The last few decades have seen a transformation in Americans’ attitudes toward gay people. Today nearly two-thirds of Americans say homosexuality should be accepted, up from just over 30% in the early 2000s.
Yet in some African and Middle Eastern countries, nearly 100% of people say the opposite—that society must discourage homosexuality. In these places, being gay is still seen as a sin or disease to be routed out, which has taken the form of gay men being hurled from the top of buildings or stoned to death. Yet, as brutal as those scenes are, a new documentary proves that they also can serve as a powerful backdrop for a love story.
Out of Iraq, which premiered at the L.A. Film Festival earlier this month and will debut on Logo June 13, is the tale of what happens when two Iraqi soldiers fall in love and have to keep it a secret. Nayyef Hrebid met Btoo Allami, a soldier in the Iraq army, while working as a translator for the U.S. military. Both spent years fleeing and fighting to find a home together.
TIME spoke to the couple featured in a film that spans a decade and four countries about what it was like to grow up in that part of the world, why they made this film and how it feels to watch gay refugees flee persecution in the Middle East now that they’re safe in Washington state. (Hrebid did most of the talking because his English is better; he also translated the answers from Allami.)
What was it like growing up in Iraq and realizing that you were gay?
Hrebid: It’s very difficult because we cannot be who we are, because of what our family teaches us, what the literature and the community is saying. We have to act, we have to just lie. We’re not living as ourselves. We’re living how they want us to live. And if they find about [us being gay], of course we will get killed or be tortured to be examples for others … It made me feel like they’re tying my hands and my legs and I cannot move. I cannot breathe.
How did you two get to know each other?
Hrebid: I was working as a translator with a group of the Marines, who were training the new Iraqi soldiers. And that’s how we met. We would go on missions together, but we could not be together all the time. An American captain helped us to get together by bringing Btoo inside the American camp so I could see him, or I’d ask to go on a specific mission with Btoo so I could see him there.
How did you work up the courage to be honest with each other about your feelings, given that things could have gone so badly?
Hrebid: We were on a mission and I’m still not completely sure if he’s gay or not, and same thing for him. But I feel he is, just the way I look into his eyes. And that night we sat together and he just told me he loved me and we just started kissing each other. I knew he liked me the way I liked him. In that time everything changed.
Allami: After that first kiss, for two days, I did not eat anything. Believe me, anything. The feeling was amazing. I thought, ‘He is my life.’
There seem to be some happy times of you two being together in Iraq during your time off from military work.
Hrebid: It wasn’t completely happy because we were still hiding. When we would meet on vacation together, we go to a different city where no one recognized us. We’d book the hotel as friends and we’d be there as friends and we could only be ourselves inside this room. The feeling just of being together was so beautiful. At the same time, we know what’s going to happen if [others] find out about us or our relationship.
Eventually, you both decide you have to leave Iraq and try to go to America. How hard was it to choose love over your country?
Hrebid: I saw other translators start leaving Iraq to go to other countries, so I thought, ‘Yes this is it, maybe we could build a life there.’ If we stayed in Iraq, we would have to marry girls and have a family we don’t want or people would find out. It was not easy, but at the same time, that’s my only chance to live with Btoo. And the other reason is that as a translator, I was a target from other militias. Anyone working with Americans is a traitor, so I had to leave to save myself and also save my relationship … I have the right to live my life too.
It was much easier for you to leave than for Btoo because of your work for the Americans. As he remained trapped in the Middle East, did you lose hope?
Hrebid: We thought it would be easy at first … but we were shocked that it was very, very difficult. We would talk every single day, night, morning, every time. Sometimes he would eat dinner and I would eat breakfast, together. And we would watch stuff together, pressing play at the same time, so we feel like we are together. At the same time, I cannot touch him, I just cannot see him. But this made our love stronger, we knew we are going to be together whatever happens.
Why do you think homosexuality continues to be perceived as a disease in some places?
Hrebid: That’s all because of the religion and the culture and the older generation. My message is for the next generation, for accepting the LGBT communities. And that’s why we’re sharing our story. People need to know about it, people need to know what we go through. And with more people sharing their stories, that will help all of us. In the movie we made, we prod ISIS and all those bad people. So it’s not an easy step but at the same time, we need to get our voice out.
There are reports that ISIS is violently persecuting gay people in Iraq and Syria now. How does that make you feel?
Hrebid: It makes me feel really, really sad. Maybe we are lucky to get out but what happens to the people that are still there? It’s just terrible. We need everyone to say something.
Allami: We have this message: be proud of yourself.