March 8, 2016 at 12:09 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay Iraqi man resettles in D.C.

Baghdad, Iraq, gay news, Washington Blade

Baghdad, Iraq (Photo public domain)

A gay former linguist for the U.S. Army who asked the Washington Blade not to publish his name because of safety concerns vividly recalls the day he learned the U.S. government had granted him a visa that would allow him to leave Iraq.

It was March 25, 2014, when he received a phone call from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He learned the same day the U.N. Refugee Agency was going to help him leave Iraq.

These two phone calls were the culmination of a process that began more than three years earlier. He was quick to praise the International Refugee Assistance Project during an interview with the Blade at a Dupont Circle coffee shop for helping him navigate the bureaucratic process and lengthy security and background checks that delayed his visa application.

“The day that I got the call I literally stopped functioning as a human being,” he said. “I never, ever thought that I would leave Iraq after a three-and-a-half-year battle with the U.S. government to get my visa.”

He told the Blade that he clenched the package in which his passport and visa were held as he left the embassy, noting he was “so scared to get hurt or go near a suicide bomber that might explode at any minute.” He soon left Baghdad and returned to his “safer harbor” in Iraqi Kurdistan.

He flew from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah to the Jordanian capital of Amman on May 11, 2014. He traveled from there to Chicago the next day.

“I was in a state of mind where I couldn’t process that I was in America,” he told the Blade, recalling the moment he arrived in the U.S. “I was like crazy. I was like someone who really lost his mind. I couldn’t think of anything else. I was thinking about my freedom.”

‘I was on the list to be killed’

The 29-year-old was born and raised in Baghdad. His parents are Kurdish, but they too were born and raised in the Iraqi capital.

He had just completed his second year at Al-Mustansiriya University’s College of Arts in Baghdad in 2006 when members of the Madhi Army, a Shiite militia group known as Jaysh al-Mahdi in Arabic, kidnapped him and his uncle.

He told the Blade that the militants killed his uncle — a member of a Kurdish political party they accused of working with U.S. forces to obtain information about insurgents.

He said the militants forced him to confess his homosexuality “as a sin.” He told the Blade he was released nearly 10 hours after they kidnapped him.

“I was on the list to be killed,” he told the Blade. “They wanted to get information out of me because of my uncle’s affiliation.”

He said that his uncle’s wife a few days later received a phone call from someone who “made her listen” to verses of the Quran that indicate a person has died. He told the Blade his uncle’s body has never been found, but his family suspects the militants beheaded him.

“He’s still missing,” he said.

U.S. contractors hire Hasan as linguist

He said he and his entire family fled to Kurdistan after the kidnapping.

He told the Blade that he didn’t return to school for a year because he was traumatized. He said he was also recovering from shrapnel-related injuries to his right knee that he suffered when the militants threw a grenade at him.

“I was literally sick,” he said. “I was living on medication.”

He eventually re-enrolled in college. He graduated and began working for an American company that was providing security to the U.S. Embassy inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.

He said he provided “linguistic services” for two months, but quickly became unhappy because of the security restrictions.

“I was literally in an office that was surrounded by two walls,” he said.

He decided to transfer to a large U.S. military base in the city of Basra in southern Iraq. It was there that he told the Blade he met a medic.

“He was like, ‘. . . you speak very good English and the U.S. Army needs your services more than here,’” he told the Blade, recalling the conversation he had with his chosen namesake. “‘Being here with this company is doing nothing and we really need you.’”

“So he was like, ‘Why don’t you try to find a way to join the Army as a linguist,’” he added.

He said he approached a company that hired Iraqis to work as linguists with the U.S. Army. He passed the test and the company hired him.

“They asked me what name I would like to choose to keep my identity safe in Iraq,” he told the Blade.

He arrived at Imam Ali Air Base near the predominantly Shiite city of Nasariyah three days later.

It was ‘impossible to live in Iraq’

He was working with U.S. military officials who were supervising the Iraqi army. He said he found out about a program in 2010 that offers immigrant visas to Iraqi and Afghan linguists and translators who worked with the U.S. military in their respective countries.

