Friday, January 2, 2009

They harassed me. They beat me. They set my family’s home on fire - twice.

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"They harassed me. They beat me. They set my family’s home on fire - twice." These were among some of the events that led 24-year-old gay man Pape Mbaye to flee his home in Dakar, Senegal and seek refuge in New York. In July of 2008, with the help of Christopher Nugent, an international immigration lawyer with Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C. where he is a senior pro bono counsel specializing in refugee and asylum cases, the United States government gave Pape refugee status. This represents one of the rare documented instances when such protection has been granted to a foreigner facing persecution based on sexual orientation.

Ed interviewed Pape in early December with the help of a French translator in the offices of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York (IGLHRC).

"I am a Muslim and god made me the way I am," Pape explains when asked a question about his faith. "I do not understand why other Muslim’s do not accept this - it is not something I can or want to change. They are afraid - but of what I am not certain." The room falls silent for a moment. "But I am making a new life now here in New York. I am an artist and I have my music and my dance - I just performed my first show here. It felt good. People liked it. I will do more," he expresses with astounding determination.

Clearly, Pape misses his family but talks with them as often as possible. His cell phone is his life-line to family in Dakar and his new family in New York. Starting from scratch, as all refugees must, he is rebuilding a life with resourcefulness and optimism. Living in Manhattan isn’t easy or inexpensive. "I currently have financial help from the International Rescue Committee and other Senegalese friends here. I also seek a job as an entertainer, a model or in fashion design," he explains.

Ed tells Pape about plans to visit Dakar in order to get a first-hand look as part of research for the play Rights of Passage. The room falls silent once again and Pape’s eyes express alarm and he shoots a wide-eyed look in Ed’s direction. "I would not do this. You will be in great danger. If they learn of your purpose they will kill you or you will just disappear." In a later conversation, Pape’s attorney Chris echoes this warning and adds that a visit to Dakar could also put other lives in jeopardy as well. Anyone discovered talking with you about gay life in Senegal could become a target.

As the interview was drawing to a close Pape agreed to let me snap a few photos of him. He felt right at home in front of the camera. As he posed, his warm smile filled the room. It seemed almost impossible to grasp all that he has endured and even harder to imagine his struggles yet to come.


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