Coming out on the other side – resilience, patience and a drive to persevere
I fled my home country, Jamaica, in 2010 after an innocent display of love between myself and my then boyfriend appeared in the national newspaper.
Soon after, a gang of twelve men, some of them my peers from school, chased and nearly beat me to death.
Homosexuality and sex between men is a criminal offence in Jamaica carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment or hard labour. I had a tough decision to make – leave my mum, family and country to be able to love freely and openly in a world where it was safe or remain in a place where I risked my life for simply being who I was.
I knew that I had to leave Jamaica very soon after and although I was due to return to the UK to complete my university studies, this time I wouldn’t be coming back. I knew that I could claim asylum in the UK on grounds of my sexuality, but what I didn’t know was how to begin, who to approach for help and how terrifyingly scary the process is. I had not told anyone that I was claiming asylum and once I arrived at Gatwick airport I declared my intention for the first time not knowing what to expect.
The asylum process is one that, for me and many others, is daunting. But to choose to seek asylum and refuge in a foreign country is a necessary choice – a choice between life and death.
One of my greatest fears upon arriving in the UK was the possibility of being placed in a Home Office detention centre. There are countless stories of LGBTI people who face abuse and neglect not only from other detainees, but also from the staff who are meant to protect those in detention. Although I count myself lucky for not having been placed in such a centre, this is the real-life experience of many others like myself who have claimed asylum in the UK on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity, only to be disbelieved by an interviewer and subsequently detained or sent back to their home countries.
The fear of the unknown is something I think we all can relate to, and the process of claiming asylum fills you with just that. Whilst awaiting a decision on my claim, I was unable to work and earn money to maintain a living. So, of course, during the months that I waited each day with bated breath for the postman or a call from my solicitor, I became extremely isolated and withdrawn. This led to depression and other long-term mental health issues.
This is the reality of an asylum seeker: existing in a state of limbo for months or even years, forced into a prolonged period of poverty and disenfranchisement.
Coming to a country where attitudes towards immigrants are already negative is difficult in itself. but being a black, gay asylum seeker, I was left to feel even more marginalised by society; left to feel less than or “other” in the community.
Unable to find support in a foreign country, and with no support from friends or family back home, I was left wondering if the decision to flee the life I had in Jamaica was worth the shame I was made to endure in this new place. And yet, there was hope!
I was granted refugee status and it felt as if a colossal weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I began to see a promising future ahead. I knew I had come a long way, but what I didn’t know was that I still had further, longer and even harder roads yet to travel.
Even after receiving refugee status, the all too common problems of homelessness, poverty and isolation were still imminent. I was still questioned or even denied access to public services such as housing and healthcare – not because I wasn’t entitled, but because there was a lack of knowledge and a general negative attitude from service providers when they realised I was a stateless person, a “refugee”.
After going through a long and gruelling process, refugees come out on the other side with resilience, patience and a drive to persevere. In many ways, this is a true testament of character.
Having gone through many periods of instability and homelessness, I struggled to find services that addressed the issues relating to LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees. A quick search via Twitter brought me to Micro Rainbow International (MRI). MRI was able to offer me safe, temporary accommodation in its safe house, which is the first of its kind in the UK. I was soon put in touch with their social inclusion and peer support groups, and then began volunteering with MRI to coordinate the support group.
MRI is committed to ending poverty amongst LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees by encouraging them to realise their full potential.
Soon after I started volunteering, I was hired as a full-time staff member at MRI. Today, I am able to use my wealth of knowledge, experience and compassion to help advocate for and provide support to LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers. I now facilitate MRI’s peer support group, aptly named “Weather the Storm”, and have initiated a new gay men’s group called “Brothers Journey”. I see nothing but a bright and positive future ahead – not just for myself, but for all who have travelled and are travelling the same rocky road. To all those weathering the storm, I say: know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that there are organisations like MRI who are there to hold your hand along the way.
It is thanks to MRI’s commitment to empowering people like myself that I am able to write this piece and share the story of my hardships and successes. I now stand as a role model and a testament to the fact that LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers are of value and importance to society.