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A refugee's fight

A refugee's fight


Abused for years by his homophobic father, 12-year-old Alvaro Orozco ran away from home in Nicaragua and eventually sought asylum in Canada. His claim rejected, he was to be deported in February. But a crusading queer civil rights lawyer stepped in and saved him--at least for now.

In a cramped downtown Toronto office, Alvaro Orozco sits across from his lawyer, El-Farouk Khaki. The doe-eyed Orozco, a native of Nicaragua who at 21 could easily be mistaken for a teenager, smiles as he shows off the medal he just received for participating in the five-kilometer run at April's North America OutGames in Calgary. Orozco has also brought back a gift for Khaki, a piece of amethyst crystal the young man says will bring "good energy."

Without his own remarkable energy, Orozco might not be in Canada--or anywhere. Raised by an alcoholic father who beat him daily for being gay, Orozco ran away from his home and family in Managua, Nicaragua's capital, in 1998, just before he turned 13. He hitchhiked up the Pan-American Highway through four countries and swam the Rio Grande river into Texas. Once in the United States, Orozco was held in detention centers in Texas and then bounced from Dallas to Miami to Buffalo until he reached Toronto in January 2005. There he filed for asylum on the grounds that he would be persecuted for being gay if he had to return to Nicaragua.

But in October 2005 a member of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board--an official of one of the most liberal governments in the world--rejected Orozco's asylum claim because she did not believe he is gay. Such a denouement may seem implausible, especially given the arduous life of Orozco, who was 20 at the time. But for countless gay and lesbian asylum seekers worldwide, it's all too ordinary.

"I was stunned by the decision," says Khaki, who did not represent Orozco at the time but has since gotten his deportation, originally scheduled for February 2007, postponed until August while an appeal is prepared.

Many in the Canadian media are echoing Khaki's questions about the ruling and the reasoning behind it. There's a precedent for granting asylum on the basis of sexual orientation in Canada as well as in the United States and other countries. However, in making her decision, the immigration official, Deborah Lamont, cited the fact that Orozco had not been sexually active with other men--as if sexual activity were the only "proof" of his gay orientation.

"If you are straight and you don't have sex--are you any less straight?" Khaki asks. "Some of the questions he was asked during the refugee hearing were just inappropriate. How can you ask a 20-year-old why he hasn't been sexually active since the age of 12?"

Unfortunately, Orozco's prior team of public defenders was not equipped to argue his case before Lamont--who, to make matters worse, conducted the hearing by videoconference from her office in Calgary. It wasn't until February 2007, when the young man was about to be deported, that Khaki, a well-known gay Muslim activist, came aboard. With his help, Orozco may just manage to stop running at last.

Why can't Orozco go back to Nicaragua? The answer reads like a suspense novel. Born in 1985, Alvaro knew at 7 that he was gay. His father--who regularly beat the child's mother--realized it too. So he started beating the boy in hopes of making him straight. "If...any one of you is a faggot, I will kill you with my own hands," Orozco recalls his father telling him and his four brothers.

"On TV," he adds, "I saw that it was illegal in my country to be gay." In 1992, Nicaragua amended its penal code to make homosexuality punishable by up to four years in prison.

As Orozco goes on, he begins to stutter. It happens every time he talks about these things. "I was so scared," he says. "I remember going to church--my family is Catholic--and many times I heard the priest say that gay people will go to hell. It was then I knew I had to leave, that I couldn't grow up here. I couldn't wait until I was 18."

He ran away, even though his friends thought he was crazy to do so. "I was in military school," he says, "and my favorite subjects were history and geography. So I took a few maps out of one of my geography books and mapped out my trip."

He hitchhiked his way through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. At each stop he would go to the local church and tell them the story of the violence he suffered at the hands of his father. Members of the church would give him shelter, feed him, and help him find odd jobs. He never mentioned his sexual orientation for fear that the good church people would turn their backs on him.

Orozco swam across the Rio Grande and set foot on American soil in 2000 in Texas, where he was picked up by U.S. immigration officials and thrown into a detention center for illegal alien minors in Brownsville. He was 14 and spoke no English.

Soon Orozco was transferred to a facility for homeless and immigrant minors in Houston run by Catholic Charities. Officials there told him that the U.S. government did not want illegal minors to become citizens. Orozco met with an immigration officer who even threatened to sabotage any asylum claim. So he escaped from the facility and landed in Dallas, where he lived with a Nicaraguan family for a year, working odd jobs in gardening and construction, and at a lamp factory. He also joined a church-affiliated Boy Scout troop.

It seemed as if Orozco was finally starting a life of his own. But on learning that authorities in Texas were aggressively going after illegal immigrants--it was after 9/11 by then--he decided he'd do better in a city with a larger Latino population. While on a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with his Scout troop, Orozco slipped away and took a bus south to Miami.

