From Yemen to Canada: the story of an LGBT advocate who fled his war-torn home

Ala’a Jarban is a refugee, human rights educator and activist who played a key role in the Arab Spring uprisings in Yemen. 

More than seven years have passed since I first felt the exhilaration of the Arab Spring and today I find myself more than 6,700 miles away and on a different continent.

My inspiration now, just as it was back then in 2011, is to fight for the human rights of the people of Yemen, and most specifically of the LGBT community whose existence is officially denied.

But Yemenis are starving, three years into a horrific civil war in what was already a desperately poor country. In such an environment, survival is the only thought and the rights of minorities are of little consideration.

The situation in Yemen represents one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Almost everyone I know still lives there. Every day I fear that an air strike might affect my family or friends. I worry about how they will fulfill their daily needs when there is an embargo on food and medicine.

Three years ago my own life was in danger. Not from missiles or drone strikes but from death threats issued by those who objected to a campaigning blog I had authored, arguing for fairer treatment of the LGBT community and other minorities. The risk was not just to myself but to members of my family. I felt I had no choice but to seek asylum in Canada, where I arrived in 2013 to work for Equitas, a human rights organisation in Montreal.

Since then I have lived in exile. It was as a refugee that I attended One Young World Summit in Ottawa in 2016.

That experience restored to me some of the sense of hope and optimism I had felt during the Arab Spring in 2011 when, as a 20-year-old student at the University of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital. I was one of the main organisers that helped mobilise students for the uprising.

For a while everything seemed possible. The previous president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after 33 years of rule. Suddenly, in a period of political transition, there was more space to talk about issues related to human rights.

Increasingly I was exposed to the media, doing interviews regarding the human rights abuses that were inflicted by the state against protesters in different areas of society. One area that was completely neglected was LGBT rights and that’s where I decided there should be more attention. I wrote blogs criticising Yemen’s new constitution did not even consider removing the criminalisation of homosexuality. I felt that it wasn’t really a revolution if it didn’t talk about such matters.

The only time you would hear about this topic was if the newspapers recorded that people had been stoned or killed because they were suspected of being gay, which sometimes happened, especially in the south where ISIS and Al Qaida groups were active.

One of the organisations that I founded with my fellow activists was #supportyemen. We had different skill sets; filmmakers, journalists, human rights activists, writers, researchers. Together we did different campaigns.

The Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia had overshadowed the uprising in Yemen and so we created a video called ‘Break The Silence’, which was in English with Arabic subheadings. We told the world what was going on in Yemen and the film got around 40,000 views, the most-watched video about the uprising. It was featured on CNN and Al Jazeera and suddenly we at #supportyemen became the speakers of the revolution in English media.

But it didn’t last. The dialogue of the transitional period broke down. Saleh made an alliance with Houthi rebels and staged a coup d’état. We knew that if the transitional government failed Yemen would go into a vicious circle of violence but nobody could have predicted how great it would be and that regional and international powers would become involved.

We continued to bring attention to issues that were under-told or under-heard about the Yemeni community; we covered women’s rights, the impact of terrorism, the terror attacks in the capital. We did another campaign about the impact of American drones on families and civilian bystanders.

Since the start of the civil war, #supportyemen activists have been scattered far and wide to Jordan, Sweden, Canada and elsewhere. We continue to work but it is not so easy.

The plight of Yemen’s LGBT community is neglected once again. The priorities have changed for Yemeni society and for HR activists too, which are trying to put a light on the impact of the Saudi led strikes on the country and the humanitarian crisis, the famine and the cholera.  My family have one hour of electricity a day and sometimes it is off for weeks.

I had to make the choice of staying in Canada, which is a country that has received a high number of refugees, notably from Syria. I became a member of Defence Youth Network with the Canadian Council for Refugees and am involved in giving human rights education to refugee youth.

It has become harder here for young refugees who come by themselves without a guardian. I talk to LGBT young refugees about how they deal with their families now they live in a country that is more open on this topic. We use workshops, entertainment and theatre to talk about these issues and create a sense of community where they can learn and express themselves freely.

I’m 27 now and back at university, researching the political realities post the Arab Spring. I aim to do a PhD and hope to join an international NGO or the UNHCR, working on human rights advocacy and law.

I realise that it might be dangerous for me to go back to Yemen, even if the war ends, but I hope I can contribute to my country, even from the outside. Peace should be our priority but after that I hope that Yemen and other countries in the region will become more open to every member of society, and that includes minorities of any kind.