STORIES OF IMMIGRANTS
An Attempt to Portray “Wisdom,”
- an asylee from Nigeria
By SIH Social Work Intern James Vild
Is it a dream? How is it I even wake up and I can be myself? I can tell people I’m gay — I’m not afraid all the time.
Then he wonders if it was his other life that was the dream. The home of which Wisdom speaks in alternating terms: of terror, yes — and of joy.
Indeed, the two seem impossibly entwined. Back in Nigeria, Wisdom devoted all his time, energy, and any small measure of safety he might have otherwise had, to running a community center and clinic for his LGBT family. He also created safe havens, secret locations for those in hiding: one of which would later save his life.
The strategy and determination that goes into organizing under constant threat of brutality, imprisonment and death, with scant resources for a people who are terrified and traumatized, I cannot comprehend. Nor can I begin to represent the little I have come to know within the space of this brief portrait, but: I could sit at his feet for hours.
Of course, being accessible to his community for this work also meant being very out as a gay man, which put him in grave danger. Of the last of countless beatings, he tells me, “I saw death.” Having narrowly escaped with his life, he went into hiding and found his way to us here, to the United States and to Seafarers International House (SIH) in Manhattan.
“This place [the SIH guesthouse], really opened my eyes - not just getting settled, accessing material, legal, social and emotional resources, but that I was ok.” His understated style, common to so many of our sojourners, belies the harrowing reality of the trials they face, both in the homes they have fled, and in the insecurity of their lives here in the U.S., where the very notion of asylum is increasingly under attack.
I’m not sure how to relay the fear he describes, the horrors he’s seen and, sadly, experienced, without possibly painting a one-dimensional portrait that risks betraying his rightly judicious confidence or turning traumatic details into a sensationalized sound-bite for the sake of a convincing argument. Or creating shock value that risks overshadowing the love he still feels for his home, for the family he made there, how much he didn’t want to leave them.
Imagine he is sitting in front of you. He is young and lively, yet his presence is generous with a subtlety that changes the room. As he talks, his face brightens sometimes as quickly as it falls. Describing reality for himself and his LGBT family back home, he says, “Every day of your life, you wake with fear, you go to bed with fear — you don’t feel safe in your home and you’re not.” Almost in the same breath, he continues, “The joy of coming together as just us — you see yourself so liberated and so excited that you are contributing to all of this. There’s nothing that kills faster than not being yourself.”
I have long been in awe of all the ways Wisdom risked his life for the people that he loved. Only now am I beginning to understand that the same work which put his life at risk, may have also saved it.
We should all be so lucky to share in such safe haven— it’s not a shelter we provide for others, it’s a shelter they share with us. We should not only open our doors. We should sit at their feet.
The asylum seeker’s journey is fraught with danger, fear, uncertainty and hope.
Harry was forced to flee from Nigeria after his best friend was slaughtered by vigilante mobs for violating perceived tribal customs, and the word on the streets was that the mobs were coming after Harry, too. He closed his business, packed some clothes, said good bye to his parents, and fled Nigeria. He arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport in December, approached the Customs Border Patrol (CBP) booth, presented his passport and asked for asylum.
Harry was baffled and frightened when CBP placed him in handcuffs and leg-shackles and drove him to the Elizabeth Detention Center, a privately operated immigrant warehouse. Here, about 30 detainees share a dormitory room with bunk beds only inches apart. The space is always noisy, cold, air-conditioned, and lit with florescent lighting, - without access to fresh air, windows, or natural light. After a few weeks, Harry started to receive weekly visits from Seafarers International House (SIH) volunteers – total strangers, who got his name from a partner agency. Then Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) suddenly moved him one evening to the Essex County Jail without any explanation. The jail is a forbidding structure.
When the volunteers finally tracked him down and tried to visit him there, they were told that Harry first had to put them on his “approved visitor list” before they could see him. Of course, nobody told Harry about this prerequisite, and he was left to wonder what had happened to his visitors. He wasn’t allowed to receive incoming calls from the volunteers, and the jail guards wouldn’t deliver any messages from them. Harry became worried that something had happened to his visitors. Finally, he was allowed to make a collect call to them.
The SIH volunteers told him about the “approved visitor list” and he quickly rectified this and the visits resumed. Ultimately, ten months after he arrived in the United States and several court adjournments requested by his less-than-zealous attorney, the Immigration Court granted Harry his asylum on August 1.
From August 2 on, Harry stayed in one of the five rooms Seafarers International House has set aside for asylees and immigrants. With the help of SIH’s social worker intern, he navigated the red-tape and soon found a place of his own and employment with a local tourist bus operator, - all within only 63 days at SIH.