During his five years in the United States, he had tried without success to get a lawyer to take his case. To make matters worse, he was so used to hiding his sexual orientation, he never told anyone he was gay. He didn't realize that his case might have been stronger if he had mentioned the violence he'd suffered because he was gay.

In the end, it was Canada, not the United States, that captured Orozco's imagination. On the Internet he found information about Canada's immigration laws and gay-friendly political environment. He took a bus from Miami to Buffalo, N.Y. With the help of Buffalo-based Vive, an interfaith group at the Canadian border that helps refugees from around the world, and its shelter, La Casa, he settled in Toronto.

In those cosmopolitan environs, Orozco began living as an openly gay man for the first time. He made gay friends; he joined a gay church. He enjoyed freedom he could never have imagined back in Nicaragua.

Then in October 2005 the refugee board rejected his asylum claim, and everything changed again. "I found the claimant left Nicaragua in order to secure a better future for himself elsewhere and fabricated the sexual orientation component to support a nonexistent claim for protection in Canada after having already been rejected in the United States of America for his past dysfunctional family life," Lamont wrote in her ruling.

"As a result, I found the claimant could return to Managua, find a place to live away from his abusive father, and that there is no more than a mere possibility the claimant would be persecuted there."

Orozco's first reaction was visceral. "I was scared," he says, his stutter worsening. "I remember what happened back home. It's not easy for me, thinking about my father. I can't imagine going back there. And I didn't understand why [Lamont] didn't believe I am gay."

A February 2007 editorial in the Ottawa Citizen, the daily newspaper in Canada's capital city, questioned the board's conclusions. "The question to ask Alvaro Orozco is not whether he's had romances with men," it read. "The question is whether he'll face persecution as a homosexual if he returns to Nicaragua.... There may indeed be valid reasons for Canada to turn down this application. But it is unreasonable to demand proof of love life from young people who ask for asylum based on sexual orientation."

El-Farouk Khaki, 43, is not what one might expect. His practice is housed in a dingy office building atop a pizza joint on the outskirts of Toronto's gay neighborhood. On the day of this interview, his purple-and-black plaid jacket is paired with black leather pants. He wears multiple rings and earrings--and a goth-looking black-and-silver wristband.

Born in Tanzania, Khaki was 7 when his family had to flee because his father became a target of the dictatorial government. Their displacement--first to London, then to Vancouver, Canada, where he eventually went to law school--makes him unusually sympathetic to a clientele dominated by gay and lesbian asylum seekers.

"My own journey was that of a person of color, an immigrant, and a Muslim," Khaki says. "Then by coming out, I became a minority within a minority." But, he adds, "I'm still privileged in many ways, so it is my responsibility to use that privilege to open doors for others."

Orozco's case, he says, is typical. "It is a common experience of many of my clients, especially around Alvaro's age. Not only do they suffer societal violence but rampant violence in the home."

Khaki is preparing three lines of appeal. On one front, he's asking the board to reopen the case based on the board's failure to recognize Orozco as a vulnerable claimant. On another, he hopes to show that Orozco has already established himself in Canada and that removing him would cause undue hardship. Lastly, a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment will be filed to show the risk involved in sending Orozco back to Nicaragua.

"Hopefully," Khaki says, "one of these will be successful" so that Orozco will be able to stay in Canada.

According to The [Toronto] Globe and Mail, of the 228 Nicaraguans who sought refugee status in Canada from 2002 to 2006, 35 were approved. It's not known how many of those claims were based on sexual orientation, but the paper notes at least two of those granted asylum--Managua activist Yader Manzanares and his partner--are gay.

"Canada recognizes persecution based upon sexual orientation, so we haven't seen many cases being refused on that basis," says Gloria Nafziger, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Canada. She adds that Nicaragua's law criminalizing homosexuality--even if Amnesty doesn't know of anyone charged under it--"creates a climate that allows for the persecution of gays and lesbians and makes it more difficult to seek help from the police when you're in danger."

For now, Orozco is attending counseling sessions mandated by the board. ("They fail to appreciate that the effects of physical and emotional violence are not rectified in a few months' time," Khaki says ruefully.) Orozco continues to work, meet new people through community organizations, and even date. Meanwhile, August 9, his current deportation date, approaches.

The question that looms in everyone's minds is what will happen to him if he is sent back. After all, Khaki and Orozco note, the Canadian media coverage of Orozco's case has been translated and published back in Nicaragua, a new element of risk that did not exist when he first filed an asylum claim.

Walking down Yonge Street, Toronto's main thoroughfare, Orozco watches the crowds on a busy weekday afternoon. "I love Toronto," he says. "It's so diverse here. So many different people from different places, and no one cares. There's so much tolerance here, even compared to the United States."

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