Saudi Arabian journalist, Sultan (a pseudonym) escaped his homophobic homeland with his partner and has recently been granted a bridging visa by the Australian government. Here is his story in his own words.
SYDNEY – *Nassar and I had met online in September of 2003, in Saudi Arabia, the country we are both from, where being gay is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and even death.
I was 30, and he was 19 when we met. I thought I was too old for him, but he chased after me, and we ended up falling in love. He loved that I was a Saudi that was ‘westernized beyond repair’ as he said, because I grew up in the US and UK, and I loved his dark Bedouin eyes and the kindness and above-his-age wisdom that exuded from them. He was a handsome young man that never let anything get him down.
Despite the odds, we managed to stay together 16 years, and during them, I taught him English and he taught me Arabic. I was already a journalist and TV producer, and in time, he became a successful cameraman and editor.
Nassar’s mother saw that with me as his ‘best friend’ he was happier than ever before and she came to love me, treating me as if I was her own son.
But then, just this past August something changed.
His mother called Nassar and demanded that he stop seeing me.
When he refused, his brother also called and said that their tribal heads had received information from the Presidency of State Security, the most feared enforcement arm of the Saudi government, that our relationship was one that displeased God.
The tribal elders told Nassar’s brother that our relationship brought shame and dishonour upon the clan and that they would act.
Nassar’s brother now warned that if we did not separate and stop seeing one another immediately, the tribe would forcefully separate us either by filing a criminal complaint charging us with the crime of homosexuality and have us imprisoned, or they would quietly have me killed and buried somewhere out in the Saudi desert as an honour killing – something they would be able to get away with.
We would now either have to separate forever, or together, run for our lives. We decided to stay together and run.
On September 5th, we gathered our most important belongings, hastily put together an escape plan, and with our dog, drove nine and a half hours from Riyadh to Jeddah.
We drove all day on September 6th, left our dog with a friend in Jeddah, and on the 7th, headed to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah where we bought tickets on the first available flight to Egypt, where we did not need visas.
As we went through passports and immigration in Jeddah, we were an emotional frightful mess, because it was a possibility that we had been flagged in the Saudi security system as being wanted. If we had been flagged, we would be arrested right there and then, separated, and would likely never see one another again.
I approached the passports desk first so that Nassar could turn around and walk away if I was stopped. God and the angels must have been looking out for us that afternoon because my passport was stamped with an exit stamp and I was waved through to go to the boarding gate. Then Nassar was as well, and when the plane took off, we both breathed a huge sigh of relief.
We had made it out of Saudi Arabia without being arrested, not knowing that as soon as we arrived in Australia, we would be.
In Cairo, Nassar did a quick internet search and found out that Australia issued Saudi citizens with instant e-visas. A further check on the Australian Home Affairs Immigration website revealed that: “If you arrived in Australia legally, you can apply for a Protection visa (subclass 866).”
With legally obtained tourist visas, we planned to arrive in Sydney on October 12, and apply for asylum.
The next day we bought tickets to Sydney choosing to avoid any routes that took us across Saudi airspace and instead booked flights from Cairo to Beirut to Istanbul to Manila and on to Sydney.
It was 32 hours of flying, and when we landed in Sydney, we were relieved to say the least. Upon clearing Immigration, we went to baggage claim and collected our luggage.
But then things took an unexpected turn when at Customs we were asked by the Australian Border Force if we planned on applying for asylum while we were in Australia. When we truthfully said ‘yes’, we were immediately separated, interrogated, and had our tourist visas cancelled thereby making us ‘illegal’.
We were then handcuffed and transported to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.
We had come to Australia to seek asylum from being separated and arbitrarily detained without just cause or trial in Saudi Arabia, to only have that happen to us here in Australia. We were bewildered, but at least we were together and in relative safety.
But then the worst came. We were forcefully separated.
Nassar was granted a bridging visa on Friday, December 13, 2019, and I was not. Somehow between Nassar’s visa and mine, an error was made, and to compound that error on the day it was supposed to be fixed and I be released, Immigration Minister David Coleman went on personal leave.
Our attorney, Alison Battison of Human Rights 4 All, explained in a Whatsapp message:
“Oh for fuck’s sake. I’m so sorry to tell you this. But Coleman didn’t sign off on you being released before he left. ALL submissions to Coleman have been returned to the department to await instructions on how the new minister wants to be briefed. People within the department are pushing your submission as it is easy, but it appears the department is in chaos.”
That was the worst thing that could happen to us. Nassar preferred to be in detention with me rather than be free in Sydney without me, and of course, I wanted to be free in Sydney with Nassar.
I was crushed and with the Christmas and New Year holidays beginning the following Friday, the government would be on break and I would possibly stay in detention until February.
But four days later, on the 17th of December, Nassar and I had our Christmas miracle.
Due to the combined efforts of many good people throughout the weekend, including Senator Janet Rice of The Greens, journalist Peter Greste, Ivan Hinton-Teoh of Just Equal, Joe Ball of Switchboard, Graham Thom and Johnny Valykyrie of Amnesty International and of course our lawyer Alison Battisson, I would be released.
It was around 1pm that one of the guards at Villawood told me to gather by bedding because I was being released. I was taken to property where I was reunited with my suitcases and laptop bag then put into an Uber by an Immigration Department officer and sent off to go meet Nassar at a nearby hotel.
When we saw one another that afternoon, we hugged and cried, as we had now finally made it. You can say that we had been reborn. His tribe was no longer a concern and me being buried in the desert was no longer a distinct possibility. It was a moment we will never forget.
I am now 47 and Nassar is 36.
We now have bridging visas, work permits and our Safe Haven Enterprise Visas are in their final stages leading to permanent protection visas. We will have the honour of calling ourselves Australians in a few years.
*not his real name