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Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Photo essay: Iraq's gay refugees

Ali al-SistaniImage via Wikipedia
Source: Demotix
By Bradley Seeker

The number of homophobic murders in Iraq is reported to be “in the hundreds” according to an official at the UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq), and Ali Hili of London based gay rights group Iraqi LGBT, has recorded more than 700 individuals killed in gay motivated murders. Figures like these are a great cause for concern, raising questions such as how acts of brutality and torture are continuing in a new “liberated”, “free”, and “democratic” Iraq.

Gay men in Iraq have remained a target of the country’s far-right religious militia groups according to 2009 report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW). Members of the Mahdi army, the Shia militia group led by radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are specifically targeting men believed to be homosexual whether it be based on fact or suspicion. Groups such as Ahl al-Haq (People of Truth) have also publicly claimed responsibility for murders fuelled by homophobia across the country.

As a ramification of ongoing attacks, many gay Iraqis have left their homes and their country, with the most favoured destination being Syria. Despite homosexuality remaining illegal under Syrian law and conviction resulting in a three year prison sentence, gay lives are of course still lived out on the streets of Syria’s cities. For gay Iraqi men fortunate enough to have found temporary refuge in Syria the situation is anything but safe, and their guard can never be fully dropped. With a steady flow of Iraqis heading for Syria since the outbreak of war in 2003, certain areas of Syria are becoming a microcosm of Iraq. The suburb of Saida Zainab outside Damascus is home to a large number of Iraqi refugees as well as a large Shia shrine, which many Iraqis visit including members of the Mahdi army.


Aseer Al-Madaien, protection officer at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in Damascus told me that her team of interviewers are fully trained and aware of issues facing LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) individuals, and that LGBT cases are prioritised within the protection program. Despite this added awareness many of the gay Iraqis I have interviewed don’t trust the staff at the UNHCR or feel uncomfortable opening up and explaining their full story. Some men believe that the agency has been penetrated by Iraqi and Syrian security services, and are worried that telling the staff of their sexuality will have detrimental effects for them and their families. According to Michelle Alfaro, chief resettlement officer at the UNHCR mission in Damascus, her team has dealt with sixty to seventy LGBT resettlement cases involving Iraqis since 2003, and informed me that such cases are prioritised for resettlement overseas along with other high risk groups. In Michelle’s opinion it’s possible to live a “gay life” in Syria, as long as you’re discreet, saying “if you stand out, you’re at risk”. The fundamental obstacle to the specialist assistance that the UNHCR claim to provide is that individuals often don’t disclose their sexuality because they, understandably have reservations and fears about releasing this information.

Whilst Fatwas continue to be issued by Ali al-Sistani, the Iranian Ayatollah and worldwide leader of Shia Muslims, in 2009 and 2010, calling for the murder of gay and effeminate men across Iraq, the dangers of ‘gay life’ remains very real. Until more countries in the West open their doors to allow and ease the process for LGBT refugees to claim asylum based on grounds of sexuality, the unknown number of gay men in hiding in Syria will continue to be put at risk daily as their waiting continues. Amnesty International, in a 2010 report entitled “civilians under fire” has called for an end of forcible returns from Europe and the wider international community, to any part of Iraq whilst human rights violations are still being committed in the country. Regardless of street protests in European capitals and documents from international human rights organisations warning against the forced repatriation of failed asylum seekers to Iraq, the UK among other EU countries is still continuing the practise; notably in August this year when more than sixty failed Iraqi asylum seekers from the UK and Sweden amongst other EU countries were flown to Baghdad, and around half of those on board claimed to have been beaten and robbed by Iraqi police and British security staff upon their return to Baghdad airport.

Since the US Army officially ceased military operations in Iraq on September 1st this year (an important election pledge from Obama), Iraqis in Syria have been told by the UNHCR that applicants applying for resettlement in the US, who left Iraq after the 1st of September will no longer be eligible to apply for asylum in America. Regardless of the current threats and unstable security situation in parts of Iraq, not only those faced by the LGBT community, but to all Iraqis, the US unfortunately seems to be trying to wash it’s hands of the conflict and those individuals that have suffered, and continue to suffer as a consequence.

Many Iraqi’s are forced to work illegally in Syria for economic reasons, although the pay, conditions and threat of deportation if caught put many off employment despite facing poverty. For the gay men often here alone, days are long and boring and some turn to alcohol for a temporary relief from the unknown. Meeting friends can often be dangerous in parts of Damascus, and freedom of expression is very far from the reality of life here.

