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Activist profile | Amir Ashour: ‘There have been a lot of people who sent hate mail’

By Will Stroude

Amir Ashour is a human rights activist from Iraq, currently living in exile in Sweden. He is founder and Executive Director of IraQueer, the first and only LGBT+ community organisation to provide human rights training for LGBT+ individuals, groups and allies, and practical support to LGBT+ refugees, in and outside of Iraq.

Having represented IraQueer at the United Nations, OutSummit and several universities around the world, Ashour has extended the organisation’s national appeal.  Ashour is a Young Leaders Visitors Programme (YLVP) alumni, ambassador for OneYoungWorld, and has worked with a range of human rights organisations including MADRE and OutRight International. He’s

As chief spokesperson for IraQueer, Ashour is both the public face of the LGBT+ community in Iraq, and the face of the Iraqi LGBT+ community internationally. He has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in highlighting serious human rights violations, including grotesque abuses perpetrated by militants.

Ashour has been detained by the Iraqi authorities on several occasions as a result of his activism; and despite his current inability to return to Iraq or visit his family, he collaborates with human rights activists across the Middle East and North Africa and visits the region regularly. Attitude magazine caught up with the activist, shortly after his organisations second anniversary.

On March 3rd IraQueer celebrated its second anniversary; how has your organisation grown in that time?

We have grown a lot since we launched two years ago. We feel like a more structured organization with a clearer identity. We have a better connection with LGBT+ individuals in Iraq who tell us what’s needed and the kind of projects we should lead. We have more experience and that’s reflecting on the quality of our work.

What was the biggest challenge you faced last year?

The biggest challenge was on a personal level which is not having a real nationality anywhere, this is obviously limiting my personal and professional opportunities. As a political refugee, I have no freedom of movement and because of the specificities of my situation I am unable to change that for another six years (bringing it to a total of 8 years). This is making my personal and professional life much harder than it should be.

IraQueer made quite an impact last year; how have things progressed and what’s been your biggest achievement?

Things have been developing and growing very fast. Our reach and visibility has been growing. We are in the process of releasing two guides about health and security which will be the firsts of their kind in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. We also took our international advocacy efforts to a higher level. We’ve done several meetings with different UN missions, and gave talks in different international stages.   I think our biggest achievement since day one is giving the LGBT+ community in Iraq and Kurdistan Region a group to identify with. Putting the community on the global map and telling not only the Iraqi/Kurdish governments, but also the world that we exist, and that we need support to start our journey towards achieving a better life. Every time an LGBT+ individual reaches out to us; they validate our work and existence even more, and nothing we will do will be more important than that.

When are some of the reasons that local LGBT+ people get in touch with IraQueer?  

The number of LGBT+ people contacting us has been increasing rapidly. Many of them reach out to ask us for help especially in leaving the country or support them in their asylum process, many of them offer their help and ask us if they can join the team, and there are others who simply reach out to thank us for existing and to share their feelings and stories with us saying that they never had people they could trust to share that with them.

Are you having more success with expanding your network?

We definitely are expanding our network. Locally, more people know of us, and we’re used as a reference by some of the biggest Iraqi and international organizations. More LGBT+ people are reaching out to us, and offering their support. Internationally, organizations and even governments are recognizing us, and rely on our resources and trust the information we provide them with. Not only the number of the people in our network is increasing, but also the quality of the network is getting higher.

How receptive have people been in Iraq to your organisation?

There have been a lot of people who sent hate mail, and threats accusing us of destroying the society’s morals and values, but the response from the LGBT+ community has been growing, and they proved how disparately needed IraQueer’s existence was. In addition to the fact that a good number of millennial have responded positively to our work, and a number of individuals have came out to us. The reaction from Iraq isn’t as big as we want it to be, but it’s definitely better than what we expected.

How have you been working with activists from other regions?

Yes. We work closely with activists in the MENA region in strategising, and exchanging experiences. We also work with activists from other regions. I just came back from a trip to New York where we worked with 50 activists from around the world where we have been pushing for the UN’s Independent Expert’s mandate to be protected through meeting different states and UN agencies, a vote which we won!

You recently released two guides for LGBT+ people in Iraq, can you explain a bit about what your motives were with these publications?  

We released a sexual health guide which focused on the basics of preventing the risk of getting STIs, the information and the way its presented in this guide are very unique, we had to (re)invent some words in Kurdish and Arabic to make sure we don’t use the same offensive words the local media/resources would use. Most of the info we shared isn’t available in local languages. The other guide focused on the security measures LGBT+ individuals should take personally and digitally. It also presented it in simple ways targeting those with very limited knowledge of security. Both guides are available in Arabic, Kurdish, and English.

What are your goals for this year?

In 2017, we will keep restructuring IraQueer and clarifying responsibilities to maximise every member’s productivity. We will be releasing two guides early in the year, and work on other projects in the remaining time of the year. We will continue expanding our international advocacy work.

For more information about IraQueer and Amir Ashour, visit