To this day, Harry visits SIH periodically to say hi to staff and to counsel new arrivals.
(Disclosure: To ensure Harry’s privacy, his name and any dates were changes. The photo shows a similar person.)
Written by Eric Porter and Kevin Tuerff
Meet Sam. After seven long months in a run-down corporate-run immigration detention center (jail) near Newark Airport, a US Immigration Judge recently granted asylum to Sam, a foreigner from Africa we befriended there in November 2017. An immigration judge issued a written order granting asylum, but it took four days before he would be released into the empty warehouse district at night, on short notice.
In June 2018, Sam took his first breath of fresh air, and finally saw the sun for the first time in seven months. After we took him out to a celebratory dinner, he was able to video chat with his worried wife, and three children, and see his newborn baby boy for the first time, back in Africa.
In October 2017, Sam was forced to flee his home and leave them behind because a vigilante group wanted him dead. If the judge had denied Sam’s asylum case, he would have been deported to his home country, and thus handed a potential death sentence. Expert testimony during his immigration hearing verified there was no way he could return home without being discovered by the vigilantes.
He came to America because he sought safety from religious persecution. Conditions inside the immigration jail are so poor, he delighted in getting one hour per week in the visitation area from Kevin, his first friend in America. Other visitors, organized by Seafarers International House’s detention center visitation program, soon followed. The visitations were a warmer, quieter and friendlier place than the 40-person dorm under a tin roof warehouse where he spent days and many sleepless nights on a plastic cot. Sam was known as “Mr. Good Man” by fellow detainees because he believed in performing acts of kindness to other detainees. He’d use his small commissary funds to buy food for others, talk with detainees who were disliked, and pray with men from different countries and faiths.
Sam came to the US with only $1,000, but somehow it was lost or stolen while he was initially being interviewed by US Immigration agents at the airport.
Sam is only free because of American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and White and Williams, LLP, a New York City law firm which donated their services to help him with his case in immigration court. Eric Porter led a team of other volunteer attorneys who don’t specialize in immigration. Like Kevin, they just wanted to help. An AILA attorney provided technical consulting to Eric and his team about immigration law.
Thanks to a referral from First Friends of NJ/NY, he stayed with Seafarers International House (SIH), which provided him with free lodging, food and Metro cards, and assistance through a Social Work Intern. In early September 2018, after only 69 days at Seafarers International House, Sam was able to move into his own place and found a part-time job.
Many individuals provided furniture and cash gifts through a crowdfunding site organized by Eric and Kevin. Yet, the struggle continues as his next big challenge is to reunite his wife and family from Africa. They are still living in fear of the vigilantes and face unpaid hospital bills from the birth of their newborn baby.
What is remarkable is just four days after he was granted his freedom, Sam returned to the detention center as a visitor to support other detainees. He hopes to start a legacy of detainees supporting each other, during and after detention, and be a mentor to other asylees at Seafarers International House.
UPDATE - Sam’s Story Continued
Kevin Tuerff, on Facebook, May 15, 2019
THIS is how to say YES to welcoming immigrants and refugees. Just after Midnight, Sam's family completed their 6,579-mile journey to reunite at JFK airport in New York City. A father held his newborn (now 11-month old) son for the first time. This is a rare success story today of a family approved for legal immigration in America in 2019.
Thanks to many donors, the family was able to immediately move into a partially furnished apartment. Just two weeks ago, the only option was a family homeless shelter. The family is extremely grateful to each person who contributed to help them in their resettlement in America. They told me they will Pay It Forward.
What I learned from the past two years is just how much help is required for each
refugee family, beyond government assistance. Another shout-out to First Friends
of NJ & NY (accompaniment, housing), White and Williams LLP(legal pro bono),
Seafarers International House (housing), Catholic Charities of New York (case
management, emergency funds, clothes, benefits enrollment and more!).
Consider volunteering to help as an advocate for immigrants and refugees.
Kevin Tuerff’s Facebook comment: And without Seafarers International House,
he would surely have been homeless. I am still blown away that just days after his
release from the horrible detention center, he went BACK to be an
accompaniment volunteer with you all! I couldn’t do this.
BED 26: A Memoir of an African Man's Asylum
BY EDAFE OKPORO
Based on a true life story, “Bed 26” narrates the experiences of Nigerian and West African gay, bisexual men and the reason they are forced to flee from their home country.
The book also talks about the experiences of immigrants in the Elizabeth Detention Center and the gap between the perceived American dream and its reality of racism, discrimination and phobia for people of color in America.
Bed 26 is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Hardcover | 6 x 9in | 90 pages | ISBN 9781984511010
Softcover | 6 x 9in | 90 pages | ISBN 9781984511003
E-Book | 90 pages | ISBN 9781984510990