Many residents of Channing House knew that their personable executive chef, Ghazwan Alsharif, made delicious moussaka and baklava. Some even knew where he came from — Iraq.
But few realized that "Chef G," who has supervised and served food in the Channing House dining hall most days of the week over the past year, had such a harrowing story until they saw the recent premiere of a documentary about his life.
"From Baghdad to The Bay" chronicles Alsharif's service as a translator for the U.S. Army during the Iraq War, his subsequent imprisonment, alleged torture and eventual release, and his lonely, but liberating, refugee journey in the United States as he struggles to rebuild his life while coming out as an openly gay man.
The film — which follows Alsharif over the past decade since his arrival in the United States with flashbacks to his wartime service — touches on the U.S. invasion from an Iraqi perspective, the risks and punishments faced by Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military, the stresses of the refugee experience, as well as the continued persecution of homosexuals in Iraq.
"At the time we started making this documentary, I was not ready to come out as a gay man," Alsharif wrote on the documentary's website when the film was first released. "I wanted to protect my family and was more worried for them than I was for myself and the gay community. You may know that the culture and religion in Iraq prohibits homosexuality.
"When I heard the news in 2012 about what was happening in Iraq regarding the killing of gay men, I decided that someone needed to step up and help stop the craziness. So I took this chance to give a voice to the problem by telling my story."
The 68-minute film by Oakland-based independent filmmaker Erin Palmquist won "Best Documentary" in the March 2018 Cinequest Film Festival. In May, Palmquist brought the movie for a special showing at Channing House.
Residents there said they were greatly impacted by Alsharif's story.
"I didn't really know much at all (about his story), so the movie was exciting and shocking and horrifying," said Helene Pier, a retired teacher and six-year resident of Channing House. Pier said it was only on her second viewing of the film that she fully grasped the complexities of Alsharif's story, particularly the fact that he said he endured torture by the United States.
Alsharif's story starts just after 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As the son of a diplomat who had spent part of his youth in the United States, Alsharif spoke excellent English and — initially with encouragement from his family — signed on as an interpreter with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government that was established after the invasion.
Not long after, he began receiving threats because of his work.
"If you help the Americans, you will die," Alsharif was told. When his family's home was bombed and his younger sister injured, his family felt certain it was in retaliation for his work and disowned him for their own safety.
"I realized the suffering (my family) had because of me," Alsharif said. He continued helping the Americans, but moved into a U.S. compound to protect his family from further harm.
Alsharif developed friendships and a loyal following among the Army officers for whom he worked.
"He saved our group's lives many times," said U.S. Army Col. Robert Nicholson, now retired. "He proved to be an expert guide, wise counsel and trusted friend."
But one day without warning, Alsharif was taken by U.S. military police, searched, handcuffed and imprisoned in a small cell, accused of being a double agent.
He allegedly was forced to stand blindfolded and was questioned while being hit with stones. Other forms of coercion, including having a bag placed over his head, were used as well, he said. Asked repeatedly whether he was hiding something, Alsharif declared out loud, for the first time in his life, "Yes, yes, I am hiding something. I'm gay."
Alsharif said he was held in detention in a box less than 3 square feet for 75 days until Nicholson tracked him down, finding him in isolation, much thinner, with a beard and his hair grown out. Nicholson vouched for him and was able to secure his release. Alsharif believes he was detained because of suspicions that his family's ties to the old regime made him a possible double agent, suspicions he insists were unfounded.
After he was released, he spent several years as an illegal immigrant in Jordan before relocating to the United States as a refugee.
After arriving in San Francisco in 2008, Alsharif was able for the first time to live as an openly gay man. But he struggled with loneliness and the distance from his family, who had not been supportive when he came out as gay. When he was tagged on Facebook in a gay club, his mother and brother in Iraq asked him to delete the photos.
The movie explores continued homophobia in Iraq.
"Having a gay son is a big thing, a big shame for the whole family," an Iraqi friend explains on camera, adding that it could affect his father's business and even his sister's marriage prospects.
Alsharif, who became a pastry chef shortly after he arrived in the United States and has gone on to supervise large kitchen staffs and cater for big events for tech companies like Google, said that he learned to enjoy cooking at home from his parents, but cooking was not seen as an acceptable career path for someone from a family of wealth. He instead pursued a degree in office management while in Iraq, according to a 2016 blog post from his then-employer, the nonprofit RAMS health agency, where he worked as a cook.
"One of my greatest strengths is the ability to be versatile, as I have a broad range of skills," said Alsharif, who has worked as executive chef at Channing House for the past year.
While deeply missing his family — particularly his 16-year-old son from an arranged marriage who currently lives in London — Alsharif clearly relishes the freedom American life affords. He's worked from afar to support gay rights in Iraq.
"When you no longer have something you're hiding inside, that's what changed me to who I am," he says in the film. "It's OK to be yourself. You may suffer, but you help other people."
For more information about the film and possible screenings in the future, go to frombaghdadtothebay.com.