Bill Strubbe is a journalist, author, playwright and photographer.
In recent years, the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict-torn Middle East has been a staple in the news: Flimsy boats crammed with desperate souls attempting a dangerous and often deadly Mediterranean crossing; hoards streaming through the Balkans to reach safe haven in Europe; and exhausted families sleeping in makeshift camps. Like many people, I felt overwhelmed in the face of so much misery and powerless to help, but in the spring of 2016 my complacency was shattered.
While spending several days in Jordan on my way to Abu Dhabi, I met a gay man in his mid-30s who had recently fled the chaos in Iraq to seek asylum in Jordan.
Three days later when I boarded the flight to Abu Dhabi, I had resolved that, though I could not mitigate the misfortune of millions, I could at least help one person. His name is Alaa Saleh.
“… After the fall of Saddam’s regime, on the orders of the Shiite leader Moqtada al Sadr, the Shiite militias started campaigns to kill homosexuals in Baghdad, Kut, and Basra where I lived. In 2005, the Almahdi Army started torturing gays before murdering them. In addition to pushing them off buildings, there were horrible stories of another killing method which was to glue a man’s ass closed then force them to take medicine to cause diarrhea.”
I knew little about the complex refugee system and the various agencies involved, and the learning curve was steep. Back in California I contacted immigration lawyers, refugee organizations, and wrote letters to California Congress people. I started a GoFundMe to raise money for Alaa’s basic needs and to pay for English classes, figuring that would be the best use of his endless spare time.
That first year, I contacted the Bay Area Jewish Family Community Services (JFCS), a non-profit in the USA at the forefront in assisting refugees ever since Jews fled persecution in Eastern Europe in the late 1890s. The United States was already swamped with applicants, and while Alaa awaited his second vetting interview with the US embassy, Donald Trump was elected President and with his bigoted ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Iraq included, the refugee process was halted.
Once it became clear that the United States was a no-go for Alaa, Sweden was considered, but after another year of no progress Alaa was told he would be assigned to France. After four months, he received word that France’s doors were also closed to him; no reason was given, and Alaa was once again in limbo.
In the summer of 2018, I began to focus my efforts on Canada, the country seemingly most open to refugees. I emailed some 350 of my contacts and asked everyone to forward my plea to anyone and everyone they knew in Canada. Read more via Passport