Out Of Iraq”
Love in Wartime
“Out of Iraq” is a documentary about a heartbreaking love story between an Iraqi soldier and an Iraqi military translator. We get the impression that it could end at any moment and end badly. Either of the two men could be killed simply because they are gay and love each other. We have heard of this time and again on the news— honor killings are a way of life in the Middle East. In many cases, family and neighborhoods take the law into their own hands and unmercifully kill any LGBT person they can catch. It takes a few moments to realize that this could very well happen to the guys we see in this film. Many of us may be aware that Israel has become the most tolerant and accepting country of homosexuals in the Middle East but I want you to now that it was not always like that. Things began to change in the late 80s and I, while living there, had been arrested many times simply because of my sexuality.
The war in Iraq was at its height in 2004 when Ramadi was one of the most dangerous places in the world to be in. This is where Nayyef Hrebrid (known as David for his own safety) worked as a translator with the US Ground Forces, and where he first caught saw Btoo, a soldier with the new Iraq Army. They were attracted to each other and were immediately drawn to one another. They spent as much time together as possible and did so platonically since both of them were terrified to reveal their sexuality. That is until one night Btoo finally had the courage to tell Nayyef that he loved him, and from that point on there was no turning back.
Some five years later, Nayyef’s safety was in danger because of his work with the US Forces and he was granted a Special Visa to go and live in the US. He accepted and moved to Seattle thinking that once he was there it would be easy to get one from Btoo as well. After his first Applications were rejected, there did not seem to be much hope, a friendly American Refugee Activist recommend that he desert the Army and flee to Lebanon. It was not the safest place but now that his family was aware of his relationship with Nayyar, staying at home was very, very dangerous.
Here began a separation that would last over four years and each single step of the frustrating process was filled with both danger and disappointment. Btoo was illegally living in Lebanon and if he was caught without papers he would be immediately deported back home where death awaited him. Yet with the fear, the tension and the not knowing their love kept the two men strong. But do not worry—it all works out for them. They were able to survive this entire ordeal but there are many others who must hide who they are and even pay the ultimate price because of loving someone of the same sex.
Nayeff made local news in Seattle, Washington when he escaped his home country in 2009 and became a United States citizen. As a translator for American forces in Iraq, Hrebid’s job put his life in danger and collaborators with the military have been prime targets for anti-American forces and terrorist groups ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His years of service made Nayeff an unquestionable candidate for refugee status and, eventually, U.S. citizenship. The same could not be said for his partner, Btoo, an Iraqi civilian who had to remain behind in Baghdad for years. Today, Iraqi refugees Nayeff and Btoo live together as spouses in Seattle, though it was a long and dangerous path for Btoo between his war-torn home and his future husband. He was on a harrowing, five-year journey that helped reshape United Nations refugee policy and stands as a prime example of the horrors that LGBT people still face in many parts of the world. Documentarian Eva Orner learned of Btoo’s story and set out to capture it in “Out of Iraq”, which is scheduled to debut on HBO and through other distributors this year (2016).
Btoo’s story doesn’t begin with Orner’s documentary, though. Rather, it begins with the efforts of refugee advocate and Universal Life Church minister Michael Failla. Dr. Failla has personally spearheaded the rescue of struggling refugees hailing from such places as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, many of them gay men who faced death for their sexual identities in their home countries. Btoo’s family were shopkeepers in Baghdad and Btoo himself served in the Iraqi Armed Forces. When his family became aware of his sexual identity, Btoo had no choice but to desert the military and go to Lebanon.
We cannot allow ourselves to forget that in some parts of the world, including the most traditional corners of Iraq, homosexuality is answered with murder, often by members of a person’s own family. Btoo’s killers would have been his own brothers. Because these honor-killings are perpetrated by civilians and rarely talked about even in their own communities, the international community hears little about them. With this film, perhaps this message will reach a wider audience.
Btoo’s escape into Lebanon was only the beginning of his journey. By law, he was only allowed to stay in Lebanon for thirty days, and at a steep price. With Failla’s financial assistance, Btoo achieved the mandatory thirty-day reservation at a Beirut hotel and the equivalent of one-thousand dollars cash on-hand. His process with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees took much longer than thirty days, though. Btoo lived and worked in Beirut from late 2010 until 2013 and did so in hiding as an illegal immigrant. He received support from advocates during this time, including members of the Universal Life Church, based out of Seattle, Washington. In order to even apply for refugee status with the UNHCR, an individual must go through an extensive interview process. Btoo was interviewed and indeed interrogated several times while in Beirut, often having to sneak through the chaotic streets to make his meetings. At that time, existential threat for homosexual identity was not considered a valid reason for refugee status, so Btoo’s application was postponed or rejected several times. On two occasions, Michael Failla flew to Beirut to be Btoo’s advocate in-person. On his second visit, he brought his own translator. This proved to be a policy-changing decision. Private translation revealed inaccuracies, biases, and other questionable elements of the UN translation record, which would ultimately get Btoo’s application for refugee status approved and would, at long last, set a precedence for sexual orientation as a valid reason for refugee designation.
While waiting for his UNHCR approval, Btoo escaped to Canada through Failla’s private advocacy organization, New Life. Then, in March of 2015, Btoo was allowed to move to the United States and reunite with the love of his life, Nayeff. They married that summer with the help of a presiding Universal Life Church minister.
Nayeff and Btoo are still taking a great risk by allowing their names and likenesses to be used for “Out of Iraq” but they are strong and believe that the plight of LGBT people living in Iraq and other dangerous places needs to have a human face if change is come about. This is a very emotional film so be prepared with tissue—you not only will weep through it but afterwards as well as that is when you sense the difference between tears of worry and tears of joy.
“Out of Iraq” is a World of Wonder film produced by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Eva Orner and Chris McKim; co-Directed by Academy Award-winner Eva Orner (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Chris McKim.