Date Published: October 17, 2019
There are about 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world today. 70 million people means 70 million resilience stories. This is the story of George, a man from Ghana who risked his life to be himself, and of what happened when he came to America and asked for asylum. Featuring Elizabeth Singer, MD, MPH, Director of the Mount Sinai Human Rights Program.
Hey, Jon here. Before we start, I just want to give you a heads up. This episode contains descriptions of sexual and gender violence. So if that hits close to home, please be careful. You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. This past July, producer Katie Ullman and I went to New Jersey to visit a man named George. He's this gentle giant of a guy -- mid 30s, tall and sturdy, with a big smile. If you walked by him on the street, you'd never guess that just recently he was locked in a jail cell, fighting for his life. There are about 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world today. Seventy million people means 70 million resilience stories. And today on the podcast, you're going to hear one of them. This is the story of a man who risked his life to be himself, and of what happened when he came to America and asked for asylum.
I came to the United States to seek asylum because I'm a gay, and in Ghana being a gay is not allowed. And so that was a main reason why I left my country to come to the United States.
Do you remember when you first realized that you were gay?
When I first realized I was gay I was in my primary education. I had a friend -- his name is Isaac -- a very close friend. We bathe together, we do a lot of things together. So it's like -- I became interested, but I didn't know whether I was gay or stuff like that.
Issac was older. British-born. And George fell for him. They'd meet up in the showers late at night, when everybody else was asleep. It was George's first relationship, and it was beautiful. But same-sex contact is illegal in Ghana. And even though prosecutions are rare, homophobia and anti-gay violence are common. So when another boy noticed that something was going on between them, it was only a matter of time before the culture caught up.
One guy in our dormitory, he was monitoring us, and one time he intentionally, quietly opened the bathroom door and he saw us. Most of those in our dormitory came over and they reported us to the housemaster. Then we were severely caned.
The boys were caned and expelled. Isaac moved back to Britain, and George found himself completely alone. His community and even his own parents started treating him like an outcast. Was there anything in the culture that was affirmative, that said it was okay to be gay?
No, no, no. In Ghana, in Africa, they hate gays totally. As I told you, they see you to be evil. I don't know how I should say it. "Don't get close to you!" Friends, family--all those around you. Even getting a job is very difficult. When they get to know you, you are going to be sacked. So it was like hell for me.
What happened at the school would happen again and again. First he'd meet somebody. Then they'd become intimate. And then, inevitably, somebody would find out. That's what happened with Larry, George's partner in his mid-20s. They met in the capital, Accra. Larry gave George a tour of the city, and they became friends. To understand what happened next, you have to know something about George's family. George's dad is an advisor to the local chief. He's a big shot in the community. And he's not afraid to use violence to get his way, even if you're his only child. And George's dad did not approve of George's sexuality. He wanted George to live a traditional life, and so George lied about who he was. He explained all the rumors away. And for a while, it sort of worked. Until the day George's dad caught him and Larry fooling around. What he did is hard to hear, or even imagine a parent doing to their child.
He shouted, and most of the guys, those in our community, came and they beat us severely with metals. And humiliated me --about two hours until my mom and those one or two people in our community, and also my mom begged my father. And he gave me a warning that if I don't change he's going to do worse.
After this part in the story, who could have blamed him if he decided that being himself was just too dangerous, but that's not what George did. In fact, he did the opposite. I almost couldn't believe it. George started organizing. Every month, he drove 250 miles to attend meetings of an underground gay rights organization. At the meetings, he and his friends dreamed aloud about making Ghana safe for LGBTQ people. And even though that dream seemed far away, they had hope. You had this dream of bringing people together despite the threats and the violence. What gave you the courage to do that? Can you put your finger on it?
I was having a hope. I was having to believe that with time it will come to an end.
That people will come around.
Society will change.
Yeah. That was the main reason why I still even no matter what, I was still pushing.
That was until an incident that happened in late 2017. One day, George was listening to a panel discussion on the radio. The panelists were talking about a recent murder, in which a gay man had been killed by anti-gay thugs. George listened with horror as the panelists praised the killers, saying the victim got what he deserved. George was so offended that a few weeks later, he did something he says he never does. When the station did a call-in show about gay issues, he picked up the phone, and he called in.
I told them, "What have we done? We pay our taxes. We don't cause any threat to the community." Stuff like that. "So why are you guys doing this to us?" I said it in a harsh way because I was hurt. And for what I said, those panelists got annoyed and they gave out my information, my number. That's when my life got threatened.
When George called in, he had to give his name, number and location. Standard stuff. They never, ever read it on the radio. Except this time, to get back at him, they did. And a few days later, the thugs came for him.
They came to my house, threatened that they're going to kill me. I wasn't around. That's when I got to know my life was threatened. So I left the place immediately and took a drive into Accra, which from Takoradi to Accra, it's about five hours. I left to Accra to stay with my aunt and uncle.
So that was the moment when you realized that you had to get out of Ghana.
Yeah. That was the moment I realized I had to come to the United States. I got to the point that if I don't leave the country, my life, I will be killed. So I have to.
With his decision to leave Ghana, George joined the 70 million forcibly displaced people. And on a cold cloudy day in March 2017, he landed in New York City. That's when his journey to safety took another unexpected, terrifying turn.
I came to the United States on March 23 and I made them know about my situation and I was arrested.
Right at the airport.
Right at the airport I was arrested. They had a gun on them as they were threatening me, stuff like that.
Was that a surprise to you, to get that reception?