“They were telling me about this special visa program for those who provide faithful services and risk their lives to work with the U.S. Army and the U.S. government,” he told the Blade. “I was like, alright it doesn’t hurt to go to America. I already lost my life back in Baghdad because of my uncle and because the group who kidnapped me. They were pretty much sure that I was gay and they beat the hell out of me.”

“It was really impossible to live in Iraq after being gay and right now I’m being viewed as an infidel,” he said.

He told the Blade that the officers with whom he worked wrote letters of recommendation in support of his visa application. In the meantime, he was working with their Iraqi counterparts.

“They were trying to enforce a good relationship between the base and the neighboring villages around the area,” he said. “We used to get shot at with mortars every single day. They were losing lives.”

He said the officers with whom he worked began going out on patrols a few months later to look for bombs and rockets and to speak with local residents. He told the Blade that a man at a checkpoint walked out of his car, approached him and spit in his face.

“He called me a traitor,” he said. “He’s like, ‘You’re an asshole. Why do you work for them? Why do you facilitate their mission?’”

“By then I realized there was no way I could stay in Iraq,” he said.

‘Please just get me out of Iraq’

He arrived in South Bend, Ind., shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 2014.

He told the Blade that he knew people in D.C., but didn’t want to make the resettlement process more complicated.

“I was like, ‘Please just get me out of Iraq and I will be fine there,’” he said. “They told me that I’m going to South Bend, Ind. I had no idea what South Bend is, what Indiana is.”

He said the resettlement agency was not “ready to have me” when he arrived in Indiana. He told the Blade that an employee of a local church agreed to allow him to live with him and his family for four months.

“Imagine I arrive there and here is this typical American image in my head: A Midwestern family, blond, blue eyes, very white, beautiful car, the lawn is mowed really well,” he said. “It was like I was living in a movie that I used to watch on TV when I was back home with my family.”

He told the Blade he woke up the next morning and saw a deer and a rabbit in front of his host family’s home.

“I was like ‘ohmigod, if that was in Iraq, people would have killed them,’” he said.

He had a second surgery on his injured knee while he was in Indiana. He then decided that he wanted to move to a larger city.

“That really broke their hearts, but I never told them that I am gay,” he said. “I was really concerned about my homosexuality and did not really want to ruin that.”

“When I arrived in America I still had my Middle East mindset, like how people view me as a homosexual. It didn’t matter if I was in America, I was still in that type of mentality.”

He eventually came out to his host family.

“They texted me back, they said . . . we love you no matter who you are,” he told the Blade. “That was such a huge relief to me.”

With his host family’s support, he moved to D.C. in September 2014 after a former sergeant with whom he had worked in Iraq and his roommates “offered him a couch” in their home. He told the Blade that his first gay experience came shortly afterwards when he visited Nellie’s.

“I was so overwhelmed,” he said. “I just wanted to sleep with everyone. I mean imagine coming from Iraq as a gay person, how would you react. I was like, ‘ohmigod I am in a room that is full of gays.’”

He began working with Dog Tag Bakery, a Georgetown business that supports veterans.

He met his current partner last March. The two now live together with their two cats, Babylon and Ishtar, who are named in honor of his homeland.

“I never, ever thought that I would leave Iraq,” he told the Blade as he discussed his relationship. “I thought about death more than I thought about life.”

Anti-immigrant rhetoric ‘shameful’

He spoke with the Blade two days before a suicide bombing at a security checkpoint in the city of Hillah for which the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility killed more than 40 people. The interview also took place against the backdrop of anti-immigrant rhetoric that Republican presidential candidates have used on the campaign trail.

U.S. Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were among the members of the U.S. House of Representatives who voted for a bill last November that would suspend the resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the U.S. in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. The gay Iraqi refugee was among those who spoke at a Council for Global Equality reception in Northwest D.C. last week.

“It’s shameful what politicians are doing right now,” he told the Blade on Friday.

“America was built by people who were needy, who were vulnerable, who were neglected, who were ignored, who didn’t have any rights in their own countries,” he added. “America is an escape to the whole world. That’s why America is America.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

1 Comment
  • Another terrific report by the Blade and Lavers.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us, Sham. And thank you for your service to our country– as well as your ongoing activism. Welcome to DC, as well.

    Rock Creek Park is almost mountainous compared to Indiana, eh?

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2020. All rights reserved.