In 2004, the last thing Nayyef Hrebid, an Iraqi translator for the U.S. Army, and Btoo Allami, an Iraqi soldier, expected to find in their war-torn country was love. But that's exactly what happened.
"The beautiful thing is that even though we were in danger and could have lost our lives at any moment, our love made us forget and fight for a better life where we'd be together," Allami told NBC OUT.
Their unlikely love story is the subject of a new documentary, "Out of Iraq," which was screened at the United Nations on Thursday and will premiere on Logo Monday night. The film follows their journey from their first encounter on a battlefield in Iraq to their marriage in the United States a decade later. The journey, however, was not an easy one.
After meeting in 2004, the two men quickly fell in love and carried out their relationship in secret for safety reasons. Members of the LGBTQ community are severely oppressed in Iraq - a recent survey found 43 percent of respondents in the country believe being LGBTQ should be a crime.
Then in 2009, when militants started targeting Iraqi translators, putting Hrebid in an increasingly dangerous position, he was granted asylum in the U.S. and fled to Seattle. Allami, however, had a much longer road to asylum. The film follows the emotionally painful and physically dangerous years the two men spent apart, as they tried every option they could think of to be reunited again.
In addition to their love story, the film also explores in detail the difficulties Allami faced while trying to seek asylum. Due to an early misunderstanding by a translator, Allami was refused asylum by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) on multiple occasions. Many of the agents he faced also did not seem sensitive to the issues of LGBTQ asylum-seekers. The couple is now advocating for changes to the process in order to prevent others from facing similar setbacks.
"We would like the UNHCR to implement digital recording for translations in interviews, and to expedite their application processing for LGBT refugees," Hrebid said.
During a panel discussion before the "Out of Iraq" screening at the United Nations, UNHCR Deputy Director Christine Matthews said the agency hopes to make the film part of training materials for UNHCR staff.
"'Out of Iraq' highlights gaps in our agency that UNHCR must learn from. We recently launched a huge effort to sensitize staff and target the best process to address LGBT refugees," she said.
Now happily married and living in the U.S., Hrebid and Allami are also seeking to improve the lives of refugees. In the past year and a half, they've sponsored eight refugees, hosting them in their home, helping them find jobs and helping them enroll in school.
"A lot of people helped bring Allami and I together; it's now our time to give back," said Hrebid.