“I started working with human rights six years ago, working with several international and local organizations on questions related to LGBT,” Ashour tells The Local. “That’s the main reason I ended up in Sweden. But then I started needing political protection, so that prolonged my stay.”
The idea for IraQueer had been in Ashour’s head since 2014: “I felt like there was no local initiative in Iraq, we didn’t own our cause”. The website was finally launched in early 2015, and the company officially registered as a nonprofit organization in Sweden earlier this year.
Ashour’s adopted home not only made the process of starting a nonprofit simple, it also inspired him.
“The legal system here makes it really easy to start organizations, I think that’s really important. Compared to other countries like the US for example, where it can take three or more years, in Sweden it took three months. That says a lot about the system, how it’s encouraging of cultural and social thinking,” he explains.
“Also in terms of working here, I was a part of the organizing team for Malmö Pride, and from what I experienced from my work there, I saw that society in Sweden at least among the LGBT community is interested in talking about the international fight, not only the local one.”
IraQueer has already made progress in its quest to increase visibility and awareness of Iraq’s LGBT+ community. Ashour points to a number of landmarks he is particularly proud of reaching within a short period of time.
“The organization started with me alone, and it now has around 40 members. So that’s a 4000 percent increase in a year. In the first month we launched, the site had 900 readers. Last month we had 13,000 readers. So the increase in reaching out to people – both who ended up joining and are exposed to the information we have – has been amazing. All in a year or so.”
There has also been some small financial progress: “We have been funded after less than a year, even if it’s a small amount, and other funders are asking if they could help. So people are seeing that we’re not just a bunch of young people who were bored. This is the first time in Iraq’s history that a group of people have organized a public queer movement”.
Those achievements have given Ashour hope that LGBT people will one day have their rights recognized in Iraq.
“I’m not optimistic about it, I’m realistic about it. The increase in our numbers, the people we’ve been reaching out to, just the fact that this is happening is evidence enough things will change. I’m not telling you it’ll change next year, or in ten years. I don’t know when it will change the way we want it to, but it is already changing.”
Ashour giving a talk about IraQueer. Photo: Andreas Paulsson
The IraQueer founder highlighted one shift in stance from within Iraq that he thinks is particularly significant.
“There is a big religious cleric who was responsible for the killing campaigns against LGBT people in Iraq. In July this year he said that the killing of LGBT people should not be allowed”
“That’s huge for us. From being involved in killing people to being someone who wants to stop it. Iraq is a very complicated and tricky country, so things change in two seconds, like we saw with Isis when it started. We sent the cleric a hundred e-mails, not asking for changes, but just to stop killing people. Maybe it didn’t play a role, but maybe it did. His statement was very helpful, it gives me hope. Things can change in two seconds for the better as well.”
With that said, it isn’t always easy trying to change things back home while living thousands of miles away abroad.
“In the beginning I definitely wanted to be able to at least go to Iraq and be present there, because I don’t have that right. But at the same time I want to look at the bigger picture. IraQueer wouldn’t be possible if I was in Iraq. I wouldn’t be able to register it if I was inside Iraq, but in Sweden I can. Then there’s the exposure, ability to go to conferences, talk to media outlets. All that would be limited if I was inside Iraq.”
Ashour speaking at the One Young World conference in 2014. Photo: One Young World
Sweden may offer Ashour and IraQueer opportunities that wouldn’t be possible back home, but that doesn’t mean he thinks it is perfect. The human rights activist feels the Scandinavian country could do more, both to help organizations like his, as well as make use of them.
“We need more access to asylum seekers. We work closely with anyone who is LGBT from Iraq or from the Kurdistan region. The refugee situation in general can be handled in a much better way and that’s not only an IraQueer concern, it’s an overall concern,” he says.
“Civil organizations have all of this information about certain countries. For example we have a lot about Iraq, while the Migration Agency’s last information on LGBT people there is from 2013. That’s outdated. It simply doesn’t include Isis – a game changer. So I think they could definitely work with organizations like ours more, we can help them a lot and we want to understand the work they do.”
Help has come from Swedish media outlets, on the other hand.
“A lot of organizations and media have been very supportive. We’ve been invited to (Swedish LGBT magazine) QX, lots of people have covered the story, as well as the radio. There’s an interest from Swedish society in what we’re doing and a lot of people saying they’re willing to support what we’re doing,” says Ashour.
Ashour speaking in Stockholm. Photo: Amir Ashour
Overall, the IraQueer founder has a positive impression of the Nordic nation.
“I absolutely love it in Sweden. A lot of people say there are problems, and they’re probably right, but I’m surrounded by really good people, and have the opportunity to pursue what I want to pursue. In general, Sweden is doing much better than most other countries in the world,” he concludes.
And Ashour hopes to take some of what he has learned from Sweden back to his home country one day, with the ultimate goal of changing Iraq from within.
“Seeing what’s happening in other countries, how they run things and what’s possible there definitely contributes to who you are. I want to run for office and lead the government back home. I think the government in Iraq for the last number of decades has failed a lot, and I don’t want to wait for someone to change things, I want to change it,” he insists.
“I’ve had the idea for a couple of years now. I always had the feeling I wanted to be involved in politics. I think the more you see what other people achieve, the more you see that things are possible, and there is no need to limit what you want to do.”