For the majority of the gay Iraqi men I have met and spent time with in Syria, they are caught between patiently waiting for the chance to start afresh, and live their lives openly in a new land, whilst still holding deep scars from the past, not having contact with family members, worrying about the insecurity of the unknown, and despairing at their current situation.

1. Bisam

Multi talented Bisam, a 41 year old gay man from east of Baghdad, has worked as an actor for theatre productions, various Iraqi TV sit-coms, as a translator and interpreter for the US army, and international media organisations. He describes Iraq as a “valve of death,” and that all he saw for his 34 years there was war, tension, and loss. He has lost many loved ones to war, sectarian violence and suicide in recent years. Having to first flee Iraq in 2004 as a result of death threats from militant groups.

Bisam's work with the Americans was a dangerous gamble, although he ignored the threats until they got personal and directed towards his family. In the face of threats on his life, he says he was happy to work for the US army, and believed that he was helping to rebuild his country for the future. Bisam was married for four years, two years of which he was in Baghdad, and two in Damascus. He was never happy with married life or his wife after the first six months, and says that heʼs fortunate that they didnʼt have any children together.

When he tried to divorce his wife after two years she refused, and two years later she finally divorced Bisam on grounds of abandonment. For the divorce formalities, Bisam had to return to Baghdad and to his wife, one afternoon she searched his bags and found things that shocked her. Bisamʼs diary and a gay porn DVD were at the bottom of the bag, she read the diary and about her husbandsʼ gay life in Damascus, information she later used as munition against him. Bisamʼs spouse at the time wanted to expose his sexuality to his family and friends, in the hope of gaining everything she could in the divorce as a bribe. She eventually told his family and word soon spread around the community, very soon after which Bisam was forced to flea his country for the second time, and for the second reason. Since leaving he has had no contact with his family, and had to pay bribes for new travel documents because his wife held his ransom.

Whilst seeking refuge in Damascus, he has not been allowed to work legally, but despite the formalities Bisam works informally from time to time as a guide to tourists, as an Arabic teacher, and a translator for journalists, whilst continuing his acting career. He has been registered and certified as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since the end of 2006, from whom he receives financial aid for basic items. £1350 Syrian pounds (approximately GBP £20) per month is provided to Bisam as a voucher by way of text message, and he can use it to buy food from a subsidised government food store.

Bisam's gay life in Syria has been hindered by deception from secret police on dating websites, in cruising grounds and on the streets of Damascus. He feels vulnerable of being taken advantage of by Syrian men; a previous lover of his robbed and beat him, from which he didnʼt go to the police for fear of deportation or accusations of
homosexuality.

His wish is to be somewhere that he can be happy, free, and safe in a same-sex relationship.

2. Mahmoud

A former high ranking officer in both the Iraqi and International Police forces, a black belt in karate, and a charismatic man with a cheeky smile, twenty-eight year old Mahmoud from Baghdad is not usually afraid of danger or new to confrontation.

Now the reality of a new life in Damascus has brought Mahmoud to drink a bottle of whisky a day, and live a “simple, boring life” without the work that he loved. Since October 2009 Mahmoud has been in hiding in Damascus after a violent homophobic attack carried out by militia which resulted in the death of his father earlier in the year. The memories of his past continue to haunt him, and he says that although he doesnʼt cry much, he has a constant feeling of melancholy in his heart.

Mahmoud came to the attention of the militia-men when a visitor from a neighbouring police force came for an inspection at his station. According to Mahmoud, he was responsible for releasing more than one hundred men over several years accused of homosexuality or of being ʻmorally perverseʼ, and the chief noticed that the figures of those being released without charge were odd, considering the high number of arrests for such offenses. Word spread and Mahmoud was followed and eventually his father was captured and killed for what the right wing Shia militia soldiers saw as Mahmoudʼs mistakes. Since the death of his father, he carried his gun with him everywhere, even to the bathroom and to his pillow at night. Although never caught by the militia, Mahmoud was almost killed by a car bomb in his personal vehicle. Due to his position in the new, post-Saddam police force, and his sexuality, Mahmoud doesnʼt think that he will ever be able to safely return to his country now that he is known by extremist groups. He says “my life was very dangerous in Iraq due to my job, but more so because of my sexuality”.

