Nayyef Hrebid was a translator for the U.S. Marines in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2004 when he first saw Btoo Allami, who was a sergeant in the Iraqi army.
The two men spoke for the first time a few months later when they were on a joint mission to clear Ramadi of terrorists. Hrebid and Allami spent the next week together and they had their first kiss late one night in a garden that was surrounded by a makeshift fence made with sandbags.
“We were looking for something beautiful during a time that was very difficult for us,” Hrebid told the Washington Blade on April 28 during an interview at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to THRIVE conference that took place at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park. “We didn’t know if we were going to die or not so we were looking for something beautiful.”
“He’s something beautiful that happened to me,” he added.
Allami agreed, telling the Blade that he saw Hrebid first.
“It was just a really beautiful time,” said Allami.
Fellow Iraqi translator beat Hrebid because he is gay
“Out of Iraq,” which premiered last June at the LA Film Festival, documents Hrebid and Allami’s relationship.
“Out of Iraq” is on Logo and has been nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. The documentary won a Daytime Emmy Award a few hours after Hrebid and Allami spoke with the Blade.
The two men spent two years in Ramadi until they were both transferred to Diwaniyah, a city in southern Iraq, in 2007. Hrebid told the Blade “people in the military started knowing about our relationship.”
“A lot of people started talking,” he said.
Hrebid told the Blade that a fellow Iraqi translator who was his “best friend” broke his arm after he beat him because he is gay. He said the U.S. major to whom he reported the incident threatened him.
“‘If you say anything, I’ll throw you outside the camp, which is between the terrorists so they’d kill me,'” said the major, according to Hrebid.
“So I kept it inside me and I was crying because I knew there’s no justice,” he added.
Gay Iraqis targeted by militias, ISIS
Gay men could not serve openly in the U.S. military until “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2010.
Members of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that prominent cleric Muqtada al-Sadr runs, in 2007 killed gay men who recorded themselves belly dancing at a birthday party. Hrebid told the Blade militia members killed more than 200 people in Baghdad in a single week “just because they are gay.”
“That’s by smashing their head with a big block in the middle of the street,” he said.
Allami was born into a poor Shiite family in Baghdad.
Al-Sadr last summer banned his followers from committing violence against LGBT people. Violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity nevertheless remains commonplace in Iraq, with Hrebid telling the Blade his friend’s parents killed him in front of their home after they found out he was gay.
“Everyone can judge you on the street,” he said. “It’s not easy to be gay in the Middle East, especially in Iraq.”
“A lot, a lot,” added Allami.
The so-called Islamic State has publicly executed dozens of men in portions of Iraq and Syria that it controls or once controlled.
UNHCR denies Allami refugee status application
Hrebid moved to Seattle in 2009 after he received asylum because he worked as a translator with the U.S. military.
“I came in 2009 and I saw the life here and how it’s different, but I was feeling so bad because he was left behind,” said Hrebid. “I promised to bring him here.”
Hrebid told the Blade that Allami’s family found out about their relationship when they heard them talking on the phone or on Skype.
“His life was getting more in danger,” Hrebid told the Blade as Allami listened. “He had to run away.”
Michael Failla, a Seattle-based immigration advocate who Hrebid befriended at a party, gave Allami money to travel to Lebanon on a 30 day tourist visa. Allami deserted the Iraqi army and flew to Beirut on Dec. 6, 2010.
Allami in early 2011 applied for refugee status with the U.N. Refugee Agency. Lebanese authorities would have sent him back to Iraq if they found him living in the country without documentation, but he said the UNHCR employee who interviewed him said the agency cared “more about families” than those who are gay.
“The first time the guy told me, ‘We don’t care about gay refugees,'” Allami told the Blade.
Hrebid in January 2013 saw Allami for the first time in more than three years when he and Failla traveled to Beirut.
Allami soon had a second UNHCR interview that lasted 11 hours. The agency deemed him ineligible for resettlement because a UNHCR employee with whom he previously met incorrectly reported that he witnessed U.S. soldiers torture Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad.
“We had never been there,” Hrebid told the Blade, noting Allami learned about the torture through a newscast.
It took six years ‘for us to be together’
Allami had begun the process of applying for asylum in Canada as he waited for UNHCR’s decision. A group of Canadians sponsored him and the government approved his application in 2013.
Allami arrived in Vancouver on Sept. 9, 2013.
“That was the happiest day ever in my life,” Hrebid told the Blade. “I finally felt he was safe and he had papers and he could stand up and walk without anyone bothering him.”
Hrebid became a U.S. citizen in 2014, which is the same year in which same-sex couples received marriage rights in Washington State.
He and Allami married in Canada on Valentine’s Day in 2014. Allami applied for a visa that would allow him to live in the U.S.
It was granted in March 2015 after Allami had an interview in Montreal. He and Hrebid men married for a second time at Cailla’s Seattle home in August of that year.
“It took us basically six years for us to be together,” said Hrebid.
Families ‘freaked out’ after Ellen DeGeneres show appearance
Hrebid and Allami in January appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” after Ellen DeGeneres read an interview the couple had done with the BBC.
Hrebid told the Blade their families in Iraq “freaked out” after show aired and news about their appearance spread throughout social media.
Hrebid said his uncle told him to return to Iraq so members of his tribe could kill him and “cut the shame.” He told the Blade that Allami’s family has disowned him.
“No one can mention his name in the family anymore,” said Hrebid.
Trump policies ‘going to put’ lives in danger
President Trump on Jan. 27 signed an executive order that banned citizens of Iraq and six other predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days. A revised travel ban that Trump signed in March did not include Iraq.
The second executive order has yet to take effect because it has been challenged in court.
“It’s going to put a lot of lives in danger,” Hrebid told the Blade. “He (Trump) thinks people just come through, walk in to the United States. Btoo is one example. It took four years just for vetting and a background check.”
Hrebid and Allami have begun to help other refugees resettle — at first in the U.S., but now Canada because of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“We could just shut our door and just live our lives without anyone knowing, but this is not why we are here,” said Hrebid. “We are here to let people know about what is happening in the Middle East and what is happening to those who are LGBTQ.”
Allami agreed, noting Seattle is “my home now” and it is “amazing.”
“We made our dreams come true,” he told the Blade.