This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. You can listen to the full story here.
My name is Nayyef Hrebid and I was born in Kuwait, but grew up in Iraq, where I first realised I was different in school. I remember thinking about a guy at high school and feeling like I was doing something wrong and I had to be better. My family knew I was different too. My brothers liked cars, whereas I liked to paint.
I studied fine art in Baghdad, and when I graduated in 2003 it was at the same time that America came to Iraq. It wasn’t a good time to find an arts job, but I’d learned a little bit of English from movies and songs from Madonna, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears. So I started working as a translator with the US Marines. I was the one in the middle to try and let the Americans understand the Iraqi culture, and at the same time I let the Iraqi culture know about the Americans.
In the beginning it was fun, but then the translators started getting hit by snipers and IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. Pretty soon we couldn’t walk in the streets because of IED bombs, so helicopters had to fly us from roof to roof.
I remember one time, I was doing a foot patrol with the marines, and there was an IED bomb inside a dead cow. I don't know how they did that, but they did, and as we walked past the cow exploded and killed two of the marines in front of me. That time I realised how close I was to losing my life.
Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. I was losing my friends and my family and I felt I may lose my life at any time. I felt like I’d made a mistake by joining the military and in that period, I really lost my way.
I was working with the Marines training the new Iraqi army in Ramadi. One day I was in the showers, and this soldier with the Iraq army stepped out with his hair so black, shining in the sun and I was like, oh, there is a handsome guy here! But this was the military; we weren’t allowed to come out, so I just kept looking at him and never said anything. I knew his name was Btoo, but I didn’t even know if he was gay or straight.
This is a small excerpt from our longer, more detailed podcast interview. You can listen to it here, without leaving the page, just by pressing play:
Not long after, we were put on a mission together to clear a hospital of terrorists. So that night, at the hospital, I finally had a chance to talk with Btoo. We sat down together in the dark and we started talking. I told him like “hey, I have a friend of mine who loves his friend.” I started talking to him like that, because I wasn’t sure if he was gay. But he was accepting everything I said. He added his own stories and we sat like that for many nights talking about how I felt about my friends and how he felt about his friends. Finally, we looked at each other and we started kissing. That’s how I realised he was gay.
Kissing him was something I really wanted to do, but a lot of soldiers have night vision binoculars, so we couldn't stay long. I said “no, you go back to your battalion and I will go back to the Americans.”
We started meeting whenever we could, in hotel rooms or friend’s apartments. And you know, with all the killing, the snipers, and the IED bombs, we didn’t know how long we’d be alive for. But when we sat together on those nights, we could finally forget about everything around us.
Not long after I watched a show called Queer as Folk, and I told Btoo, “Look, in America there’s gay bars and there are people who get married.” And in that time I realised maybe there was a life for us, on the other side of the world.
At that time, there was a U.S. asylum program for translators who were in danger. I did an interview with them, and they said they could get me the asylum. I thought, Oh, it's gonna be so easy. If I go first, I could later tell them like “hey, I have a boyfriend” and they could bring Btoo over later.
It was really difficult to leave Btoo behind. We said goodbye at the airport, the sun was just rising and I saw his tears in his eyes although he tried to not show me. I told him I’d see him soon; that we’d get him to America soon.
I didn’t realise it would take years. The immigration officials kept denying him entry because of his military background. But after four years, he got asylum in Canada. He arrived in Canada in 2013. I was in Seattle, so we chose Vancouver because it was only two hours’ drive, so I could go and see him at any time. I made that drive every single week for two-and-a-half years and in that time, I got my citizenship here in the United States. At that time, Obama legalised gay marriage so I said to Btoo, “let's get married in Canada, and see if I could apply for you to come live with me in the United States”. So that’s exactly what we did.
We got married on Valentine's Day 2014. We then did the paperwork, and went for a visa interview and they told us “congratulations, you've been issued a visa to go and live in the United States.” Btoo and I were just quiet. I looked at this woman and said, “can you say that again?” And she said “we can issue him a visa.”
We got out the door of the council offices and I did the highest, loudest scream of my life. I screamed because it was so much waiting. I just always wanted to take care of him; I wanted to make sure that when he left everything in Iraq, I was here for him. Love is not just a feeling when you meet a person. Love is what you can do for that person.
My advice for all the LGBTQ people still living in secret and still struggling: just realise that it's your life. It's no one’s life except for yours. If you try to live how others want to see you, you cannot be who you are.
We share our story to educate the new generation. So many people just associate homosexuality with sex, but they forget about love. And for me and Btoo, our story shows everyone what we've been through, and what we’ve done for love.
This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes. You can listen to the full story here, free, only on Spotify.