This new life in Syria is very distant from how his day to day life used to be in Baghdad. Compliments of his position in the police force, Mahmoud had a “luxury” apartment in Baghdad, two cars, three motorbikes, and a fair amount of disposable income. He now lives in a small studio flat in a poor suburb of Damascus. Mahmoud says that he proudly lives a “gay life”, and that everything he does is “gay oriented”; from sitting in the park, playing cards in cafes, to watching the “cute boys” in downtown Damascus strut their stuff. The only financial support he receives is from his mother who still lives in Iraq with his younger brother and sister, which varies between US $100-200 per month (£65-130) of which US $100 goes towards paying his rent and bills. His family do not know that he is gay, and believe the attacks on Mahmoudʼs father to have been because of his occupation.

Mahmoud was recently told that his application for resettlement overseas with the UNHCR should be processed within the next two months, although this is not guaranteed, and he may have to remain in Syria for an unknown period. Heʼs very optimistic that proceedings will move quickly, and that he will be able to start a new life in Europe or North America by the end of 2010.

3. Nassr

Nassr is a quietly confident, dignified man in his late twenties. In 2008 Nassrʼs two cousins that were widely known to be gay, were kidnapped by Mahdi militia soldiers in Baghdad. Not long after this his boyfriend of two years was also taken from his home, and held in Sadr City, a lawless suburb of Baghdad where armed men are not an uncommon sight on the street. A week after the abduction of his boyfriend, Nassrʼs family home was broken into early in the morning and set alight. He managed to escape with his mother, three brothers and sister through a back window to safety, although everything was lost, including their car, legal documents, furniture and the building itself.

Nassr and his boyfriend, both press photographers for the same newspaper, were working on a story to reveal the truth about “gay death” in Iraq. He used his contacts to find a way in to secret locations and photograph scenes of torture, and what he saw was worse than he expected; men were made to drink petrol and then shot, or had their rectum glued together and left to die a slow death of internal problems. According to Nassr, this was all being carried out by militia groups as well as the Iraqi police force. When Nassr presented this story to his newspaper he was told that it was not something that they would publish as it was making the national police force look bad.

Shortly after completing this story Nassr was kidnapped and badly beaten by members of the Iraqi police who he believes had links to the Sadr militia. His legs were both broken and then doused in petrol and set alight, his jaw was broken with a metal pole, his right arm was broken from being repeatedly kicked, and his testicles were squashed in a clamp whilst police shouted “queer,” “poof” and other insults in Arabic. A metal wire was pulled tightly to his throat until he told them who he was working for, the wire pierced Nassrʼs skin, and caused problems when eating for a long time after the attack. After being tortured Nassr was left to die in a cardboard box at a rubbish dump.

Somehow has the strength to SMS a friend who came to find him unconscious six hours later. Nassrʼs camera, film, negatives, notebooks and bags were all seized by police, leaving him with no evidence of such brutality committed against others, only his own personal story and injuries.

Within days of being attacked Nassr left Iraq and came to Syria in a wheelchair, needing urgent medical attention, he had to pay US $7,000 (GBP£4,600) for false travel documents. Nassr whet to the International Red Crescent for medical attention, and was asked “where do you think you are? We are in a third world country, not the first world”. He says that he was given the most minimal amount of care.

Intimidation and fear followed Nassr after he left Iraq; he received news that his two brother had been arrested by the police until they provide details of Nassrʼs whereabouts or force him to return. The brothers are still imprisoned, and the police are demanding USD $5,000 (GBP£3,330) each for their release, money which neither Nassr or his family have. In an attempt to save for the bribe, Nassr is working fourteen hour days as a welder for £700 Syrian pounds per day (GBP£10), which doesnʼt leave much spare after the rent of his accommodation and food.

Nassr is registered as a refugee with the UNHCR, but has not told them of his sexuality through fear and lack of trust for the organisation. There has been no news on the progress of his application since he registered in May 2009. He would love to continue his job as a photographer in a new country, and is excited about the freedom of leaving the region for good.

The guilt of what Nassr feels he has brought onto his family follow him everyday, and his is constantly reminding himself that his two brothers are being imprisoned at his expense. There has been no news of Nassrʼs two cousins and boyfriend who were kidnapped, all three are presumed dead.

