An internationally known youth activist involved in the 2011 Yemeni revolution is seeking refugee status in Canada after he was inundated with death threats in reaction to a blog posting declaring he was gay.
Ala'a Jarban, who is currently in Montreal, has been weighing the difficult decision of whether to stay in Canada or return to the Middle Eastern country where he faces the threat of violence from residents and the possibility of being sentenced by the state to death by stoning.
On May 29, the 23-year-old recent Sana'a University graduate posted a blog entry boldly proclaiming "I'm queer." An online furor erupted, local and international media began writing about it and Jarban became known as the only openly gay person in Yemen.
The activist is currently in Montreal, where he's in the middle of a three-week training program by the non-profit Equitas on human rights.
"I barely log into the internet," Jarban told CBC News. "I deactivated my Facebook because I can't deal with it anymore, the death threats, the hate messages. It's so unbearable."
Weeks before Jarban came out to his online followers, he left his family's home, knowing his typically conservative relatives would not accept his choice. Despite knowing the intense backlash he would face from family and friends, Jarban felt compelled to reveal his homosexuality on the blog.
"For me personally, it was difficult to live a life, having to act like somebody who was not me every single day," he said.
Revolution must tackle discrimination
'It's somewhere between idealist and suicidal.' —Yemini-born Kamal al-Solaylee
In 2011, Jarban took part in the months-long protests in Yemen that led to the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years of rule. He witnessed the deaths of dozens of people both in person and on television as the military cracked down on anti-government demonstrators.
But Jarban is not satisfied with the achievements of the Arab Spring.
"I personally believe that it's not a revolution unless we revolutionize every aspect of the society, where human rights are truly implemented and acceptance, no discrimination exists," he said.
In his efforts to transform Yemen's traditional ways, Jarban has begun posting anonymous stories on his blog from gay contributors living in the country and struggling secretly with their sexuality — a small effort he sees as the first step in the fight for equality.
"I hope one day Yemenis will be able to come out and be visible and be public as well," he said.
Even before Jarban arrived in Canada, the Yemeni diaspora community heard word of his controversial blog and his impending arrival in the country.
Toronto-based author and journalism professor Kamal al-Solaylee, who has been communicating with Jarban in recent weeks, knows all too well the dangers facing the LGBT community in the Middle East. His book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, delves into the challenges he faced as a young gay growing up in Yemen, Egypt and Lebanon.
"It's somewhere between idealist and suicidal," said al-Solaylee of Jarban's pronouncement. "But it's very brave move. It's an extremely brave decision especially since he posted it while he was still in Yemen."
Danger of returning
While al-Solaylee says Jarban faces a political threat if he returns, perhaps more harrowing is the danger from the community, whose members may not only shun or ostracize the young man but could pose a serious physical threat.
"I genuinely believe he is in danger physically," said al-Solaylee.
Use of the death penalty remains persistently high in Yemen — the Middle Eastern country was ranked in 2012 by Amnesty International as one of the eight worst offenders for capital punishment in the world, with at least 28 cases that year.
While sodomy carries the death penalty by stoning in Yemen, reports suggest the extreme punishment has not been used for it in recent years, according to Death Penalty Worldwide.
However, it's extremely rare for a Yemeni to come out as gay, even though a thriving underground LGBT community exists.
Al-Solaylee notes he came out from the comfort of Canada, as a Canadian — and doesn't fear repercussions when returning to the Middle East because of his status as an author and former journalist at the Globe and Mail, but that's not the case for Jarban.
The Yemen-born al-Solaylee urged Jarban not to become a martyr by returning home, fearing the country is still not ready to accept homosexuality.
"It's dangerous to think that just because people have been in the streets fighting for their rights that they are ready accept … that society is generally also ready to move on either sexual minority rights or even gender rights completely yet," he said.
He noted there's a large diasporic gay Arabic community living in the West that's been instrumental to helping those in the Middle East with advice, support and occasionally the immigration process.
99.9% chance of acceptance
An expert on refugee claims in Canada says that Jarban would likely win a claim.
"If he's concerned about whether or not he will win ... he doesn't have to worry one bit," said Chris Morrissey, co-founder of Vancouver-based grassroots group Rainbow Refugee Committee. "His chances are 99.9 per cent of winning."
Not only that, but he'd benefit from recent changes to Canada's refugee law that have drastically expedited the process, netting him a hearing almost immediately, said Morrissey.
Key to making a refugee claim in Canada will be establishing his credibility and proving he is gay, he added.
As Jarban finishes up his course and begins the process of securing legal aid and finding a lawyer, he's also enjoying a strange and novel experience in Montreal.
"It's so wonderful to be in a place where you feel accepted, like I could hold my boyfriend or a girl could hold her girlfriend and kiss and nobody would find that disgusting or they would actually find that beautiful," said Jarban.
"It's an amazing feeling that I can't describe," he said. "It's amazing to be accepted, to feel accepted as well."