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Thursday, 5 February 2009

The Iraqi Who Took Manhattan

The Iraqi Who Took Manhattan
Source: The Advocate - March 2009

By Alex Davidson

Dressed in jeans and a zip-up sweater and with his phone buzzing with text messages, Leo is like any 25-year-old New Yorker. Except he’s a refugee, spirited out of Baghdad this winter.
"If that building is bombed, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Leo says, pointing across New York City’s Eighth Avenue at an old bank building, now a grocery store, where he’s about to have lunch. It’s late December, and three weeks earlier the 25-year-old had arrived from Baghdad, one of nearly 13,000 countrymen resettled in the United States last year. 

He’s in a good mood today, eating his first-ever burrito and checking out guys, but memories of war pop up without warning—a constant reminder of his past. 

He doesn’t really expect this grocery store to be targeted, but a bombing -- any bombing -- wouldn’t be nearly as surprising to him as it would be to everyone else there. “You can’t understand me for real,” he says in near-perfect English. “You can’t have my mind.” 

At 6 foot 4 with long black hair, Leo is a striking presence in person -- and online: Like most 20-somethings, he has profiles on Facebook and other social networking sites. But doing things that gay men in the States take for granted, like meeting other guys, can be fraught with complexity for him. In Iraq gay men are routinely harassed, if not killed, by Islamic fundamentalists. As a child Leo witnessed a naked man, tied to a pickup truck and wearing a sign declaring his homosexuality, being paraded through the streets of Baghdad for hours; eventually he was killed. More recently, a friend was beaten nearly to death. Leo himself was kidnapped once, though not because of his sexual orientation. 

So you can understand why he abruptly left a Chelsea bar the other night when a guy came on to him:
Instinct told Leo that the man might be an undercover agent hoping to entrap him, prove he’s gay, and then execute him. And you’ll forgive him for avoiding men who appear too feminine, which could get one shot back home. “I still need to protect myself,” he says. It’ll take time to shake off the trauma of five years of chaos and hiding. 

Other aspects of Western gay culture are coming more easily to him, though. He calls himself a “bear” (“I’m so hairy!” he explains), and he drops the word “bitch” with regularity. He’s already taken the compulsory picture of Gay Street in Greenwich Village and e-mailed it to friends in Baghdad. In New York “nobody cares” that he’s gay, Leo says. “It’s a great feeling.” 

I first heard about Leo through a friend who knew one of his “anchors,” two New Yorkers who sponsored his six-month, red tape–laden trek to America. (Out of fear of being identified by radicals back home, where his family still lives, Leo asked that the men not be named, nor the agency that resettled him. Similarly, he didn’t want his real name used, though it’s listed on his restricted Facebook profile, which doesn’t mention that he’s gay.)

A graphic designer, Leo met the first anchor at the nongovernmental organization where he worked for two years starting in 2005. The two hit it off and kept in touch when Leo moved on to another job as a translator for the U.S. Army. It was then, in mid 2008, that Leo met his second anchor, a freelance journalist roaming Iraq for stories. Both men guided him through the interviews and applications necessary to escape to the United States; now they’re helping to house him until he finds a place of his own. Without a job, he’s making do with a $450-a-month subsidy from the agency, plus food stamps, but those benefits will end after three months. If he doesn’t find work on his own -- he’s sending out résumés and setting up informational interviews -- his caseworker says she’ll find him a job, though it might not be in his field. With his refugee status he can legally remain in the States for the rest of his life. But he says he won’t stay if doing so means he has to work in a restaurant or clean bathrooms. If it comes to that, he says, he’ll cut ties with the agency and return to Iraq.

His uncertain predicament, however, is an improvement over life in Iraq, where he couldn’t be out at all. “My parents think I’m a metrosexual,” he says with a laugh, though they would disown him if they learned the truth. 

His brother is in such denial that when he found a cache of gay porn on Leo’s personal computer, he decided Leo was acting Western to avoid being seen as an “ordinary” Iraqi. Porn was his only link to the gay world, Leo says, and aside from his brother, he managed to keep it secret.

Still, passing as straight didn’t keep him out of harm’s way. Leo was leaving the Baghdad airport, after flying in from the northern city of Irbil, when three masked men with guns forced him into their car, then sequestered him in a dark, empty room for three days. His parents ultimately paid $20,000 for his release, using all of Leo’s savings. “The kidnappers were contacting my family via my cell phone all the time that I was restrained with them,” he says. “My family told me that the kidnappers asked for $50,000 at the beginning, and my uncle negotiated to decrease the ransom amount.” He was lucky to survive: Three of his friends were killed in separate kidnappings, he says.

While he was captive, his kidnappers learned he worked for the NGO; when they released him, they told him to quit -- otherwise they’d track him down and kill him. So Leo left and lived with friends for two months. 

Then he took the riskier job interpreting for the Army, riding along with patrol units through Baghdad as they rounded up insurgents for interrogation. Being with the troops around the clock -- he roomed and ate with them -- kept him safe from outsiders. The sense of protection grew his confidence too: On patrol last summer, an Iraqi kid called Leo a faggot, so Leo grabbed the kid by the shirt and got him to take back what he said. It was an empowering display.

Even so, he’s pessimistic about progress in his country. The land modern Iraq occupies has been a conflict zone since ancient times, and Leo, like many Iraqis, thinks the region’s cursed. Still, he says the living was better under Saddam Hussein: “At least we knew he was a bad person and you would know whom to stay away from. Now I don’t know who I can trust.” When Hussein was in charge -- he wasn’t a fundamentalist -- men could sleep with other men without worry, as long as they were clandestine about it. That’s not the case anymore.

Americans will never understand Iraq and its people, he says, or the “craziness” that goes on there. Noticing a few trees through the grocery store’s windows, he laughs as another image of home bubbles up: In Baghdad people steal trees from street planters, ripping them out of the ground in broad daylight. It’s not something Americans do, but that’s Leo’s point: It’s impossible to understand the Iraqi experience.

Given all that he’s been through, one would think that Leo might stay in New York for a while -- but he’s already thinking of going home. He’s too proud to couch-surf and live off handouts for long. Leaving “means I have to forget my gayness,” he says. “But if I have to go back, then I will do so.” He points to a gold bracelet on his wrist, a present from his mom. “If nothing happens here, this is my ticket back to Iraq.”

Leo’s phone buzzes. “Oh, this is from this guy I met online last night!” he says. In the city for less than a month, he’s already met up with seven guys via the website Gaydar. In Iraq he’d received only a single message on the site; here in the States, he says, he got 1,560 e-mails in four days. One man was in New Jersey but was interested just in sex. Another lived in Yonkers. On the way to the grocery store, he met a guy walking his dog on the street. Having never experienced life as a gay man before, he’s taking full advantage of it in New York City.

“I want a boyfriend,” Leo says, “someone I can trust.” In the meantime he’s enjoying the flirtatious attention. 

“Nobody told me before that I’m cute. That’s never happened before.”

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