4. Abdul

Abdul enjoys wandering the streets of Damascus until the early hours of the morning, in contrast to Baghdad where the city was under curfew from 8pm until mid morning. At first Abdul came to Syria in 2006 when life in Iraq was too tough for him after his legs were injured by a car bomb in Baghdad, he was simply walking to University. Since he arrived four years ago he hasnʼt had any medical treatment as doctors are either too expensive or too busy to see him, as a result he now walks with a significant limp.

In April this year Abdul returned to Iraq to visit family and friends, and this is when problems surrounding his sexuality started for him. He was staying at his uncleʼs house whilst he was away for the weekend and had an ex-partner over. To their surprise, the uncle came home early and caught Abdul and his ex-partner having sex. They begged him to stay quiet, instead he told the entire family and neighbourhood of what he saw. Abdul fled back to Syria the following day from fear of being attacked or killed once word spread. He has had no contact with any family members since, which is having a severely detrimental effect on his mental wellbeing. Abdul is now worried about the safety of his family, and that someone from one of the many far-right wing militias targeting homosexuals in Iraq may come to Syria to find him.

Abdul has been registered with the UNHCR as a refugee for two years, although he only recently told them of his sexuality and fear of homophobic attack if returned to Iraq. Previously he was afraid to tell his full story to the Syrian interviewer, and until his request to talk to a foreigner was granted, he only explained that he needed medical treatment and that his life and study were impossible in Baghdad, with constant reminders of his accident.

Abdul used to work illegally part time as a bartender in a restaurant in a wealthy area of Damascus, but the owner let him go as business decreased. Now the only stable source of income Abdul has comes from the UNHCR, which is £1350 Syrian pounds (approximately GBP £20) per month. The money comes as a voucher by way of text message, and he can use it to buy food from a subsidised government food store. His few close friends in Syria often help him out financially, but this is not a regular occurrence. Abdul feels frustrated at his situation, exclaiming “I want to change my life, but I canʼt.” He finds it difficult to trust other Iraqis or Syrians after he was robbed by a boyfriend of two years, who drugged Abdul and his flatmate and stole jewelry and possessions he estimates to be worth around £350,000 Syrian pounds (GBP £5,000). The robbery wasnʼt reported to the Syrian authorities from fear of questions about the relationship between the two men. Abdul has also heard that Syrian authorities have stepped up the arrest and deportations of gay Iraqi men recently in and around Damascus after an agreement was supposedly signed between the two countries to return all “morally corrupt” to Iraq, this fear looms over Abdulʼs head every day.

The endless waiting may be close to an end for Abdul, as there has been news from the UNHCR that his resettlement application is being processed by the United States, and that he may be set to leave Syria within the next six to twelve months. He is excited to have the opportunity to study psychology in a new country, improve his English and find a partner to settle down with.

Abdul would like to see Iraq become more liberal towards homosexuality over the coming years, and most of all wishes to communicate with his family again soon. He enjoys techno music and traditional Iraqi love songs, horror films and American cartoons.

5. Hassan

“My father, he wants to kill me because I am a gay” Hassan declared on our first meeting in Damascus. Heʼs is a young, brave, and forward thinking man whoʼs mind is older than his years.

Hassan, his mother and younger sister left Iraq due to fear of his fatherʼs intentions after he suspected Hassan of being a homosexual. At present none of the family know the whereabouts of this father, and the primary concern of Hassan and his family is that he could be in Syria looking for them.

Hassan received a text message from his father at the start of September which read, “I am coming to Syria to get you, you must come home with me.” Hassanʼs father threatened to tell the Mehdi army about his sonʼs sexuality before he left the country.

In Baghdad Hassan was a student, but he had to leave before having the opportunity to finish his degree. In Damascus Hassan is unable to continue studying because itʼs too expensive for him.

The UNHCR, where Hassan is registered as an individual and is classified as a refugee, have told him that he will be resettled in the USA within the next two months. He has given his fingerprints to the US embassy in Damascus, and told that his case is being processed quickly.

The sooner Hassan leaves Damascus the better, as he only trusts a handful of close friends from Iraq with his secret. He doesnʼt feel safe walking the streets sometimes and worries that he will return home to find his father in their house. “I canʼt live my life here, I want to be free.”

6. Walid

Walid is a 31 year old burly man who looks tired and weary of his situation, only when he smiles does his face look less weary. He fled to Syria with his wife and three daughters in 2005. He is from a Sunni family who lived in ʻnewʼ Baghdad, a mixed religious area of the city.

