In the fall of 2006, I journeyed to the Middle East as an independent journalist to cover the growing Iraqi refugee crisis. At the time, one in five Iraqis had left their homes. With nearly four million people displaced, it was the largest refugee and displaced persons community in the world.
I soon realized no one was immune from the dangers that faced Iraqi citizens. However, one specific group seemed to be under particular risk -- members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community.
In the fall of 2005, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had called for the killing of homosexuals "in the worst, most severe way possible." As a result, a spate of brutal attacks against homosexuals began throughout the country. Gay men and women were systematically targeted and sometimes stoned to death in the streets, a story almost completely ignored by the media. I met one gay man who had fled after he stepped outside one morning to find the severed head of a male victim (presumably that of another gay man), also with a note attached – "Get out of town poppy."
Another young man, 24 year-old Mohamed, had left his Baghdad home after a note had arrived on his front door reading "If your gay son doesn't leave the country, we'll kill the whole family." He told me he considered himself lucky – "at least they warned me." His mother put him on a plane two weeks later.
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I met Mohamed in Syria shortly after he had fled Iraq. A former model, he was eccentric and captivating, and I was immediately drawn to him. I decided to extend my trip and spend more time documenting his life. I was drawn into the whimsical world Mohamed created to escape from the cold reality of his everyday hardships. But I felt that I couldn't just sit back and watch his life deteriorate, so I become deeply entrenched in the process of getting him asylum in the US. I became his friend, confidante and even roommate. This wasn't always easy and at times, we almost felt like we were each other's own best enemy.
Working to get him asylum in the United States was a long and arduous process. I found a Canadian lawyer who agreed to work pro-bono to help us build a case for Mohamed. We laid out every threat he had received – inside and out of Iraq – and built a solid claim for resettlement. After nearly two years, he was referred for resettlement by UNHCR, and eventually accepted by the United States. He now resides in Brooklyn.
When I got back to New York City, I realized I had an amazing opportunity to help shed light on the issue of gay refugees by telling Mohamed's story. Luckily, I filmed the entire process of both getting to know Mohamed and helping him obtain asylum. I also gave him a camera to keep and record video diaries when I wasn't with him. FROM BAGHDAD TO BROOKLYN brings together the struggle, tears, triumphs, and dancing that characterized Mohamed's journey and our relationship. The film will give viewers a first-hand perspective of how he perceived the world, himself, and our relationship; as well as bring much needed attention to this tragic issue.
The film is now in its last phase of production. To help bring this story to life, please consider becoming a backer on Kickstarter.
Jennifer Utz is a videojournalist and multimedia producer from Brooklyn, NY