Brushing each other’s hair out of their eyes, exchanging quick kisses, and whispering sweet nothings in Arabic, Nayyef Hrebid and Btoo Allami are clearly a couple in love.
“I am proud of our life,” Allami told TakePart, tapping his heart with one hand and gesturing toward his husband with the other. But it wasn’t too long ago that the two were forced to keep their relationship a secret.
Hrebid and Allami are the subjects of the documentary Out of Iraq, which made its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last week. The film tracks their 12-year relationship, following the couple from their forbidden romance in Iraq to a years-long battle to gain asylum in the U.S.
Hrebid and Allami fell in love in 2004 while both were working in the military, Hrebid as a translator for the U.S. Marines and Allami as a soldier in the Iraqi army.
Being openly gay in Iraq was not an option, and even revealing their feelings to each other came with a risk.
“I wanted to tell him, ‘I love you,’ but was afraid,” Allami says in the film. Their relationship was sealed with a kiss four days after they met.
Consensual homosexual relationships are not expressly illegal under Iraq’s penal code, yet LGBT Iraqis have faced harassment, beatings, and brutal executions because of their sexual orientation. Militant groups have systemically persecuted LGBT Iraqis, but family and community members present the most common, most lethal threat, according to a 2014 report from Out Right International.
“For my family, it’s a lot about shame—that people will [say] bad things about them,” Hrebid told TakePart. “They want anything to kill this shame. That’s what I was most worried about.”
Along with fearing persecution, Hrebid was in danger because of his work with the Marines. In 2007, his name appeared on the hit list of a militant group that targeted translators as traitors. Hrebid was granted a visa and resettled in Seattle in 2009. He was forced to leave Allami, who was denied both tourist and student visas.
The next six years were filled with efforts to get Allami out of the Middle East. He spent several years living illegally in Lebanon—he deserted his post in the Iraqi army in 2010—after his family threatened his life after discovering his sexual orientation. With dozens of identification checkpoints throughout Lebanon, the couple feared that Allami’s illegal living situation would be discovered, and he would be sent back to Iraq.
From Seattle, Hrebid worked with advocates to send Allami money, file paperwork, and schedule interviews with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Allami had nine interviews with UNHCR—one of which lasted 11 hours—but he was repeatedly denied refugee status. Allami pursued asylum through a Canadian program and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2013. In 2015, he was granted a visa to live in the U.S.
“That’s the moment I’d been waiting for all of my life,” Hrebid said of the couple’s interview at the U.S. consulate in Montreal.
While the pair’s story has a happy ending, they hope their film will spread awareness about the plight of LGBT Iraqis and the difficulty of obtaining refugee status based on sexual orientation.
They are giving back to their community by sponsoring LGBT Iraqis in Seattle. So far, they’ve worked with eight refugees, helping them find jobs and adapt to American culture.
“First time, we needed help,” Allami said. “Now we can help.”