LGBT asylum seekers risk it all to be out

(Photos by Sara Snyder)

Jean fled Cameroon after his boyfriend died. (Photos by Sara Snyder)

Beaten and tortured for being gay, Jean, a 55-year-old Cameroonian, had vowed to change his ways after surviving police brutality that took his lover’s life.

But he couldn’t deny who he is.

Although he lived a luxurious lifestyle as an entrepreneur in Western Africa, Jean chose to leave his family, money and businesses behind in order to pursue life as an openly gay man in the United States. Once he arrived, he sought help from a group based in Massachusetts.

In 87 countries around the world, there are laws against homosexuality. While gay rights are expanding in the United States, that’s not the case in places such as Africa, Russia and the Middle East.

The estimated number of LGBT refugees and asylum seekers entering the United States each year is 4,000 and rising, said Max Niedzwiecki, leader of the LGBT Faith and Asylum Network, a national network dedicated to helping asylum seekers based on sexual orientation or gender identity. These numbers are estimates due to the sensitive nature of divulging one’s sexual orientation and the fact that no governmental agency in the United States tracks the issue.

Still, some asylum seekers are speaking out and making their cause known to the world.

From riches to rags

One such man, who wishes to remain anonymous for his family’s safety in West Africa, fled to the United States in September 2012 after years of persecution and physical abuse. He has adopted the alias of Jean for protection.

Jean flips through his passport.

Jean flips through his passport.

In an interview in Boston, Jean said he stepped onto American soil without fear because he was a rich businessman who could provide for himself once here.

After arriving in the U.S., he discovered that his bank account had been frozen and that the local government he fled had seized his money. He was penniless.

“I had respect, prestige, and was a king of my community,” he said. “Since they found out that I had a boyfriend, I am poor, homeless, my children are not safe, there is no money for their education, and I am an immigrant in a country.”

In Cameroon, homosexuality is illegal and can be punishable with a penalty of five years imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 to 200,000 francs. Vigilante justice and police corruption allow for much harsher punishments.

Gays and lesbians in Cameroon live their lives in hiding and often get married and have children as a cover, Jean said. After he was outed, his wife was forced to flee their village and is living in hiding with four of his six children. His two other children are living abroad for college.

Although Jean was living as a straight man in his own community, he would often travel to his boyfriend’s village, where they would be seen together in public. He was jailed and attacked by police officers.

“I was put into jail and beaten and tortured. Also, they mutilated our penises because they said that we were not real men,” he said. “My boyfriend died from torture and bleeding.”

More police brutality

Maddie, a 26-year-old LGBT asylee.

Maddie, a 26-year-old woman seeking asylum.

Maddie, a 26-year-old LGBT asylum seeker also living in Massachusetts, escaped from Uganda in June 2012 after local police detained her and held her on false charges.

With a college degree in business, she had been working in banking for five years while suffering through what she described as an abusive arranged marriage. She was pressured into getting pregnant and endured a divorce that ended with her parents disowning her and discovering her sexual orientation.

“They thought I was an abomination,” she said, citing her family’s Catholic faith.

After her divorce, Maddie moved to a new city and started a romantic relationship with a woman. Although they did not live together, an acquaintance found out about them raising a child together and told the police.

After arriving home from work, Maddie saw two police officers approaching her house. They did not allow her to speak, and she was taken away to a local jail, she said.

It is illegal to be a lesbian in Uganda, with a punishment of life in prison, but the police could not prove she had engaged in any lesbian activity.

That was, until the same acquaintance who tipped off the police accused Maddie of offering to pay his sister, who was a minor, if she agreed to be a lesbian.

“Then I was thrown in with the men,” she said. “The police officers told the men to ‘feed on this,’ and they gang-raped me.”

Desperate for help, Maddie told her manager at work the whole truth about her life. Though her manager disagreed with her sexual orientation, she showed compassion for Maddie’s son and offered to help.

Maddie was granted a visa to the United States for job training, but after that visa expired, she did not leave. Her son remains in Uganda.

“My boss saved my life,” she said.

Saving lives

Around the world, 72 countries imprison people for being part of the LGBT community, according to the nonprofit LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, a Worcester, Mass.-based group dedicated to supporting LGBT individuals seeking asylum or refuge. In seven of those countries, the punishment is the death penalty.

Judy Hanlon

Judy Hanlon

Pastor Judy Hanlon, the group’s co-founder in conjunction with Hadwen Park Congressional Church in Worcester, Mass., has helped more than 62 people from 15 countries around the world, including Jean and Maddie.

The organization helps eight to 12 people at a time, costing at least $4,000 a month. This includes paying rent, providing transportation to and from appointments with lawyers, and providing food, cell phones and toiletries. Hanlon estimated that the care costs about $750 per person per month.

“We also provide them with a $300 stipend, which is a sin,” Hanlon said, explaining that it simply isn’t enough. “If we gave them more, then we would help less people.”

While the government provides assistance to refugees because they apply for and are granted refugee status before entering the country, asylum seekers are not awarded the same benefits. They enter the country as tourists, students or businessmen and then apply for refugee status. Their lack of government assistance is where the task force steps in.

Hanlon’s group is equipped with two fully furnished houses with seven bedrooms that are ready for asylum seekers upon their arrival to the United States. The group helps asylum seekers for an average of six to nine months because they cannot immediately obtain work visas.

Although the process ends when asylum seekers become financially stable, they often become members of Hanlon’s church and are offered long-term emotional support.

Beyond providing basic necessities, the group also provides asylum seekers an opportunity to learn and talk about their sexuality.

“I never called myself a lesbian before I got here,” Maddie said. “I never even said the word.”

The group also provides field trips to gay-friendly places so asylum seekers can see how different the United States is from their own countries.

“Oh, my God,” Jean said of Provincetown, a gay-friendly community in Massachusetts. “It’s gay town! Man and man, woman and woman, holding hands, kissing, not hiding … ” he trailed off.

He said Hanlon changed his life, and so did the task force.

“Because of the task force, I am alive,” he said. “Without them, I am nothing. I would be dead.”

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