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Saving Mohammad: How a lifeline for LGBT persecution in the Middle East began on the Google bus to Silicon Valley

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Kevin Steen founded Rainbow Street, a lifeline for LGBT persecution in the Middle East, while riding the Google bus to Silicon Valley. His friend Mohammad was the first client; they met when Steen studied Arabic in Jordan. (Left: Courtesy Allyson Stronach; Right: Courtesy Kevin Steen)
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Sitting in morning traffic on a Google bus, Kevin Steen wasn’t thinking about founding an international organization to save LGBTQ lives in the Middle East. Work emails and weekend plans with his boyfriend were on his mind.

Then, his phone lit up with panicked texts from a friend in Jordan.

Mohammad’s family had found out he was gay. His father had beaten him up, badly. He was disowned and kicked out of his house. He fled without anything. He was in the street with nowhere to go.

“I was scared for Mohammad because his dad threatened to find and shoot him,” Steen recalled. “It was an honor crime waiting to happen.”

Anxious to help from 7,500 miles away, there was only one thing Steen could do while stuck on a bus crawling to Silicon Valley: He started Googling for resources.
Yet, the program manager for the world’s most powerful search engine was stumped.

He couldn’t find any groups supporting people in Mohammad’s situation. Many organizations assist refugees after resettlement, but Mohammad required immediate aid in his home country. He was a young college student suddenly on his own and in danger. He needed housing, food and clothes in Jordan before he could flee to safety.

Steen wired his own money so Mohammad could rent a room, then ended up paying for a series of rooms. Mohammad had to keep moving because his father was on the hunt.

A FRIENDSHIP BEGINS
Two years earlier, Kevin Steen was standing alone in the hallway of a Jordanian college when Mohammad introduced himself.

“I was taken aback. Mohammad just walked up and said hi,” Steen said. “My gaydar was going off from a thousand miles away.”

Mohammad was looking for a new English-speaking study partner. He didn’t feel comfortable with the students from Florida and Australia previously assigned to him.

“They were Christians and always reading Bible verses to me,” said Mohammad, who was Muslim. “When I saw Kevin, his smile and kind look gave me a warm feeling.”

Steen was a junior at the University of Southern California, studying Arabic for a semester in Jordan. He was a leader in the queer community at USC. He grew up in the Seattle suburbs and was a teenager when he came out as gay to a supportive family.

Yet in Jordan, Steen went into the closet for the first time.

“I decided to take out my earrings, wear long pants and play it safe,” Steen said. “I wanted to learn the language. To get access to the local population, I couldn’t be openly gay.”

Steen and Mohammad were inseparable, helping each other with their English and Arabic. They talked about every part of their lives and cultures except for the most obvious one.

“It was the big pink elephant that followed us everywhere we went,” Steen said.

When Steen finally came out to his new friend, Mohammad responded with a declaration that homosexuality was against Islam.

“If I accepted Kevin being gay, then I had to accept it in myself,” said Mohammad, who requested his full name be withheld to protect his family. “I was in denial. The religious conflict terrified me. I wasn’t ready to face going to hell.”

Steen understood. He was also happy to answer Mohammad’s flood of questions: How does being gay work? What is sex like? Can gay people have kids? Do they get married?

“I was deeply moved that Mohammad felt comfortable enough to ask these very personal and taboo questions,” Steen said. “I was also encouraged that he was learning a lot about himself.”

Steen and Mohammad said their friendship never became romantic. Steen left Jordan and returned to openly queer life at USC. A few months later, while chatting on Facebook messenger, Mohammad came out to Steen.

“It was a bittersweet moment,” Steen said. “It’s agonizing to be gay in the Middle East, and now he had a word for his agony.”

COMING-OUT TRAUMA
Mohammad’s happiest childhood memories are of his maternal grandmother. She took him on shopping trips for his fashion advice. Mohammad was good at helping her find the right earrings to match a dress — the unique kind with colored stones.

“I’m sure she saw something in that,” Mohammad said. “She told my mom that I wouldn’t be like my brothers.”

