New York City-based activist Uchechukwu Onwa, who is gay, said that he came to the United States from his native Nigeria “to be someplace where I could be free, someplace where I did not have to be scared.”
But seeking asylum in the U.S. has been no small feat for Onwa. Although he escaped his homeland’s state-sanctioned violence, he nevertheless has spent years navigating this country’s opaque and unorganized immigration system as he now seeks permanent residency.
“I don’t know when they’re going to call me,” he said of his application process in the backlogged New York immigration office.
A rights-activist long before he even left Nigeria, Onwa fled when he was targeted by authorities for his advocacy work. Onwa coordinated an HIV prevention program, among other duties, while employed by the International Center for Advocacy on Rights to Health in Abuja. Nigeria has banned same-sex sexual relations and has no legal protections against discrimination. Penalties vary depending on the region, but they can range from imprisonment to stoning.
“My life was really in danger,” he recalled. ” … I was getting threatening phone calls and messages.”
A turning point for him was when a close friend—who had acquired HIV as the result of being raped—died by suicide. “It was a moment when I felt, ‘What’s going to happen now?'” Onwa said.
Onwa left the country after he himself was the victim of a brutal mob attack wherein his assailants threatened to burn him alive. Following the attack, Onwa was jailed. He lost his job, home, family and church as the price for his activism and identity.
“I didn’t have anything in that moment” following the attack, Onwa said.
The organization Rainbow Railroad assisted with his flight out of Nigeria. Based in New York City and Toronto, Rainbow Road assists LGBT persons around the world escape state-sanctioned persecution. Nevertheless, for gay refugees, frequently without initial sources of emotional or financial support, the U.S. immigration system presents numerous challenges.
Onwa said that the memories of a detention facility in Georgia were as triggering as the memories from Nigeria. At one point, for example, he got critically ill. When he was transferred to a nearby hospital, his legs and wrists were chained to the side of his hospital bed. Two guards were posted at the door.
“Even in my own country—where I’d beed bullied and criminalized—I had never been chained,” he said. “I just burst into tears.”
He eventually would come to Chicago, where he spent about 18 months and performed volunteer work for several organizations.
“I’m very lucky to have had community support in Chicago, but what about people who don’t have that?” Onwa asked. “I was without a job for a year. It was difficult to survive those moments.”
He moved to New York City upon accepting a position with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project ( QDEP ), an organization that advocates on behalf of LGBT and HIV-positive migrants. Aspects of the organization’s mission include connecting clients with housing resources, transit cards and various wraparound services. Onwa is grateful that he now can help others obtain the assistance he himself has needed at various times.
“This is me,” he said of the position. “This is where I belong. I’ve always wanted to give back. … There are so many people looking for help, and looking for a place where they can be free.”