My story starts in 2003, when the Iraq war started and there was an escalation of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni militants. My family and I were threatened by members of extremist Sunni communities as we did not attend prayer in the mosque of our Sunni neighborhood and because my father is Shia. Over the next several years, I survived a kidnapping attempt, my mother was put in jail, and my father narrowly escaped being murdered.
We fled to Turkey and settled in Eskişehir in 2011. However, although we were granted asylum in Turkey, this status does not allow us the right to work, freedom of movement, nor a path to citizenship. With no way to support my family in Eskişehir, I moved to Istanbul in 2015 to find an employer who would be willing to hire me. I was able to find work, but because of my status I was often exploited — not paid, or paid less than minimum wage. Turkey is dangerous for both refugees and activists. Recently while I was on a work visit to other asylum seekers I was arrested and spent four days in jail where I was both physically and psychologically abused.
In Istanbul, I also started volunteering with international organizations serving refugees. Not only did I meet people who had been through difficulties worse than mine, which gave me a sense of humility, but I also had the opportunity to touch the lives of others. One of my greatest pleasures while living in Istanbul was the day that I delivered the news to an 18-year-old girl that she would be able to attend university.
Five years ago, I helped found a shelter for LGBTQ refugees. Since then I have worked alongside Canadian and international colleagues, with a focus on four main areas:
- Emergency aid for the most vulnerable in the refugee/LGBTQ communities
- Supporting LGBTQ people with resettlement and evacuation efforts out of Afghanistan and Turkey
- Connecting vulnerable individuals with mental health professionals
- Tackling queerphobia and raising awareness on LGBTQ issues through our documentary project and talking to media outlets
The government has cracked down on LGBTQ events and organizations and arrested and deported activists. One leading politician, who works closely with the president, went as far as calling LGBTQ individuals “terrorists.” There is little or no protection when crimes are committed against queer people and immigrants. Both queer and refugee issues are used as political tools by the ruling parties to gain popularity with their constituents. The previous manager of the Aman shelter (where I work) was attacked in the street directly in front of the shelter. People from our community have been arrested and deported.
All aspects of my work and life are illegal. It is illegal for me to live in Istanbul, it is illegal for me to try and make a living, and it is illegal for me to advocate for the LGBTQ community. While I work to help others through the risk of being deported, I face the same dangers myself. My work is known in Iraq, and if deported there, I would likely be executed. The Iraqi government is weaker than the extremist militias, who are backed by Iran. They have kidnapped and killed many activists since 2019.
In an effort to protect myself, I avoid public transportation, public squares, and speaking my native language (Arabic) in public. Every time there is a political setback, police checkpoints go up and the government cracks down on refugees. Although I am invited to many conferences both within and without the country, I am not able to attend out of fear of arrest. This danger has greatly impacted my mental health. I haven’t been safe for my entire adult life and have been dealing with anxiety and depression for years. I’m currently being treated for both.
Next year, there’s an election. The economy has weakened the power of the ruling party. The lira has fallen by more than 50 percent and people blame refugees. I am worried about the abuse the ruling party will heap on refugees to regain popularity and power. It is essential that I leave as soon as possible.
Because I am straight, I am not eligible for the programs that assist the queer people I work with. That is why I am applying for the Group of Five Sponsorship Program.
Moving to Canada is the key step in fulfilling my dream of becoming a professional human rights activist. But in order to advance the human rights of others, I need to have complete human rights myself. My plan is to attain an undergraduate degree in political science/international studies in the realm of human rights before pursuing a master’s in international law. I am extremely excited by the prospect of fulfilling this dream in one of the world-class programs offered by Canadian universities.
After graduation, I want to expand the Aman Project and use the tools and connections I gain to support LGBTQ individuals throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Also, my own home country of Iraq will need brave advocates and activists to put the pieces of our society back together. I would love to use the skills that I gain in Canada to help marginalized populations such as women and religious minorities to organize and realize their fundamental rights.
I learned a lot living in war. I learned more as a refugee. I learned that I have huge potential as a human being. Right now that potential is locked away from me but I know that if I had access to education, stability, and basic human rights, I could achieve for myself and help others that have been marginalized like me to realize their own potential.
There is no financial obligation in becoming a sponsor for our family. The money has been raised to support us during our first year after arrival. Becoming a sponsor would involve helping us settle in Toronto and navigate the bureaucracy of government and social support to get started. If you are interested, please contact me. I can connect you with people who are familiar with the program.