For his first 34 years, Anas Qartoumeh lived a life that wasn’t his.
“When I was young I had a soft voice and the way I walked was different,” he said.
“I used to be interested in my sisters’ toys. My father, he would say he had three daughters (two sisters) and I was the third.”
Qartoumeh’s father not only took note of these “feminine traits,” he tried to quash them, so Qartoumeh changed to avoid being a disappointment.
“I had to prove I was masculine. I was dreaming that I had a moustache. I was trying to speak with a tough voice … I was meeting expectations. I was never being me. I was acting,” he said.
As he got older he started to better understand the role he was playing for his father.
“I proved to him I was not gay,” he said.
His need to conform to the sexual norms of his home country, Syria, extended beyond meeting parental expectations.
In Syrian culture, being gay is more than just frowned upon. It’s a Muslim society and the Koran says it’s something that God will punish. In Syria’s more politically stable times it could amount to a three year prison sentence. In wartime, there’s death.
Qartoumeh said there have been multiple accounts of ISIS members luring gay men to the top of tall buildings for a meet-up and then throwing them from rooftops.
“I was a hopeless guy. I focused on studying and working and I had a good job in Syria because I would work more than 12 hours a day to not think about it,” he said.
That, in the end, may have been his salvation.
With a successful career in accounting under his belt, Qartoumeh was in a good position to leave Syria when the war escalated.
In 2015 he went to Lebanon.
“Lebanon is more liberal, they started having their first Pride this year, ” he said.
It’s very small — the size of Vancouver Island— and Syrians had flooded in as conditions within their own country became more severe, making the competition for jobs intense.
Ernest and Young Lebanon offered him the opportunity to work remotely from their office in Lebanon but, policy changes aimed at slowing the volume of Syrians entering the workplace were implemented. Residency was now required to get employment and to get residency he had to show he had the money to rent for the long-term. He could have managed, but it would have eaten through his savings quickly, and with no guarantee that he would gain that status, Qartoumeh had to make a choice.
He applied for work permit and moved to Erbil in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, where he was offered a position with Deloitte and Touch Iraq.
“Kurdistan and Kurds are friendly and peaceful people. Although, they suffered from conflicts and disputes with many Arabs governments, they were mature enough to distinguish between me as civilian Arabic guy and the oppressive Arabic regimes. Aside from their kindness Iraq is still not open for LGBT and not a liberal life in general,” he said.
He’d only been there a week when he heard from the UN that an opportunity for residency in Lebanon had come up. He had to make the decision to stay in Iraq, where he had a good job, or go back to a country that had more liberal values.
He chose to stay, but it wasn’t long before he realized that he hadn’t chosen a country that would support who he was.
“It is true, I felt more secure with my job in Iraq, but it was not a safe environment for gays. I lived my whole life hiding my identity, and while I was waiting there and working I had a chance to connect with Danny Ramadan,” he said.
Ramadan is a gay Syrian refugee who made his way to Canada in 2014. Last year he was the parade marshal in Vancouver and Qartoumeh was blown away by his story.
“He posted on a Facebook page where people who want to connect with our personal stories,” he said. “He said, ‘hey guys I made it to Canada, I am so happy here. If you need help let me know.’”
The message was posted with Ramadan’s actual name and profile photo, which was strange because most people on that page were communicating anonymously for safety reasons.
“I told him my story. I said, ‘I don’t want to wait, I will regret it… I want to leave this conflict,’” he said.
The Rainbow Refugee Association in Vancouver heard his story and sent his refugee application to Canada to all NGOs and churches.
The first to offer sponsorship was the Central Okanagan Refugee Committee.
“They told me ‘a Kelowna group wants to sponsor you, are you OK coming to small city?’” he said.
“I didn’t know anything about Kelowna and the beauty of the city… but I didn’t want to wait so I said, ‘yes.’”
It was 20 months before he was able to make the transition and in that time the conflicts between the Kurdish people — who he found to be kind and welcoming — and the Arab government started to escalate, putting into some doubt how and when he would make his way to Canada. He was expected to travel in July or August in 2017, then he was told September, and finally it was November.