Walid and his brother had a welding business in Baghdad and they were often employed by the US army to repair pipelines, vehicles and other equipment. Not long after the brothers started working for the Americans the Mehdi army took an interest in them both.

Walid was kidnapped along with his brother one afternoon in their workshop, they were then separated, held overnight and beaten until a payment of USD$5,000 was agreed for the release of each of them, as well as Walidʼs car. The following day after they were thrown from a car onto the street Walid went back to his workshop where he found it burnt and destroyed.

Unknown to Walid, his brother-in-law had connections with the Mehdi army and told them of his suspicions about Walidʼs sexuality after his kidnapping. After seeing him spend more time away from home at friendsʼ houses and with known gay men in the streets Walid received various death threats and warnings from who he believed to be the individuals that kidnapped him. Scared for his life, and the safety of his family, Walid fled to Damascus with his wife and children.

In contrast to his comfortable lifestyle in Iraq, Walid now works illegally in a car garage in a Damascus suburb for 12 hours a day, six days a week from 4:00am for 300 Syrian pounds (£4.20) per day, which he says is not enough to support the needs of him and his family. His youngest daughter needs regular medical treatment as she has a physical disability with her legs and doctorʼs fees are expensive, Walid is diabetic which also requires regular visits to the doctor and substantial amounts of money. School fees in

Damascus are too high for Walid to pay, and thus his children have had no formal education since leaving Iraq in 2005. The day Walid went to register himself with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) he was drunk. When the staff realised that he was drunk they took him to a quiet room for his interview which started to worry Walid, who thought it was familiar to the practices of Saddamʼs secret police when interrogating people. He explained his fear and the kidnapping to the UNHCR staff and when asked if he paid a ransom he was confused and answered ʻnoʼ.The following day when he realised what ʻransomʼ meant after asking his wife, he went back to correct his story. Walid no longer thinks the UNHCR staff believe his story and see his application as valid for resettlement because of this correction.

Walidʼs life in Syria is constantly marked by his past, particularly due to the area in which he lives. Saida Zainab which is essentially a large refugee camp fifteen kilometers outside of Damascus, is populated predominantly by Iraqis, Palestinians, and Iranians.

There is a large Shia mosque in the centre of the city which is visited by Iranian pilgrims, but also members of Iraqi Shia militias such as the Mehdi army. Walid has seen individuals from such groups many times in the souks and cafes which makes him scared to walk in parts of the city. Instead of fixing his phone or getting his hair cut in Saida Zainab he instead takes the bus to central Damascus, thirty minutes away.

Whilst interviewing Walid in a garden cafe he noticed three members of the Mehdi army walk in. He immediately became visibly tense, nervous and paranoid. We continued the interview at another venue.

In his very seldom free time, Walid likes to sleep, although with working long hours, a wife and children, this opportunity doesnʼt present itself very often.

7. Firas

On the surface Firas seems to be a very easy going, untroubled, typical 22 year old, but underneath the veneer of smiles and jokes there is an abundance of sadness, and depression. He is an incredibly brave and courageous young man with strong morals, and someone who should be admired for his determination to continue living his life. Firas, from a city to the north of Baghdad has been a refugee in Syria since 2005, and is here with his mother, father, and younger brother. He and his family all registered together with the UNHCR for resettlement shortly after their arrival in late 2005. Firas says that he is tired of living in the Damascus suburb , “there is no opportunity here, I canʼt study or get a proper job”, for the moment Firas works twelve hour shifts in a cafe for £150 Syrian pounds per day (GBP £2.10). The money he earns here only supports his smoking habit, and a little socialising with his friends. Both Firas and his older brother were active members on the gay scene in Baghdad, but not out to their family or all of their friends; in Damascus Firas is even more cautious about who he tells about his sexuality and keeps it to a close mixed circle of gay and straight Iraqi friends.

Before leaving Iraq, Firas and his brother were both working with the US army as support soldiers in the Iraqi forces (trained by the Americans). Around four months after Firas and his brother started their work with the US forces they started to receive threats aimed at them and their families. Not long after the start of these threats Firasʼs older brother was kidnapped on his way home one evening to their house in Al-Dora, Baghdad.

Concern for Firasʼs older brother grew day by day as there was no news from any of the militant groups; usually there are demands for money and vehicles agreed as a ransom. The lack of news deeply worried the family, and they presumed him dead due to the lack of information or requests.

