By Althea Billings & Emma Grillo//Features Editors
On Sept. 13 around 11:30 p.m. Sarkawt Sabir called his brother in Iraq to tell him he was gay. His brother hung up. Over the course of the next few days, the rest of Sabir’s brothers would unfriend him on Facebook and his belongings back home would be seized.
Sabir is an Arabic instructor at Reed College and Lewis & Clark College. He first came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Program co-sponsored by the US and Iraqi governments.
Sabir spent the first year of his program working at Reed as an Arabic instructor. Upon returning home to Iraq to teach English Literature at a university, he learned that his replacement at Reed had unexpectedly resigned. Sabir jumped at the opportunity, and returned to his post at Reed. Before long, he was also involved with LC’s expanding Arabic program.
It was during this time that Sabir started to further explore his identity.
“I started talking with a bunch of my friends about sexuality in general, and with their help, I realized, I can do it—and so two months ago, I came out as a gay man,” Sabir said. “It’s so easy when you just say it, just like that, and everybody is so accepting, and I didn’t feel that pressure. I was like wow, I can say I’m gay and everything’s fine. Nobody is going to do anything, nobody is going to give me that look, like I’m different; I’m a human being.”
Coming out did not just bring Sabir emotional relief. He also began to feel the built-up stress leave his body. The chronic pain that he used to have was gone.
“It affected my stomach actually, and my back. I went to a lot of doctors and they couldn’t tell me [a diagnosis]. They said, it’s mental, it’s like you are anxious. I always had a stomach pain.
I always had a back pain, a lower-back pain,” Sabir said. “It went away.”
One of Sabir’s students from Reed introduced him to Tinder. At first he didn’t have much luck. But after four or five dates, Sabir met James.
“We connected right away and I swear I feel like I was born again.”
James and Sabir had their first date at Zeus Cafe. Sabir went in with low expectations.
“I met him there and immediately, it was first look and I was like, ‘Whoa that’s the one,’” Sabir said. “It was just the impression. I thought I could be wrong, but then we clicked immediately. I actually gave him just two hours to talk. It went from 3 to 9 o’clock. I swear. Even now we talk about that. I say, I gave you three hours, look what happened.”
Their relationship began to progress quickly.
“We started to have a routine, like a married couple. We would get up in the morning and he would make breakfast and I would take the dog and just—normal. You can never imagine how normal the relationship is,” Sabir said.
Two months later, while James was out of town, Sabir phoned home.
“I don’t know why it happened on September 13. But I felt like, it’s two months and I’m so happy,” Sabir said. “Of all my brothers I have this one brother … and we are so close. He’s like my person. So I decided to call to confide in him, to my new lifestyle. I think that was my mistake … I shouldn’t have done that, it was too soon. But I thought that he would keep it a secret. But he hung up.”
It was late Pacific Standard Time (PST) and after Sabir heard the click of the phone call ending, he was confused.
“I wasn’t sure what had happened. I thought maybe he had run out of credit or something, so I tried to call him back and he didn’t pick up.”
Sabir couldn’t sleep. Without his family to fall back on, he was uncertain of his future. After his time was up on his teaching program, he would have to go back to Iraq.
That night, Sabir turned to a friend on Facebook, who recommended gofundme.com.
“I didn’t sleep until 3:30 because I had to narrate what happened. And I posted that. The next day I felt like I did something,” Sabir said.
Sabir requested $30,000 in order to find an immigration lawyer to help him stay in the U.S. On his way to work the next day, Sabir began to doubt his Gofundme campaign. He made the decision to take the site down when he returned home.
“The moment I had come back to check my Gofundme, it had gone viral. It was only one day and a half, and a hedge fund raiser from New York saw my post, and he donated $10,000 right away… it’s just incredible,” Sabir said. “But it gave me that security. I know that there are people who care.”
Although the anonymous donor from New York contributed a significant amount to his campaign, the majority of Sabir’s donations came from Reed students and families.
“All of these messages that I get from the Reed families who supported me and consider me brave to actually do that, to leave everything behind … I had a lot of time of thinking about it, but I feel that there is so much more that I can do with my life … No matter where I end up, and if I ever got a bunch of money, I would donate it to both [Reed and LC]. They have all been wonderful to me and my campaign.”
Once Sabir finds a lawyer, the case could take three to four years to prepare before bringing it to a judge. The money raised by his Gofundme campaign will help Sabir pay for the lawyer who will petition for Sabir’s asylum on the basis of persecution, as well as support Sabir in the interim.
Because the Fulbright Program that brought Sabir to the US is a dual country program, it requires a two-year homestay in Iraq. According to Sabir, this is no longer feasible.
“Going back, it will be really tough. Even if I stay in the city, I have all my relatives there … people start asking questions. And as a gay man in the Middle East in general, it’s going to be one hell of a lonely life,” Sabir said. “People start figuring out. He’s 35 and he’s not married? No matter where I go, I will always be alone,” he said.
Despite the hardships that Sabir has faced over the past couple weeks, he still holds on to optimism.
“I feel like I’m lucky and I’m cursed at the same time. Cursed because I was born there. I had a very close relationship with my family. They loved me. I worked so hard to support every one of my family members,” he said.
Before his Fulbright, Sabir spent fifteen years working in a government position to help support his various family members.
“I sacrificed a lot for my family, and one thing, one thing I wanted was to be happy. Fifteen years of my life was given to them. In return, I just wanted to be happy … I don’t know if their plan is to disown me or disinherit me. But that’s it, I’m done. I’m done sacrificing. This is my life and I’m going to do something about it,” Sabir said.
“I don’t want to end up that kind of guy who would get married to a woman and have children … I would always be angry at myself for doing something that’s not — I’m 30, approaching 31, and I don’t feel like it’s too late to do the right thing.”
And as for his relationship with James?
“I can’t believe this happened on Tinder you know,” Sabir said. “I can’t believe it because now we’re talking about marriage.”