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Perry Watkins Fellow Returns from Iraq

By John Masson
Aug. 29, 2012

Betsy Fisher has spent summers in the Middle East before, so she had some idea what to expect when she decided to spend this one in Iraq, helping displaced Iraqis—especially LGBT Iraqis, who are much more likely to be persecuted than other citizens—find safe, permanent homes.

And, freshly returned from eight scorching weeks in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, Fisher now knows even more than before.

She was in the country working with the Iraqi Assistance Project (IRAP) as the Law School's 2012 Perry Watkins Fellow. The fellowship is named after a Vietnam-era draftee who successfully challenged the U.S. Army policy of excluding gay service members.

"It's beautiful countryside" in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been more or less autonomous since the 1991 Gulf War, Fisher said. "There are waterfalls and greenery. It's not what you usually think of when you think 'Iraq.' "

But the beautiful surroundings didn't change the grim realities. From her location near the Syrian border, she couldn't help but encounter some of the traumatized refugees from the fighting in that troubled country. In addition, there were still plenty of candidates for IRAP's help in the organization's existing clientele of displaced Iraqis.

"My job was dealing directly with clients," said Fisher, who graduated from Denison University with an undergraduate degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. "We were helping the people who most need help."

Unfortunately, in parts of Iraq that means anyone who varies from an incredibly narrow definition of propriety. In parts of Baghdad, Fisher said, people who would be described as "emo" in the United States are hounded by militias. Musicians have been persecuted, as well.

"People who look different will be actively targeted in certain neighborhoods," she said, and not always by renegade militias and gangs. Government checkpoints can be problematic, as well. "There's a generalized fear of harassment both in the streets, and at home," Fisher said.

Some clients have family members who are actually trying to kill them, she said.

Into that environment steps IRAP, which works to help Iraqi families displaced by years of warfare find permanent homes.

"It's not a 9-to-5 job," Fisher said. "People who are in crisis situations don't stop at 5 p.m. It was hard work."

But it was work with great rewards. Fisher cites the case of the Dutch government, which quickly changed its policies about allowing LGBT refugees into the country almost as soon as IRAP asked it to.

"They were extraordinarily accommodating—it was a really solid outcome," Fisher said. "It was pretty incredible."

As for what's likely to become of LGBT Iraqis, a society that was once able to accommodate, however uneasily, a large if concealed LGBT community is now almost completely unable to do so.

"While LGBT individuals in Iraq have always had to conceal their identities, the extreme danger we're currently witnessing is a phenomenon that has only developed after the invasion of 2003," Fisher said. "It's a lot of modern forces colliding all at once that have made the difference."

Fortunately, IRAP—and people like Fisher—are there to help.

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