Fortunately Firasʼs older brother was not dead, but what followed was an event that will continue to wreak havoc on Firas and his family for the rest of their lives. Close to Firasʼs house one afternoon in a main square there was a great deal of commotion. Firas was walking past en route to the shops so stopped to see what the issue was; when he saw several masked men with guns standing on a small platform his blood went cold, Firas knew immediately that this was a public murder by the Sadr militia. When they lifted the cover from a kneeling manʼs face Firas saw that it was his older brother, he felt sick.

Showing signs of torture and only semi conscious Firasʼs brother was not in a coherent state and didnʼt see Firas in the crowd. Firas didnʼt know what to do, he was frozen to the spot and knew that he couldnʼt react as it would endanger and identify him to the gun men, which was exactly what they wanted. The masked men read out a speech about the man about to be killed, describing how he was the worst of the worst, a traitor to his country, from a family of traitors, and worst of all a morally corrupt, sexual deviant; a homosexual.

The life of Firasʼs father, who worked for the Secret Intelligence Agency under the Saddam regime, was described to the crowd, as well as the role of Firasʼs brother in assisting the foreign forces, and the fact that he was continuing to destroy Iraq society with his impure thoughts and anti-Islamic homosexual behavior. Firas was concerned that his brother was forced to provide details about other gay men he knew, and that the militia were looking for him and their friends.

Firas witnessed his brother being shot dead in the square that day. After being shot, the body of Firasʼs brother was beheaded and Firas listened to the crowd cheer with pride. Since witnessing the murder of his brother Firasʼs hair started to fall out with the shock of what he saw and the fear in which he was then living. He became a very insular, nervous young man who was always shaking, he did nothing but stay in his room all day and night until his family fled to Syria after receiving their sonʼs body from a neighbour.

Since arriving in Damascus Firas says that his father and him often have arguments, resulting in Firas staying at a friends house for several nights at a time. His father no longer provides him with any pocket money and Firas believes all this to be because his father assumes that his son is gay like his older brother. He feels rejected.

Firasʼs resettlement application with the UNHCR was processed and approved four months ago in May 2010, and he and his family are clear to move to the USA. The family remains in Syria because Firasʼs father is refusing to go to the United States, according to Firas, his father thinks the Americans have ulterior motives, and want to arrest him on arrival for his previous role in the Saddam regime, he doesnʼt trust the Americans. Firas is considering separating his file from his families and going alone.

8. Hanif

Afraid of making eye contact for more than a few seconds, Hanif, a 44 year old electronic engineer from Baghdad is deeply depressed about his situation, he drinks a bottle of whisky a day alone in his room.

Hanifʼs two son’s were killed by a Shia militia group because they discovered he was gay, after finding gay magazines in a cupboard when raiding his house. During the raid the militia also discovered that one of his sonʼs was working for the Americans.

Originally the men raided Hanifʼs house looking for money and valuables, and since the family was Christian they felt that that they had the right to do so. The militia took all the valuables from the family home, and kidnapped Hanifʼs two sons, fortunately Hanif at least managed to escape.

Hanif doesn’t know who the men were working for and exclaimed, “now in Iraq, you never know who’s working for who, all the groups and the government are connected”. Hanifʼs oldest son, 25, was killed in February this year after refusing to reveal the location of his father. The youngest son, 23, was imprisoned and tortured for a further three months for information, and Hanif received news that he was killed by the militia-men in July 2010.

The bodies of his two sonʼs have not been recovered, for which Hanif feels great sorrow. He feels responsible for the death of his children, and that burden is killing Hanif from the inside.

Hanif first fled to Syria in 2007 for his sonʼs safety after his wife was killed by a car bomb when shopping in central Baghdad. Hanif has been certified as a refugee with the UNHCR in Damascus since February this year, now his life here is filled with sadness, worry, regret and loneliness. He has not told the UNHCR that he is gay as he believes that the organisation has been penetrated by militia groups and both Syrian and Iraqi authorities. Each time Hanif goes to the UNHCR office to check on the progress of his case he is told to return in a month. The process and uncertain deadline of his application is adding to his already demoralising mental state.

All of Hanifʼs relatives have Australian citizenship and live in the country, the only financial support he receives is from them. He hopes to join them in Melbourne and start to rebuild his life very soon.

9. Khaled

Khaled has a degree in Computer Science from the University of Baghdad, he also has a passion for traditional Spanish music.

