Founder & Chair of IraQueer
I have been working with human rights since I was in college. I volunteered for organizations working on women’s rights, the environment, internally displaced families and youth engagement. But it was not until I started working on LGBTQ+ rights in Iraq that I truly found myself. I started my career with LGBTQ+ rights working for Outright Action International and Madre, two New York based international organizations that advocate for the rights of marginalized groups in Iraq. I led the two organizations’ work inside Iraq, documenting violations, writing reports, giving trainings to activists and advocating for women and queer people internationally.
The first work trip I did from Slemani, where I lived at the time, to Baghdad, where our partners were located, was career defining. On that trip I interviewed two individuals. The first was a 17-year-old trans girl who had been kicked out of the house by her stepfather, who didn’t want a “sissy boy” around his “normal sons”. She had been trafficked and raped for years until she came to the safe house we offered. The second was a gay man who had been raped multiple times and lived with several STIs. He told his story in a matter-of-fact way, looking detached from what happened to him. I went back to my hotel room that night feeling like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I doubted whether I could do this work and indeed if my mental health could take it. Being in that office, interviewing those people was the hardest thing I had done at that time. But it was clear to me that despite the difficulties I was meant to do this. I was at the right place at the right time.
Because silence is violence
However, doing this work has come at a great cost. I was threatened by armed militias, government affiliated groups and even my own friends and extended family members. It reached a point where I couldn’t stay in Iraq and I had to flee the country late 2014. Since then, I sought asylum in Sweden and had to reestablish my life. My relationship with my extended family members has ended. While Sweden generally is considered to be a progressive country where queer people are protected, my personal experience proved to be different. Whether it was the invasive questions I was asked about my queer identity during my asylum interview, the lack of rights and opportunities while I was waiting for a decision, or the overall racism I experienced, it was clear that I was still not in a place where I could afford to feel mentally safe. It took years for me to start healing from the trauma I’d lived since fleeing Iraq. Sadly, my experience isn’t uncommon. Many queer people who have reached out to us over the years say their experiences were the same, if not more difficult.
Despite these difficulties, I believed that my contribution to the queer movement in Iraq was only just beginning. I decided to start IraQueer, Iraq’s first national LGBTQ+ organization. Founding IraQueer gave me a sense of purpose and became the main focus I had in life. We quickly grew from an online platform to a registered organization focusing on advocacy, education, and providing direct services like safe housing to queer Iraqis. Within just a few years, we became the voice for queer rights in Iraq and a leading voice for queer rights globally. We have informed government policies around asylum and funding, we have contributed to the work done to hold ISIS militants accountable for their crimes, and we have forced Iraq to recognize the right to life for all Iraqis regardless of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
For nearly seven years, we have received support from different governments and international NGOs. Because of them, we’ve been able to reach a lot of important milestones. However, I believe the LGBTQ+ movement around the world is severely underfunded and it’s even more underfunded in countries like Iraq, where receiving funding from the government or local groups is not an option. We are forced to rely completely on allies and supporters from the international community.
I believe the international community can do better. In fact, I believe that it must do better. People can donate, raise awareness and mobilize their governments.
The queer movement in Iraq and the lives of LGBT+ Iraqis depend on it.