By Richard L. Tso
It was an unexpected place to find love. In 2004, Nayyef Hrebid found himself in an extremely dangerous situation as an Iraqi translator working for the U.S Marines. As the conflict was reaching new heights, many people in the warzone grew distrustful of those who could speak both English and Arabic.
“I watched so many people being killed – lives and families being torn apart,” said Hrebid. “I was based in Ramadi, which was one of the worst places with the highest number of deaths. We would go out on patrols and people would be killed right in front of me by IED bombs and snipers. I was asking myself: ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing this?'”
Then he met the love of his life.
Btoo Allami was a soldier in the Iraqi Army and they first met while on a mission to protect a hospital and clear the area of terrorists.
“There were snipers all around [and] I thought maybe I was going to die,” Hrebid said. “But when I saw Btoo, I thought he was one of the most beautiful men I’d ever seen. But I wasn’t sure he was gay.”
In a country where being gay could lead to persecution and death, the couple began spending more and more time together, until they eventually revealed their covert sexuality to one other. They grew closer, and when Hrebid’s sister became terminally ill, he asked Allami to accompany him to say goodbye.
“We found love,” Hrebid said. “We wanted to make an awful place into a beautiful place.”
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Fourteen years later, neither Hrebid or Allami imagined they would find themselves invited to be grand marshals at this year’s Pride Parade in Seattle, Washington, a place they are happy to call home. Since arriving here nine years ago, Hrebid shares with pride, he has never missed a parade. Waking at 5 a.m. to claim a spot along the route, he says, “I always wished I could walk in the parade, though, I never thought I would” and this honor means a great deal to him.
Pride month is not only a time to come together to celebrate, Pride also allows us to recognize the struggles of the all the men and women who paved the way in the fight for equality, and to recognize how much more work is needed around the globe. Here in the U.S., there has been tremendous progress toward equality over the last few decades, resulting in a significant shift in Americans’ attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. In 2016, nearly two-thirds of Americans said homosexuality should be accepted, an increase of 30% from the early-2000s.
But in the Middle East, homosexuality is not accepted. According to Pew Research, nearly 100% of people said that society must discourage homosexuality. And it only takes an online search to reveal several news reports and video clips of people being beaten, thrown off buildings, and stoned to death if they are even suspected of being gay.
Hrebid and Allami haven’t allowed their newfound freedom and safety in Seattle to allow them to grow complacent. They have a mission. As Hrebid tells it, “I [feel] a need to do something. I want to help the Middle East community. They are not educated about LGBT [rights].”
People cite religious doctrines as the basis for legal action, and gay men and women can find themselves in jail for upwards of 15 years, if not killed before that.
“Everyone judges you,” Hrebid said. “They imagine how disgusting men and men are together, but we show them the love. We hope with a new generation we will change people’s minds. We try to let them accept their culture by sharing our story.”
And their story is getting noticed.
An Emmy award-winning documentary airing on LOGO TV in 2016 called Out of Iraq chronicled not only their struggles of obtaining refugee status, but also the ordeal of spending years apart. Hrebid was able to move to the U.S. in 2009 when militants began targeting Iraqi translators, yet Allami had to remain behind. He was interviewed eight times, but due to administrative and translation errors, his refugee status was denied. Despite the time and distance between them, they spoke daily through Skype, eating meals together and talking for hours. Allami managed to flee to Lebanon in 2010 and, three years later in March 2013, he was granted refugee status by the Canadian government. In March 2015, he was finally able to join Hrebid in Seattle. In August of that very same year, they wed in Vancouver, B.C.
With a screening of their documentary at the U.N., along with numerous appearances in the media, including interviews on CNN and Ellen, Hrebid and Allami have become symbols for the power of love and possibility – demonstrating what can happen in the most unlikely of places. People around the globe have heard their story and have reached out.
“Over the last two and a half years, we’ve helped 21 LGBT people – hosting them until they find a place to stay, help them find a job, educate them about the culture, teach how to do paperwork,” said Hrebid. “If they are in Lebanon, Turkey, or Syria we try to get lawyers to do paperwork there. The new culture here is not easy and we make it easier for them until they find jobs. People should find me on Facebook if they want help.”
“After we got married, we wanted to have a family,” Hrebid said. “It feels good to build your life and your home with the person you love, together. We now have our dog Cesar who is 13 months. We got him when he was two and a half. We got better jobs, too, and Btoo has learned English very quickly.”
Their story is now being made into a “big Hollywood movie” set to premier later this year. When asked about the one thing they want people to remember about their struggles, he responded, “Hope…to have hope. We were hopeless, we never thought we would make it. We always imagined being together and getting married. Hope helped us be together.”
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