Seven months ago, in January 2010, Khaledʼs two brother’s were killed in Baghdad. They were killed because an informant told members of a militia group that Khaled is gay. Unable to find him, militant soldiers raided his house and found his two brothers. They were held for several weeks until Khaled heard news that they had been killed.

In March 2010 Khaled fled to Syria for his own safety, and to protect his mother from getting hurt. None of his family members know that he is gay, although he thinks that his mother suspects it. If he returns to Iraq Khaled said bluntly that “they will kill me too”.

The option of return is not a choice for him. Since March Khaled has kept a very low profile in Damascus, keeping himself busy to take his mind away from things. He describes his life in Syria as “work, eat, sleep,” and thinks it fortunate that he is busy, if not he is afraid that he would get himself into trouble with the Syrian authorities by cruising the parks and streets of Damascus. He is very aware of the dangers posed by the authorities here in Syria and is also worried that Iraq has spies working in the city as well. Khaledʼs illegal work in Syria provides him with £300 Syrian pounds (approximately GBP £4.20) for a twelve to fourteen hours day. Occasionally he receives funds from his only brother, the one member of his family that he is in touch with, which help him out a great deal but are not a regular occurrence.

Shortly after Khaledʼs arrival he registered with the UNHCR and was certified as a refugee. Every two weeks he goes to check on the progress of his case. Each time he is told to return in a year. Khaled is alone in Damascus, and has no relatives in Syria, only a few friends from Baghdad who helped him flee.

10. Ziad

Wearing a wedding ring on his hand to prevent questions about his sexuality, Zzead is a heavy set man whoʼs bloodshot eyes show his true sadness and despair at his situation. Every night Zzead cried about the state of his life, and he has attempted suicide twice since being in Syria for three years. He thinks that the UNHCR doesnʼt believe his story, and that they are holding up the progress of his application because his family since returned to Iraq, leaving him here alone.

Zzead and his family came to Syria after the kidnapping of Zzead, his brother and his father by the Sadr militia in Baghdad, which lasted for 22 days. Difficulties started for Zzeadʼs family because they were the only Christian family in a Shia neighbourhood of Baghdad where militant Shia leaders were recruiting and ruling more people and more land each day. During the kidnapping militants suspected that Zzead was gay, although he was released with his family after paying USD $3,000 each, and giving them everything that the family owned; jewelry, documents, two cars, bank account details, and their house. Zzead still wonders why he was released when they suspected his sexuality. After being beaten, whipped, and electrocuted with probes hooked to their ears, Zzead and his father have both deep physical and mental scars. His father is unable to work in Baghdad and has mobility issues which restrict him to do any task.

To make some use of his waiting, Zzead works in a mobile phone repair centre dealing with hardware problems where he earns £100 Syrian pounds (GBP £2) for 12 hours work. Because he working illegally he canʼt complain about the wage, neither does he have any employment rights. “My degree in computer science was a waste of time and money,” he sighed.

Twice a month Zzead goes to the UNHCR office to ask about his case and application progress for resettlement, each time they tell him to return at the end of the year. After three years, the desperation of Zzead has increased, and he has even considered paying smugglers to take him to Europe illegally.

11. Mustafa

A former captain in the Iraqi Navy, Mustafa had to leave Iraq when he was ʻoutedʼ as gay in the cabin of his ship. Navy officials accused him of ʻmoral corruption,ʼ a charge often thrown at gay men in Iraq, and he was arrested by the Iraqi military police when they reached Basraʼs port.

Mustafa is 53, but after being beaten and tortured by police his face has the appearance of him having had a stroke, with his smile going down on one side. Whilst in police custody, his torso was whipped with an electric wire and his toes were cut. As the result of severe head trauma during the beating, Mustafa is now blind in one eye.

When he was released Mustafa described how he took a fishing boat and sailed to Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar in search of refuge after he told of torture from Iraq. He was refused by all three countries, and sent back to sea. Eventually he had news from his friend in Damascus, and that he was willing to help him get to Syria where he now lives in a spare room.

Mustafaʼs wife and seven children still live in Iraq and know nothing of his sexuality, only that he has been injured, as well as his boyfriend who he has not heard news from in some time. Mustafa arrived in Syria in February this year, and has been registered with the UNHCR since, he has also had medical treatment for his eye from the International Committee of the Red Crescent (ICRC).

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