Home Covid-19 Covid-19 News Nigerian refugee creates N.Y.C.’s first full-time shelter for asylum-seekers

Nigerian refugee creates N.Y.C.’s first full-time shelter for asylum-seekers

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Before Edafe Okporo based New York City’s first and solely shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees, he was wandering the streets of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a refugee with nowhere to go. Although he was homeless, Okporo was joyful to be within the United States.

“Everything just changed when I stepped my feet into this country,” stated Okporo, 30, an LGBTQ activist who fled his homeland, Nigeria, in 2016, “because there is an opportunity to dream of a better future, to have a path here as a gay man.”

Okporo grew up in Warri, a metropolis in southern Nigeria. Not solely was he poor rising up, however he additionally struggled together with his sexuality. When highschool classmates found that Okporo was inquisitive about boys, he stated, they outed him to his dad and mom, who made him bear conversion remedy.

Image: Guest lay in beds provided at the shelter. (Zac Hacmon)
Image: Guest lay in beds supplied on the shelter. (Zac Hacmon)

Later, whereas attending faculty in Enugu, Nigeria, he organized a gathering with a person he had met by means of a relationship web site. What he thought was a date, he stated, turned out to be a “siege.” Once he was inside the person’s condominium, he stated, a bunch of males jumped out of a closet and held him hostage whereas they stole cash from his checking account.

“That was the first time I realized that it’s not just that my parents were trying to prevent me from being gay,” he stated, “but they were trying to protect me from such kind of persecution.”

Nigeria, a former British colony that gained independence in 1960, is one among 68 U.N. member states that criminalize homosexuality, based on the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

Many such legal guidelines are considered rooted within the British Empire: According to a report published in the Cambridge Review of External Affairs in 2014, former British colonies are “much more likely” to criminalize same-sex acts than different international locations. Since 1999, nevertheless, some elements of northern Nigeria which might be ruled by Sharia regulation punish gay exercise with “caning, imprisonment or death by stoning,” based on Human Rights Watch.

Traumatized by the assault, Okporo spent the remainder of faculty forcing himself so far women. He joined a church and even turned a pastor. But after he graduated in 2014 — the identical 12 months Nigeria made same-sex relationships punishable by as much as 10 years in jail — he determined he might not reside a lie. He moved to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, the place he helped discovered the International Centre for Advocacy on Right to Health, an LGBTQ rights group and HIV clinic.

But Okporo’s activism made him a goal. One night time in 2016, alone in his condominium, he was startled awake by a loud noise. A mob, he stated, was ramming down his door. They rushed in, dragged him into the road and beat him unconscious. Some good Samaritans discovered him, noticed his ID card and carried him to the clinic the place he labored.

“When I woke up in the clinic, I knew I had to leave Nigeria for me to be safe,” he stated.

After fleeing to Dubai after which returning to Nigeria, he obtained a visa to attend the International LGBTQ Leaders Conference, organized by the Victory Institute, in Washington D.C. — an opportunity to hunt asylum within the U.S., the place same-sex marriage had just lately been legalized and which he pictured as “a very accepting place.”

Image: Clothes at the RDJ Refugee Shelter thrift store. (Zac Hacmon)
Image: Clothes on the RDJ Refugee Shelter thrift retailer. (Zac Hacmon)

That picture, he stated, turned out to be totally different from the fact. Okporo approached an admission officer at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and defined that he was in search of asylum. He stated the officer took him to an airport jail cell, the place he was compelled to signal deportation papers.

“The officer came and he put handcuffs on me,” Okporo stated, “and drove me to the detention center in New Jersey.”

Okporo would spend 5 harrowing months in a detention middle in Elizabeth. Immigration Equality, a bunch that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ and HIV-positive immigrants, linked him with a lawyer who helped him struggle deportation in court docket. After profitable his case, he was launched from detention, however he had nowhere to go.

His solely useful resource was a telephone quantity marketed on a flyer tacked to the wall of the detention middle. The quantity belonged to First Friends of New Jersey and New York, a company that helps detained immigrants and asylum-seekers.

A volunteer picked Okporo up and drove him to a YMCA shelter in Newark, New Jersey. He used a pc on the public library to attach with a former colleague from the International Centre for Advocacy on Right to Health, who was residing in Queens, New York. She agreed to let him keep together with her for three months whereas he discovered work, first at a New Jersey-based catering firm after which at a close-by HIV clinic.

