Photo by Steven Laxton/stevenlaxton.com; artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle.
Welcome to Yahoo Lifestyle, Pride Edition, commemorating June — Pride Month — with a collection of stories celebrating the resilience of LGBTQ people, from celebs, including Adam Rippon and Karamo Brown, trans women finding their inner power through a unique beauty clinic, and queer youth finding vital support from their gay elders after aging out of the foster system. And so, as they shout in the streets: “We’re here, we’re queer — get used to it!”
There are countless reasons why people seek asylum in the United States. Some people leave their home countries to escape gang violence, others leave their homes due to persecution based on religious or political beliefs. Some people leave their countries because of war or famine, while still others leave because they are gay or transgender.
In recent weeks, many Americans have had their eyes opened to what the process of immigration to the United States looks like — particularly under the stringent laws of President Trump, with children taken away from parents, prisonlike detention centers, and a caravan of over 1,000 individuals traveling through Latin America on a journey to the United States border.
In 2016, 84,989 individuals came to the United States requesting asylum; 20,455 were given permission to stay. One of those people was Edafe Okporo.
Okporo, 28, grew up in Nigeria. He came here seeking asylum after his life was endangered because he was gay. “It was not safe for me to live in Nigeria anymore,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I had to flee.”
Okporo’s sexuality first became an issue in his community when his parents sent him to an all-boys secondary school. “I behaved kind of feminine sometimes, and they wanted me to experience how it is to be masculine,” he remembers. While at school, he had his first sexual experience with one of his classmates. “It was consensual, but because the guy was from a Muslim family, he said it wasn’t consensual,” Okporo had told the Brooklyn Community Pride Center in a video interview. Okporo was suspended for two weeks, which is how his family first learned he was gay.
His parents tried to “cure” Okporo by taking him to a practitioner of traditional African medicine. “They cut some marks on my stomach about one inch long, in about 25 different places,” he remembers. “They tried to put some medicine and say they were curing me of being gay.”
While Okporo’s sexuality wasn’t accepted in his community, it was not until years later that his life became endangered. In 2014, legislation was signed into law in Nigeria making same-sex relationships illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in jail. The bill also stated, “Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organizations or directly or indirectly makes public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offense and shall each be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years in prison.”
At that point, Okporo was working as an advocate and activist helping those in the LGBTQ community gain access to health care. His work in the field was being recognized on an international level, but in Nigeria, the response to his work was largely hostile.
Okporo was attacked on July 23, 2016. “It was actually my birthday,” he remembered in his interview with the Brooklyn Community Pride Center. “I was attacked by members of the community. They dragged me out, they beat me up, they were saying that ‘[being] gay is advocating against our religion, and we don’t want people who are possessed to be in our community.’ Stuff like that. While they were beating me up, I blacked up, I woke up the next day in a clinic. The nurse said I was brought there by an old lady who had pity on me.” He stayed in the clinic for a week, and during his recovery, he realized he needed to get out — the situation became more urgent when posters showing Okporo’s face were put around the community saying he was wanted dead or alive.
Okporo first attempted to immigrate to the the United Arab Emirates, but his sexuality was seen as a problem there as well. He already had a U.S. visa for an upcoming work trip, so he then traveled to the United States. “I had to flee,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I had the U.S. visa so I traveled to J.F.K., asking for asylum.”
Upon reaching John F. Kennedy airport in New York, Okporo was detained. “I was apprehended when I asked for asylum at JFK,” he remembers. “I was placed in handcuffs and taken to a detention center. It’s very draconian. It was really, really not what I expected. I knew that the United States was a country that has values for humanity, and I came with the expectation that my human rights would be protected at the border of a country as great as America.”
Okporo was kept in a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J. “It’s like being a dog that’s locked in a cage,” he remembers.
Today, turning his thoughts to the children being kept in detention centers at the United States’ southern border, Okporo says, “That’s the most horrible thing that could happen to a child. I experienced it first hand. Being in a detention center is horrible. It’s life-threatening even for an adult like myself. Your mental state is in trouble, because you won’t see sunlight for a long period of time, you’re being exploited as an immigrant.
“Detention centers are private prisons that are making profits off immigrants like myself,” Okporo says. “I don’t know if immigration is crueler to us because we are from Africa or because we are queer folks, but for LGBTQ persons and minorities, it’s disastrous. I don’t know how to explain that experience without retraumatizing myself.”
Okporo was lucky, as he was able to get help, and he was granted asylum. “If I hadn’t been granted asylum, I would have been sent back to my country and that would have been a disaster for me,” he says.
Okporo now lives in New York City and is the director of the RDJ Refugee Shelter, where he’s helping secure housing for asylum seekers. He also just published a book, Bed 26, based on his immigration experience. “I feel blessed,” Okporo says of his life now. “I have been able to enjoy to enjoy what it is to be free, I’ve been able to enjoy what freedom tastes like as a gay man.”
Okporo is only one story among the people who came to the United States seeking asylum in 2016 alone, and there’s no real way to know how many others share a story similar to his, seeking asylum due to their sexual orientation. “The government refuses to release data on how many people seek and/or are granted asylum based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Jackie Yodashkin, the public affairs director for the organization Immigration Equality, which helped Okporo, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So it makes it effectively impossible to have a definitive number for how many people are granted asylum based on their sexual orientation or gender identity each year.”
The human stories often get lost in the endless headlines about asylum seekers, and hearing Okporo talk about his life puts that all into perspective, “If the water is not as safe as the land,” he says. “Why would the mother push her child into the boat?”
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