Mohammad’s grandmother was educated and liberal. Time with her was a respite from a religiously conservative and authoritarian father. After she died, the buffer was gone.

“My mom didn’t have much say in anything,” Mohammad said.

Mohammad was relieved when he didn’t get into the engineering college his father preferred. He could study the humanities, something he cared about.

Greeting Steen in the university hallway changed Mohammad’s life. So did meeting his first gay Jordanian friend.

“He was different from Kevin in important ways,” Mohammad said. “With my Jordanian friend, we shared the same culture, religion and rules.”

They could navigate the dangers of being gay in Jordan together.

But Mohammad said his Jordanian friend betrayed him. Mohammad speculates it was because he was jealous of Steen or the scholarship Mohammad won. Mohammad said his friend took revenge by creating a fake profile on a gay dating website. He chatted with men asking for sex while pretending to be Mohammad. Then, he sent Mohammad’s father a link and password to the account.

“My dad saw the sex messages,” Mohammad said. “He said I wasn’t a man and no longer part of the family. ‘Faggot’ was the nicest word he said while beating me up.”

A MOTHER’S LOVE AND SURVIVAL
Mohammad’s mother risked her life to help her son. The night Mohammad fled, she warned him by text that his father had a gun and was looking to kill him.

“My dad went crazy and beat her,” Mohammad said. “He viewed her as evil for giving birth to me.”

Mohammad’s mom escaped, taking her other children to her sister’s house.

Mohammad hid alone. He texted Steen, who had graduated from USC and was working in Silicon Valley — using his linguistics degree and the Arabic he learned in Jordan to build speech recognition systems for Google devices. Steen sent Mohammad money to rent a room.

Mohammad needed a disguise to safely get to his college classes. His housing was off-campus, and his father stalked the school entrance. So Mohammad dressed as a woman in full cover.

One day, Mohammad didn’t have time to change into the burka, and his dad chased him through town, brandishing a gun.

Another day, his father found Mohammad’s address. He approached the building shouting his son’s name. Mohammad hid under the bed as his dad shot bullets through the window. Mohammad laid still.

“If my dad knew I was in the room, he wouldn’t have left without killing me,” Mohammad said.

Mohammad moved several more times to evade his father. Cut off from family support, Mohammad relied on Steen for living and school expenses not covered by his scholarship.

Eventually, Steen helped Mohammad obtain a visa for the United States. Steen also found an immigration attorney and donors to cover costs. After arriving in San Francisco, Mohammad applied for asylum.

Back in Jordan, Mohammad’s father had a heart attack. Seriously ill, he was living by himself and needed a caretaker. He asked his wife to return. She had two conditions. First, he must acknowledge that Mohammad would always be her son. Second, he must transfer the house into her name. He agreed.

“My mom did well for herself,” Mohammad said. “I respect her. She’s a bad-ass.”

Kevin Steen, pictured during his time in Jordan, has helped six people from the Middle East and Nothern Africa resettle in the U.S. through Rainbow Street. (Courtesy Kevin Steen)

CULTURE CLASH
Mohammad said he was a virgin when he landed in San Francisco in the summer of 2015. He wasn’t prepared for American-style sexual liberation.

“I had a hard time adjusting,” Mohammad recalled. “People say, ‘Try everything,’ but I didn’t like the open buffet of men in front of me. I need a mind connection to have a sexual attraction.”

Steen introduced Mohammad to friends who were a longtime gay couple and offered to let Mohammad live with them. They reminded Mohammad of the marriage-oriented culture he was familiar with in Jordan — until he learned they had an open relationship.

“I freaked out,” Mohammad said. “I thought all the gays in America were whores.”

Today, Mohammad and Steen laugh at the sweeping indictment. But at the time, it sparked some difficult conversations about why Mohammad was being judgmental and imposing his values on others.

“It’s insane how I got through all that trauma,” Mohammad said. “I was far from home, I had trust issues and I was trying to calm my fears by clinging to the only religion and culture I knew.”

Besides language and social challenges, Mohammad also had to deal with anti-Muslim sentiment — even in the liberal Bay Area.

