"Where are you?" I texted frantically. I stared expectantly at my dark phone screen, impatiently waiting for it to come to life. I knew that today only one person could understand my profound disappointment. Our vision had just been shattered, and for a moment, I seriously doubted our ability to piece it back together. It was over. We had lost. But could it really have been for nothing? In those minutes before my friend’s message lit up my phone, I knew I had a decision to make: fight or flight. I had chosen wrong before; I refused to make the same mistake. A buzz directed my eyes back to the now-glowing screen. “Library. Coming?” I took a deep breath and reached for my phone. “Be there soon.”
When my friend Sayid Abdullaev approached me to apply for the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural President’s Engagement Prizes — a $100,000 grant awarded annually to Penn seniors to design and implement engagement projects during the first year after graduation — I hesitated. Sayid's suggestion for a project required me to immerse myself in something I had gone to such lengths to conceal in the past. Luckily, the necessity of our project inspired me to be brave.
The initial concept for our project, AsylumConnect, was born out of Sayid’s personal experiences as an LGBTQ asylum-seeker from Kyrgyzstan now living in the U.S. Our premise was simple: to support people seeking political asylum in the U.S. because of sexual orientation or gender expression. In addition to providing small grants to cover basic living needs, we would accomplish this by creating the first website and mobile app specifically designed for LGBTQ asylum-seekers. These platforms would feature a centralized catalog of available LGBTQ-friendly services by location, themed educational webinars, and animated how-to videos.
As we combined our distinct experiences into a singular effort to advance AsylumConnect, the line separating us from our project faded. What I uncovered during my research — what I was hearing from existing organizations and LGBTQ asylum-seekers — deeply affected me. Because the reality is so sobering, it altered my worldview and rearranged my priorities.
It is still illegal to be gay in 77 countries. LGBTQ people in these countries are imprisoned and subjected to “corrective” action, including rape by government officials, public humiliation and the death penalty. Upon arrival in the U.S., LGBTQ asylum-seekers can face abuse in detention centers. Many have nowhere to go, no social support, and end up homeless. They cannot legally work in the U.S., nor are they entitled to a government attorney without a work permit, which typically takes at least one year to obtain. An estimated 44 percent of LGBTQ refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
I became deeply aware that I had failed to speak out for more than a decade in a country where I at least had that choice. And with this realization came painful memories. My mind traveled back to when I was 15 years old, sitting in mandatory religion class at my Catholic boarding school — my least favorite part of the day. I felt my palms sweat as I nervously glanced around the classroom. A monk stood at the blackboard, equating homosexuality with bestiality and necrophilia. His words, sharp as knives to me, were blunt instruments to the surrounding faces, used merely to convey the severity of the aforementioned “sins.” Shame washed over me. As I pretended to be fascinated by the chips in the wooden exterior of my desk, I silently marveled at how easily my peers seemed to accept our teacher’s words. Oblivious to my discomfort, they vigorously scribbled each homophobic thought into their notebooks to ensure an A. I vowed once again to never come out.
As my own story began to intersect with those I encountered for our project, the President’s Engagement Prizes became more than just a competition to me. It became a chance for self-redemption and a rare opportunity to improve the lives of the thousands of LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. With this transformation, losing was no longer an option. Even after the award recipients were announced and our names were not among them, I remained unable to accept
Consequently, both of us know what it is like to deny who we are, and we are willing to fight to prevent others from going through similar experiences. We may not have won the grant, but I won this realization. This is not a loss. This is a beginning.
KATIE SGARRO is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and an incoming student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the cofounder and codirector of AsylumConnect. If you’re interested in more information on AsylumConnect, contact Sgarro at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look out for the AsylumConnect Facebook page and preliminary website soon.