“I resigned from work, sold my car and my possessions,” he said.
In the final leg of his journey, he shed the first layer of the life he’d always known. He was told that he couldn’t take more than 30 kilograms of luggage back. The rest had to be thrown out.
“All of my memories and all my 34 years, they’re gone,” he said. “At that time I didn’t care, I just wanted to ship myself out. I had to fly from Erbil -Kurdistan to Baghdad because of the travel ban on Erbil Airport international flight because of the referendum on Sep 2017, and waited for more than 12 hours in the airport.”
He first stopped in Toronto, then Vancouver and then Kelowna.
“I was thrilled to be here,” he said, smiling widely while recalling the experience. The people who met him at the airport carried a rainbow flag and Qartoumeh felt an immediate relief.
“I cried. All of them were waiting for me. I didn’t know anything of them. It was unconditional support. They just came to say welcome.”
One month after arriving Qartoumeh got a job as a senior accountant at KPMG. They not only have evaluated his work, and placed him in a position on par with what he left in Syria, they’ve gone out of their way to support him and his coming out — something that he did just weeks after arriving in Canada.
“They will march with me at Pride and made a shirt for the team (to wear),” he said.
And during that event, Qartoumeh will be at the head of the pack, having been made the march marshal.
“Now is my first time in my life I am me,” he said. “When I look back on my entire life, I feel sad for the years I wasted, but now is better than later. I have a choice here… You can not agree, but it doesn’t make a difference. This is what distinguishes Canada, that acceptance of differences.”
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After the interview Anas Qartoumeh had some more thoughts he wanted to share. Here they are, in his words:
My life in Canada:
When I first arrived, I had no idea what was waiting for me, it was very big decision and a huge challenge to immigrate to a new country. CORC helped diversity of nationalities and genders especially Syrian. I am so delighted to be the first Syrian gay guy sponsored in Kelowna.
CORC Kelowna offered me all types of supports to start my life here and to face the challenges. I still remember my feelings when I found 13 lovely faces at the Kelowna airport saying welcome to Canada. They all gave me their warm hugs and love as if they have known me for years. In fact, whatever I say to thank them is not enough. There unconditional support and love provided me with a wonderful Canadian community. I never felt so warm and happy as I do now. I still remember the first month I arrived, all my sponsors devoted their time to spend as much time as they could to help me communicate and settle down. First month here I had no time to either think of my home country Syria. Actually, Kelowna became my home country.
I still remember when Jodine (member of CORC)she called me while I was in Iraq and asked me what kind of food do you like? Do you have any allergies? Do you eat meat? I was like what? what did she want? I have never been asked this question before when I was in Lebanon or Iraq. I had only been asked to pay for what I ate not what I want to eat . I still remember Tom (also one of CORC members) who drove me from the airport and mad sure that my accommodation is good and I had everything I need.
It has been eight months since my arrival and I have never felt home sick or regret, Canada makes it easy for immigrants, Canada invested in many programs to help new comers to settle quickly.
My life in Iraq
It was May 2017 northern Iraq in a very hot weather and no news from Canada. my notice period with my company has finished, no car for transportation. Considering that in north iraq public transportation system is worse than anywhere else. Even worse than Kelowna transportation in winter . There you have no options except for getting a cab. You can not cycle, you can not either walk under 45 to 50 Celsius degree.
Here is what happened a month later In September 2017. Kurds voted for independency referendum. I was sympathetic with Kurds considering the suffering they have been through. In Syria or iraq Kurds had less advantages than Arabs. We were fortunate that this independence went peacefully, but sadly it caused Kurdistan plenty of sanctions imposed by the Iraqi Arabs government, Iran and turkey. Beside the economical sanction they imposed travel bans that did not allow for international flights to operate in Kurdistan. Everybody had to fly through local iraqi flight to Baghdad first, which I did.
Iraqi Arabic government was not punishing Kurds only, they also included us foreign workers who got work visas from Kurdistan government which was legal when I got it for two years before the referendum.
In addition, turkey, almost a three hours driving from where I stayed closed their border and stopped accepting Syrians crossing the borders unless it is a flight transit visa.