LGBTQ Africans struggle to navigate US asylum process
by Prince Chingarande
It is no secret that many LGBTQ individuals around the world live in fear of the negative implications that result from identifying outside the limits of cisgenderism and heteronormativity. For Africans living in Africa, this panic is even more pronounced as many are abused, jailed, or even murdered for simply existing as queer.
According to Global Citizen, homosexuality is still punishable by death in four countries on the African continent: Somalia, South Sudan, Mauritania, and Nigeria (in states where Sharia law applies). Only 22 out of the 54 countries on the African continent have legalized homosexuality, and South Africa is currently the only country where same-sex marriage is legally recognized by the government.
Although there has been some human rights progress for LGBTQ Africans, most recently with Angola decriminalizing same-sex sexual relationships, ill-sentiment toward queerness still runs rampant across the continent. So, many individuals are forced to leave their home countries and apply for asylum in Western countries like the U.S. and U.K., countries which, despite their queer-phobic cultures, are more accepting and safe to live in.
From Zimbabwe to Md.
Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson is a transgender activist from Zimbabwe who received asylum from the U.S. in February 2019. Before filing for asylum in the U.S., police officers had arrested her in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, after she had used a women’s restroom in a hotel. While in custody, the police officers physically tortured her and forced her to undergo invasive medical and physical examinations.
After her release from police custody, she filed a lawsuit against Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs minister, the commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the assistant commissioner of the Bulawayo Central Police Station and the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party’s Youth League, and later won this lawsuit. However, because of the mounting threats to her life in Bulawayo, she sought safety through the U.S.’s asylum process and relocated to the East Coast.
“When I compare myself to other people and friends who have been in similar situations to mine, my asylum process was extremely quick,” Nathanson mentions when speaking of her journey toward winning asylum. “I think that the most strenuous thing for me was the actual interview; it was nerve-wracking.”
Nathanson applied for asylum in 2018 after she attended OutRight Action International’s annual summit in New York, the organization of which she is a board member. She won her case and received asylum approximately six weeks after — a fairly quick result compared to numerous other cases that can take years before a final decision is reached.
Nathanson’s involvement with OutRight Action International proved to be a tremendous advantage as it provided her with an extensive network of friends in the U.S. who were able to support her asylum-seeking process and alleviate the stresses associated with it. This is usually not the case for many queer Africans who seek asylum in the U.S.
“The people at OutRight Action International were good to me, and they helped me with a bit of financial support. So, I was able to pay for my legal fees,” says Nathanson.
In addition, Nathanson’s lawyer, Elinor Tesfamariam, who is of Ethiopian descent and specializes in asylum cases, “knew what she was doing.” Therefore, her expertise coupled with Nathanson’s compelling story, provided for an airtight case that couldn’t be contested.
In Nathanson’s words, “My story spoke for itself.”
Casa Ruby hired Nathanson shortly after she won her asylum case. She is currently the D.C.
group’s director of housing services.
What does applying for asylum involve?
The asylum process is demanding. Not only does one need legal representation, but they need financial resources to pay for said legal representation and also for their upkeep and wellbeing while in the U.S. This poses a challenge as one cannot apply for employment authorization until a year after they have completed the asylum application. So, this alienates many asylum seekers from severely needed employment and leaves them financially insecure as they navigate the torrent of preventing the possibility of having to return to their home country.
For those without strong connections in the U.S., a common way of finding help, whether financial or material, is through word of mouth. Because of their popularity, organizations like AsylumWorks have become safe havens and places of provision, fulfilling many asylum seekers’ basic needs such as buying groceries, paying for rent, and purchasing gender-affirming clothes and cosmetics.
“When applying for asylum, it’s really important to have efficient knowledge of the system; knowing what to do, who to contact, how to contact them, and how the system works,” Nathanson mentions, regarding the legal aspect.
“For the process to work as smoothly as possible, you need assistance,” she adds. “You need to be able to access a lawyer who will be able to file for you because the process is very particular, and any small mistake will result in your documents being returned to you. I have a friend of mine who forgot to sign a page and after he resubmitted his documents, he has been waiting 18 months for a response.”
Because of how inconvenient the process can be, Nathanson’s hope is that the current administration will revise the asylum process, especially the time it takes to win asylum.
How asylum seekers’ needs are met
AsylumWorks is what Executive Director Joan Hodges-Wu calls “a holistic suite of wraparound services and support to help asylum seekers address unmet needs that can interfere with their ability to participate in the immigration legal process.” The organization “empowers asylum-seekers to rebuild their lives with dignity and purpose,” and provides much-needed community that helps them to feel seen and heard.
“When people think of asylum, they think of attorneys … but people forget that it is incredibly difficult to work with an immigration attorney and fully participate in the process if there are barriers impeding your ability to connect,” says Hodges-Wu.
Through Prism, an LGBTQ support group, AsylumWorks is able to help queer asylum seekers meet their basic needs so that they can adequately focus their energy into the legal immigration process.
Prism provides community for LGBTQ asylum seekers by giving them the opportunity to meet with other queer asylum seekers and forge friendships that lighten the burden of acclimating to the U.S.
“One of the problems our LGBTQ clients face is that many of them are highly distrustful, naturally, of disclosing intimate parts of their history, and their true gender, or sexual orientation,” Geoffrey Louden, Prism’s facilitator, mentions. “Or even if they’re not sure of that, coming to terms with, going into an immigration attorney and recounting their history.”
Given this, Prism hosts weekly Zoom hangouts where individuals talk about any topics that interest them. Topics can range from introspective conversations about identity to light-hearted anecdotes about love prospects.
Prism offers a safe community for LGBTQ asylum seekers to be themselves, feel affirmed, and relate to others amid queer phobia, which can be prevalent in immigrant communities. So, regardless of how tough resettling in the U.S. may become, LGBTQ asylum seekers are guaranteed some sense of warmth and comfort in this organization.