and more time together. “I had a crush on Rawan,” Lillian admits.

In May 2015 Lillian told Diana that she had fallen in love with Rawan and wanted to move in with her. Before she left Diana, she secured her a job with the phone company where she had been working, “so I would have a calm conscience that financially she would be alright.”

“I felt responsible for her because she depended on me for a lot of things. I was the one that looked for work. She doesn’t speak English, or know much about computers. She’s shy and not very social.”

Living alone now in Dahieh, Diana is terrified. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to do what I did,” she says, her eyes fixed on the floor. With no money and facing exploitation and sexual harassment in any job she finds, her only hope is that she will be resettled to Canada soon. There she hopes to meet someone else, and study engineering, or perhaps open a restaurant.

Meanwhile the change in relationship status has complicated matters at the legal level. Lillian and Diana initially had linked UN resettlement files. When they broke up, they unlinked their files, but when Lillian tried to connect her’s to Rawan’s, she encountered a problem: since Rawan arrived months after Lillian, joining their files would slow procedures down for Lillian, particularly since they are not married; if they were, things might be a little easier. As soon as they arrive in Canada, they hope to marry. But as things stand, if Lillian is resettled to Canada, it could be months before they are reunited.

Before long, Rawan’s family came looking for them too.

UNHCR advised her to move to a Christian neighborhood saying, “we can’t put policemen outside your door to protect you from your family.”

But Christian parts of Beirut are much more expensive. For three months, Lillian and Rawan moved from house to house, from neighborhood to neighborhood, until eventually the money ran out and there was nothing for it but to go back to Dahieh.

The meager living they eke out comes at a heavy price. Employers know that as undocumented refugees, they cannot go to the police, and many refuse to pay their wages; others sexually harass them, assured they will not be reported.

One day, when Lillian was working in a supermarket, a customer sexually harassed her. When she talked back to him, her boss fired her, saying, “How do you talk to customers like that?”

Another employer, when they refused his advances, said, “You two are refugees and you don’t have residency permits; I know people in the parliament and the government and with one call I could have them send you back to Iraq.”

They know that if they report these abuses, or if their families find them, the police will offer no protection. “If my family catches me, can I go to the police to complain? Of course not. The first thing the police are going to do is hand me over to my family,” Rawan says. And since neither has a residency visa, they would likely be deported in any case, and could be banned from the country for five years.

This, “despite the fact that our country is completely destroyed since the invasion and there is Daesh, and the Shia militias are also Daesh, a Shia Daesh in the south,” Rawan says bitterly. “Even if there wasn’t a war in Iraq, our case is difference, it’s LGBT. Even if there were no war we are still in danger.” Following the US invasion, Jeish al-Mahdi as well as other Shia and Sunni militias and security forces have waged targeted campaigns against LGBT Iraqis. “It’s not just Daesh. Daesh just came two years ago, but the Shia militias would do the same thing… There is no law to protect us; on the contrary, the law punishes us with prison or stoning.” The Lebanese state doesn’t look favorably on LGBT people either, and a law that states that, “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature is punishable by up to one year in prison,” has in the past been used to target LGBT people, often by security forces.

One bright spot in their new lives in Beirut is the LGBT community. “In Iraq that exists only on Facebook, but you don’t know, behind the screen, if it’s actually an LGBT person, or if they are faking just to get your information,” says Rawan. “It was a big shock when I felt they were treating me like a normal human being,” she says of people she has met in Lebanon.

It seems a small ask—to be treated like a human being, but it’s one that LGBT Iraqis, and indeed all refugees, echo:

“We want to live safely and legally in any country, unlike here. We want some simple job and a small house, maybe with a garden, perhaps a job with a civil society organization that works with LGBT people, or refugees, or people with special needs,” says Alex. “We like working. It’s hard to live on handouts from the UN. But right now, there’s no other way.”

Policy Note: All five of the people in this article are seeking asylum in Canada, a country that has explicitly stated its commitment to welcoming LGBT refugees. They are in touch with Canadian NGOs who have told them that if one member of a couple is resettled, they will try to sponsor their partners and have them brought over faster if it looks as though procedures would keep them apart for a long time. Canada has a number of NGOs that sponsor the resettlement of LGBT individuals.

While the US does not as yet have an official directive regarding resettlement of LGBT refugees, it has, according to refugee advocates, made it a priority. The White House has said the administration will  put an emphasis on resettling LGBT refugees, but rather than assigning a quota, it will simply include LGBT persons among those classified as most vulnerable, a category that includes those who are in continued danger in whichever Middle Eastern country they have fled to. US recognition of same-sex partnerships also helps when it comes to family reunification.

At present, there is no private sponsorship program for refugee resettlement in the US, nor are there organizations whose mandate includes bringing over LGBT refugees. However, a number of organizations, including Human Rights First, Heartland Alliance and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, provide legal and other kinds of support to LGBT refugees.

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