“I wish Americans could see the positive aspects of my culture instead of only seeing the bad things,” Mohammad said. “Not all Muslims are like my father.”

When Mohammad felt isolated in his new country, he thought about food. Fasoulia (beans with tomatoes) and mujaddara (rice with lentils and caramelized onions) were favorites from his childhood. He would text his mother to see what she had cooked that day in Jordan. Then, Mohammad would make the same dish to feel connected.

LOVE AND MARRIAGE
Mohammad navigated the U.S. dating scene at his own pace. Meanwhile, Steen proposed to his longtime boyfriend. They continued to provide Mohammad with friendship and advice.

Mohammad’s first boyfriend was a lesson in heartbreak. The second was a keeper.

“He’s an old-fashioned guy who grew up in rural America,” Mohammad said. “I could tell him my story when I was ready and it didn’t define me.”

They met on the OK Cupid dating website and went on many scenic walks in the East Bay. Months later, the new boyfriend asked Mohammad if they could kiss.

“I said yes,” Mohammad said. “He’s really nice. We balance each other out.”

They moved in together and got engaged a year later. Mohammad’s mother sent the couple two wedding suits from Jordan. Yet, she doesn’t tell anyone in Jordan that her son is gay.

“It’s safer for her to say I’m building a career in America. That’s an explanation that can last many years,” Mohammad said.

Mohammad has a work permit and is currently employed in an entry-level position for a Bay Area advertising agency. His co-workers threw him an engagement party.

Mohammad and his fiancé, both now in their mid-20s, are still waiting for Mohammad’s asylum case to be heard. He applied when President Barack Obama was in office and is worried about President Donald Trump’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigration stances.

The prospect of returning to Jordan scares him.

“I miss my mom and siblings,” Mohammad said. “But I wouldn’t survive going back. My life would be a prison there.”

To ease Mohammad’s anxiety, his fiancé made a list of all the reasons Mohammad will win his asylum case.

“He wrote, ‘True story, financially stable, good lawyer,’” Mohammad said. “Then, he put, ‘You look pretty, and I love you.’”

RAINBOW STREET
The day Kevin Steen tried to help Mohammad from the Google bus was the day Rainbow Street was born. Steen, now 27, started an international non-governmental organization that provides a lifeline for LGBTQ people struggling against persecution in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The group is named after a street in Amman, Jordan.

Since Mohammad, Rainbow Street has helped six people resettle. It is currently providing housing, health care and basic needs for five others waiting to relocate.

“We provide the direct assistance required for queer people to even be able to think about resettlement,” Steen said. “Being queer in the Middle East is tough. But being queer and a refugee is enormously difficult. They are extra vulnerable, have a specific set of needs and have access to few resources.”

A recent United Nations report on discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people said five Middle Eastern countries impose the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations between adults. Another 11 punish it with jail time. The rest ban or inhibit the formation of LGBTQ groups. The lack of legal protections or even recognition of LGBTQ people in the Middle East results in widespread homelessness, job discrimination, public harassment and disinheritance.

“Middle Eastern governments severely limit the scale to which people are able to organize and assist one another on the ground,” Steen said. “Straight allies are forced to stay hidden from authorities, or risk being charged with ‘debauchery’ themselves.”

Rainbow Street relies on donors in the U.S. to fund a network of courageous local activists and partner organizations throughout the Middle East. Last year’s budget was $40,000.

“We have to think creatively about how to remain transparent to donors while fueling an underground movement,” Steen said.

Rainbow Street covers the full financial needs of its beneficiaries until they are resettled, which can take up to two years through U.N. channels. There is a backlog of 43 requests for help.

Mohammad said he is especially concerned about transgender people and lesbian women because their plight is even worse than what he experienced. Of Rainbow Street’s five current cases, four are transgender.

“I hope my story draws a focus on the people who aren’t as blessed as I was,” Mohammad said. “I wish everyone had Rainbow Street and a friend like Kevin to save them.”

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks in District 7. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at info@engardio.com.

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