I was scared. I didn't know anybody in America and I was told I was coming for safety and I came to them shouting at me at the airport, "You Africans that is what you do, because you want to come and stay in America," and stuff like that. If I don't say the truth, they'll put me in jail. Similar to how I was threatened in Ghana, that they'll make sure I'm locked up and arrested and I was really scared.
And what happened next? Where did they take you?
They took me in a van. There's a van at the airport in front of the gate, so I didn't see anything. I was just put in a van to the detention center.
Because the immigration system is overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers, applicants often have to wait months or even years for the cases to be heard by an immigration judge. And increasingly, the government insists that they wait in immigration detention rather than out in the community. So George found himself at the Elizabeth Detention Center, essentially a jail for migrants with no clear idea of when or even whether he'd get out.
Dr. Elizabeth Singer: 08:02
I think one of the things about being in detention, in an immigration detention center.
That's Dr. Elizabeth Singer. She's Director of the Mount Sinai Human Rights Program.
Dr. Elizabeth Singer: 08:10
That is really upsetting and disturbing is this level of uncertainty. You don't know when your case is gonna come up. You don't know how much longer you have. I have a personal experience, which doesn't even begin to compare to anything that you have gone through in a detention center, but that I had gone to see a client in Elizabeth. I was in a room with a detainee and had done a physical exam and we were behind a locked door and the detention guards were supposed to come and let us out and they forgot about us. And we were stuck there for about 25 minutes and, banging on the door and really not clear when we were going to be let out. And that was just a very profound moment and a really small glimpse into what it's like to not know what's going on.
While George waited for his court date, he worked with his lawyer to gather evidence that would corroborate his story. A forensic evaluator from the Mount Sinai Human Rights Program examined the scars on George's body to evaluate their consistency with the mechanisms of injury that he described. The clinician also provided a mental health assessment to document the long-term psychological effects of the trauma that he experienced. Conditions at detention facilities across the country vary widely. George said one of the hardest things was the fact that nobody calls you by your name.
I was never called by my name at the detention. I was bed 25. So they'll call you by a bed number until a visitor came and called me George. That was the first time I felt somebody is calling me by my name. It's horrific, man.
What are you thinking as you're there, kind of day after day?
I don't know how to express, it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy. It wasn't easy. Because I was having a belief. I thought I was going to be given a place to stay, for me to go to court and stuff like that. I didn't know I was going to be locked up in that one place without sunshine. Being locked up for several months. The food is very bad. You have a time where you have to sleep. You have to wake up. If you do any complaining, they will put you in the SHU.
That's an acronym that stands for "special housing unit." What it means in practice is solitary confinement. Act up, and that's where you go. Did you ever end up in the SHU?
One time I was really depressed. I wanted to even do something to myself. So I wrote, I was just frustrated, I was depressed, so I just took a pen on my bedside and wrote my life, to what I've been through in life. Any time I tried to find happiness, then something comes in. So one officer saw it and reported me. You don't have to write on the wall. And two officers were taking me to the SHU. And the way I started crying, the way I cried, like an officer saw me and I said I should go back, and just advise me I shouldn't -- he knows that I'm being depressed, you know, but I shouldn't give up, and I should be strong and everything will be fine.
Believe it or not, this is not an uncommon story. The guard who whispers "stay strong." Lots of migrants I've talked to have this story. It's this beautiful glimmer of humanity amid all the uncertainty and it came just when George needed it most. Finally, after seven long months, the big court date came. In the courtroom that day was George, his lawyer and the government's attorney. There's such a shortage of immigration judges that the government has them essentially Skype in from across the country. George presented the evidence he and his lawyer had gathered while he was in detention. There was no room for error. Misremembering one date, or a small inconsistency, could be the difference between asylum and deportation. After about an hour, the judge turned to the government lawyer.
The judge said he thinks I'm consistent. The immigration attorney, so far how does he see me? And he said, it looks like I'm consistent. So that was when -- after that they said, "Welcome to America." In front of the judge, I was like quiet. But when I got outside I said, "Thank you, God!"
Dr. Elizabeth Singer: 12:15
How did you feel? I'm just curious, how did you feel with this juxtaposition of like "Welcome to America" when you got asylum, but the whole time you were in detention being treated so poorly, how did you reconcile that?
It was a different feeling. Truly that one was a different feeling altogether. Especially when truly I was released and I was out. Having my luggage, that's when you feel it as truly you're out! I don't know -- the first day I did not sleep! The first day I came out I did not sleep. I was on my bed thinking about my life what I've been through up to this time and now I'm free! That's it.
I don't know how closely you follow the news or what's going on with immigration right now. I was just wondering what it feels like to be someone who's received asylum in this climate right now where there's a lot of people saying nasty things about immigrants.
If you're not being a threat, if you're being disciplined, we're doing our thing, I think they should allow us. Trust me, since I came to the United States, I try to behave. Let me use myself as an example. I try to behave, I try do the right thing. I try not to cause any trouble. I try to be careful with my life. Even though you guys will come and visit me, I'll be in my room listening to music. So I don't think, most of them, we're not a threat to the country or stuff like that.
What do you hope people who hear this recording understand about you or about migrants to this country?
You should understand that if not what we've been through, I would have stayed in my country. If not for what what I've been through. A friend of mine got burnt in Ghana for being gay.
Well I think we're very lucky to have you here, and I'm so happy for you and I'm happy for the life that's opening up in front of you.
Thank you George for trusting us with your story. And thank you Dr. Singer. Road to Resilience is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It's produced by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson and me, Jon Earle. Our executive producers are Dorie Klissas and Lucia Lee. From all of us here, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.