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Christmas cheer: Refugees helping refugees

Gay Kurd refugee as Baba Noel in San Diego. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miles)
Kurdish refugee Saleh Al-Bayati played Baba Noel this month in San Diego. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miles)

By Linda Miles

Afghan children in San Diego welcomed the visit from Baba Noel. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miles)
Afghan children in San Diego welcomed their visit from Baba Noel. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miles)

Saleh Al-Bayati, 29, a gay Iraqi Kurd refugee, never could have imagined that he would someday dress as Baba Noel in the United States. But this month he did just that, to the delight of 16 children of two Muslim Afghan refugee families in San Diego.

Rita Bleoue, a refugee from Ivory Coast now living in San Diego, played the role of Santa's helper. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miles)
Rita Bleoue, a refugee from Ivory Coast now living in San Diego, played the role of Santa’s helper. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miles)

Baba Noel (Father Christmas) is the Middle Eastern name for Santa Claus.

In 2009, Saleh, who was raised Muslim, was stabbed on a street in Kirkuk, Iraq, by a mob of young men who decided he was gay, though he had not yet come out at that time. Saleh still bears scars from that attack. After his recovery, he emigrated to Turkey, eventually gained asylum through the U.N. refugee agency, and moved to the United States.

San Diegans Linda and Rick Miles, long-time members of the LGBTQ support group PFLAG, befriended Saleh in March 2016 after a caseworker with Catholic Charities asked  if they could help him meet people. Their lesbian, gay and straight friends accepted Saleh as their own friend. He also became like a son to the childless couple.

In April of this year, the caseworker at Catholic Charities again called the couple, this time to tell them about Rita Bleoue, 32, a lesbian refugee from Ivory Coast.

At age 16, Rita had been severely beaten by her parents after they found out that she was a lesbian. Like Saleh, she also bears scars from her homeland’s intolerance, including memories of her former girlfriend’s father fatally poisoning his daughter. Rita fled her home and worked as a waitress and housekeeper.

She moved to Morocco, where she applied for help from the U.N. refugee agency, and then emigrated to the United States. Rita spoke only French, so at first Linda could only communicate with her by using her own rusty French. Rita is now like a daughter to Linda, 70, and Rick, 73.

Left: As Baba Noel, Saleh Al-Bayati passed out gifts to 16 Afghan children and their parents. Right: As he prepared to put on the costume of Baba Noel, Saleh at first added too much padding. (Photos courtesy of Linda Miles)
Left: As Baba Noel, Saleh Al-Bayati passed out gifts to 16 Afghan children and their parents. Right: As he prepared to put on the costume of Baba Noel, Saleh at first added too much padding. (Photos courtesy of Linda Miles)

The caseworker also called the Linda and Rick Miles in August, asking if they would befriend a large family from Afghanistan. The father had worked for more than a decade as a carpenter/electrician at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban threatens Afghans who help Americans, the military moved the parents and 11 children to San Diego. In November, the Miles began helping a second Afghan family.

Saleh and Rita, wanting to pay forward the help their had received, offered to befriend the new refugees. They gave the families helpful tips and took donated clothes and other items to the families’ homes. The families do not know that Saleh and Rita are gay, but do know that they are caring people.

Linda mentioned that maybe the families’ children would enjoy a visit from Baba Noel. Saleh and Rita jumped at the chance. Saleh would take the role of Baba and Rita would be his helper. Smiling, the Afghan parents agreed.

Baba Noel and Rita’s visits were a great success. The children thanked and hugged them after opening their gifts of sweets, puzzles, and toys. Baba and his helper also passed out gifts of chocolates and manicure kits to the parents, who seemed to enjoy Baba’s visit as much as their children did.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. After his retirement from paid newspaper work in 2011, he launched Erasing 76 Crimes and helped with the Spirit of 76 campaign that assembled a multi-national team of 26 LGBTI rights activists to advocate for change during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, including the Erasing 76 Crimes news site and the African Human Rights Media Network. Contact him via Twitter @76crimes or by email at info@76crimes.com. Mailing address: 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.

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