Guilty Until Proven Innocent: A Gay Refugee’s Confrontation With America

A Memoir & Manifesto
By Edafe Okporo

Many around the world were bewildered by the American actor Jussie Smollett’s rambling testimony during his 2021 trial for a hoax hate crime he staged in 2019, when he asked two Nigerian brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, to attack and yell racist and homophobic slurs at him on the streets of Chicago. Some Nigerians wondered: By including in his testimony the irrelevant detail of having “made out” with Abimbola — the star witness who testified against him — was Smollett exacting revenge on a man from a country where homosexuality is punishable by not just social alienation, but jail?

In his insightful memoir, “Asylum,” the Nigerian refugee and activist Edafe Okporo paints a disturbing picture of exactly how dangerous being gay in Nigeria can be. “Open the door! We know you are gay, and we are going to kill you!” are the words that startle him awake one morning in 2016. His neighbors his in the capital city of Abuja then break down his door and drag him outside, “beating me unconscious while children sang and cheered and clapped behind us. Gay! Gay! Gay!”

After recovering in a clinic, Okporo hides at a friend’s house outside the city, but within months an American award for his health care advocacy for gay men brings him unwanted publicity in a country where citizens are “encouraged to alert local authorities of known homosexuals. ” If they found his location his, he writes, “I could be turned into the police, or worse yet, killed.” Okporo buys a ticket to New York City, believing “America to be a beacon of hope, having seen gay men live their lives openly in the States.”

Okporo’s mirage is smashed to smithereens when he is marched straight from Kennedy Airport to a detention facility in New Jersey, complete with holding cells and blue jumpsuits. He learns that people who declare asylum at the US border are effectively considered illegal migrants until proven otherwise. It takes Okporo five months and 14 days to successfully avoid deportation: “I dropped my bags and ran into the road — for a moment I just stood silent and in awe of my freedom.” But exhilaration soon gives way to the realization that he has nowhere to go, no idea “where to access housing, shelter or legal support.” This book is a passionate call for a more “humane system” for welcoming refugees into a country that prides itself on fighting oppression. America “cannot be a beacon of hope,” Okporo writes, “and yet dehumanize people seeking protection at the same time.”

But missing from this argument is any acknowledgment of the existence of immigration fraud. More than 70 percent of all Nigerians say they would emigrate to another country if given the opportunity, according to a 2021 survey by the Africa Polling Institute. Anecdotally and from news reports in Nigeria, I know of fellow Nigerian citizens who have tried to claim asylum status in the United States, Canada or Britain by fabricating threats from the jihadist group Boko Haram, or from homophobic laws in the country, when they are not gay. Without judging them, Okporo should have at least mentioned the reality of these false claims, for the sake of credibility.

At 26 and with an undergraduate degree, Okporo lands in America in October 2016 without knowing who Trump is or about the history of US slavery. The limitations of his knowledge his can be jarring, like when he writes that “Africans were intentionally not taught to read by our white colonizers due to their belief that this would displace the imbalance of power between them and the natives.” While this was true for African Americans, in Nigeria the British made formal (albeit Western) education a key component of their colonial agenda, to “civilize” the natives. And describing the possibility of exorcism in his hometown of Udu as a gay teenager, he writes, “People suggested severe punishment such as being tied with ropes and flogged to drive the demon out — a direct link to the Bible: Jesus had done the same to cast the demons from the two men in Matthew.” However, in Matthew, Jesus simply commands these demons to “Go!” and they leave — no violence involved.

Still, when it comes to immigration policies and processes, Okporo knows his facts and presents them in a way that makes you want to join in his activism. “Asylum” is a disquieting account that humanizes a nameless, faceless multitude entangled in an issue with no clear end in sight.

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