But Okporo needed to do extra to assist asylum-seekers and refugees like himself. He persuaded the leaders of the RDJ Refugee Shelter in Harlem — named after homeless advocate Robert Daniel Jones — to show the shelter right into a full-time transitional refuge for migrants fleeing violence and persecution overseas.

Housed in a former church, the shelter is New York City’s solely full-time refuge for asylum-seekers and refugees. The 10-bed shelter has supplied momentary housing for greater than 80 migrants, stated Okporo, the shelter’s director. The shelter additionally gives authorized counseling and job help.

The variety of refugees within the U.S. is the bottom since 1980, based on the Pew Research Center. The Trump administration final 12 months capped the number of refugees permitted into the U.S. at 18,000, down from 30,000. The administration additionally enacted a rule final 12 months that prevented immigrants from claiming asylum within the U.S. if they didn’t first attempt to declare it in a rustic they handed by means of on their method to the U.S. border.

Late final month, a federal decide dominated that the restriction was illegal. However, a newly proposed rule would permit the Trump administration to disclaim asylum to immigrants who’re thought-about public health dangers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under these restrictions, Okporo stated, asylum-seekers would face extra limitations coming to the U.S. than ever earlier than.

Image: A bathroom at the shelter. (Zac Hacmon)
Image: A rest room on the shelter. (Zac Hacmon)

“The pandemic has given the administration an opportunity to really close the door for a lot of the refugees and asylum-seekers who usually expect America to be that place of safety when they think about fleeing their countries,” he stated.

Not everybody fleeing homophobic and transphobic violence overseas is from a rustic that criminalizes homosexuality, he stated, noting {that a} majority of these housed within the RDJ Refugee Shelter who’ve acquired asylum are from Honduras and Jamaica. While intercourse between males is outlawed in Jamaica, same-sex exercise is authorized in Honduras. Still, LGBTQ migrants, significantly those that are transgender, face widespread persecution in each international locations, Okporo stated. Many non-LGBTQ migrants, he added, are fleeing war-torn areas.

All too usually, LGBTQ asylum-seekers who make the journey throughout the border find yourself homeless, he stated, as a result of household and pals with everlasting residence within the U.S. is not going to open their doorways to them.

“Most of them face a kind of rejection even from their community in New York,” Okporo stated. “The shelter provides them that space to be themselves even in New York City.”

Okporo, who has a level in food science, considers himself fortunate. Many asylum-seekers shouldn’t have the schooling or correct documentation to qualify for jobs or shelter, he stated. Transgender asylum-seekers and refugees within the technique of transitioning are particularly susceptible, he stated, as a result of they usually lack documentation and frequently expertise discrimination and violence in shelters.

“Knowing that New York is one of the most liberal places in the world and people are still subjected to such kind of persecution just makes me wonder where else in the world can LGBTQ migrants be safe,” he stated.

Image: Edafe Okporo and Juan, a guest at the shelter for asylum seekers in New York City. (Zac Hacmon)
Image: Edafe Okporo and Juan, a visitor on the shelter for asylum seekers in New York City. (Zac Hacmon)

Okporo is a finalist for the David Prize, an initiative of the Walentas Family Foundation that awards grants to New Yorkers who’re making a distinction. Okporo stated that if he’s chosen, he’ll use the cash to broaden the RDJ Refugee Shelter, which subsists largely on grants and donations. He would additionally train religion leaders round New York City to make use of their church buildings, mosques and temples as locations of refuge for migrants fleeing violence and persecution.

Okporo not feels the necessity to disguise who he’s.

“I have wanted to be open about my sexuality all my life,” stated Okporo, who’s unashamed to carry fingers together with his boyfriend, Nicolas, once they stroll the streets collectively. “There is no way I’m going to hide it.”

In June, for the second 12 months in a row, Okporo shared his story throughout NYC Pride’s annual LGBTQ celebrations, which this 12 months have been digital. He has additionally written a guide, “Compassion is Worth More: Using Your Civil Power to Create Change.” He stated it is necessary for individuals to take heed to the struggles of LGBTQ migrants, who’re unable to vote, and to know that the struggle for civil rights didn’t finish with marriage equality.

“When I came to the U.S., I discovered that some states, they have laws that permit conversion therapy. I was shocked. … In the U.S., I thought that gay marriage had eliminated such kind of struggles,” he stated.

“A lot of gay people in America after gay marriage think that it is over,” Okporo added. “It’s not over.”

CORRECTION (July 26, 2020, 11:30 p.m. ET): An earlier model of this text incorrectly described Okporo’s hometown of Warri. It is a metropolis of greater than 500,000 individuals in southern Nigeria; it’s not a village.

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