BY DANIEL BEREZOWSKY
Everything is sleek and fresh at the new Google headquarters in Chelsea. A proud, 24-year old Sayid sits in the lunchroom, wearing bold designer clothes that he carefully picked this morning. He is sipping coffee, taking a break from his job as an associate product manager in one of the company’s most prestigious recruitment programs. Sayid has become successful fast.
“When I arrived as an asylum seeker eight years ago, with 30 dollars in my pocket, I never thought any of this would be possible,” he says.
His tone, however, is not filled with pride but with caution. Despite his new life, Sayid still lowers his voice each time he thinks about the secret that he has kept for decades.
Sayid Abdullaev was born more than 6,000 miles away to a family of Uyghurs – an ethnic minority that has been systematically targeted by the government of his home country, Kyrgyzstan. His grandparents had fled persecution in China, at the beginning of the 20th century, and settled in a small Soviet town by a lake, up in the mountains of Issyk-Kul, where they could live more freely. Winters were harsh to families like his, with no electricity or hot water. His father would spend long hours freezing in the potato fields, harvesting for other people while his mother would sell food on the streets.
“They never made me do physical work,” Sayid says. “Everyone around the community was obligated to do it, but instead, they motivated me to study. Even my brother got a job and paid for my English classes.”
His family had big hopes for him. When the snow melted, he would go out to the lake and tried to look past the mountains, wondering where life could take him. But his dreams of a better life were constantly interrupted by another thought: the secret he could not share.
“I remember in middle school, my biology teacher explained that there were men who had a mental disability called homosexualism. And I was literally sitting there, thinking: ‘oh my gosh, that is me.’ I felt so ashamed; my parents had worked so hard to provide for me, and yet, I could not become who they wanted me to be.”
In a country with an 80 percent Muslim population, homosexuality is considered by many to be dishonorable. But in 1990s, when Sayid was growing up, it was also a crime. As a newly independent state, Kyrgyzstan kept many of the laws of the Soviet Union, including the sodomy prohibition that penalized homosexual acts with up to two years of prison.
“It was better to be a killer or a rapist,” says Sayid. “You’d hear stories of people who were put in hospitals and kept away from society.”
The law has made progress in the past few years, but the reality that gay men face remains hostile and crude. According to Kyrgyz Indigo, a local LGBT organization fighting against discrimination, “sexual, physical and psychological violence remains a major challenge, which is almost ignored by the state.” On a joint submission to the United Nations during the 2015 Universal Periodic Review, the nonprofit noted that “torture against LGBT people by law enforcement authorities is systematic.” Homosexuals are often detained illegally, beat and sometimes raped by the police.
Amid this panorama, 15-year-old Sayid continued studying. Then, one day, he found hope: “I went to a library to work on an assignment, and I came across an edition of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. One of them was this designer called Marc Jacobs. He was gay, but he was still so successful.”
For the first time in his life, Sayid thought that perhaps his sexual orientation would not be associated to failure or rejection.
With renewed enthusiasm, he pursued the study of English and after much hard work, he won a competition to become the first-ever resident of Issyk-Kul to become an exchange student in Arizona.
That opened the door to a completely different world. “I met people, read different things, and I was finally able to release my shame,” he says.
A more confident and relaxed Sayid went back home after two years, only to find that while he had changed, his town had not. “I had longer hair, and so people noticed. It was such a small community, less than 50,000 people. The kind of place where everyone knows each other.”
Sayid tried to ignore them, but soon, they started making death threats. Then, one night, a group of men assaulted him.
“They took me by the lake and hit me with stones,” he says with a deeply saddened tone. “It was the most violent night of my life.”
With his life at risk, he had no option but to leave his family and his country behind. “I already had a U.S. visa, so I flew back to America.” With $30 in his pocket and the contact information of the family that had hosted him a few years earlier, he arrived in the United States. When he saw no other choice, he requested asylum.
The U.S. government estimates that 3,500 LGBT refugees arrive in the country annually and another 1,250 are granted asylum each year. However, supporting a claim solely based on the individual’s sexual orientation, is extremely complicated.
According to HIAS, an advocacy group for refugees in several states, applicants must have experienced or have a well-founded fear that they will experience persecution as a result of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership to a particular social group.
Additionally, the lack of standards often exposes LGBT refugees to discrimination from immigration judges, some of whom may be unsympathetic to LGBT rights in general, according to the Rainbow Welcome Initiative Report published by the Hartland Alliance.
After President Donald Trump issued his first travel ban on immigrants from seven countries in January, human rights groups and LGBT activists warned that Sayid and other LGBT immigrants seeking asylum would face a treacherous future. The administration has not attempted to limit asylum claims of homosexuals who face persecution in their home countries.
In the case of Sayid, the request was made based on his ethnicity. “Even then, I was not ready to come forward and admit who I was in an official document. Everything would become public; it would be on my record for all to see”, he says.
Sayid’s case, however, was exceptional. With the support of his host family, he was able to continue his education and sometime later, he would end up attending one of the U.S.’ most prestigious education centers: the University of Pennsylvania.
“I got to go to an Ivy League school; I got to work at the U.N., and now I am at Google. What else could I ask for?” he says in a candid tone.
Last September, he even had the opportunity of his dreams: to personally meet fashion designer, Marc Jacobs. “He is a fantastic person. He was intrigued by my story and he said that he wants to help. I think we might even put a project together,” he says.
Nevertheless, Sayid recognizes that he was lucky. “I feel uncomfortable saying that I represent LGBT refugees because my reality is very different to most. Many come to the U.S. without speaking English. They are put in detention centers or end up becoming sex workers.”
While not many of such cases have been documented in the United States, the Women’s Refugee Commission has found evidence of LGBTI refugees in countries like Lebanon, where gay men and teenagers have had to resort to sex work –often for as little as two dollars- to survive.
Sayid feels fortunate, but one cannot miss his nostalgic tone when he speaks about home: “I have not seen my father or brother for almost eight years,” he says. Even with a green card on its way, he is not allowed to return to the country where he sought asylum from, and his traveling documents acknowledge his refugee status.
“I cannot travel outside of the U.S. right now. I worry that, given the new policies, they will not let me back in. But I am also afraid that my country will know that I am a refugee…the government could take it on my family.”
After having rebuilt his life over the last eight years, he also has an additional fear: if Kyrgyzstan were to approve the necessary reforms to reduce discrimination based on sexual orientation, the U.S. could terminate his refugee status and send him back.
“The hate is still there; the intolerance cannot be changed overnight,” he says somberly.
Lunch time is over and Sayid prepares to go back to work. But before he does, he reflects: “I used to think that things were impossible. But now I’ve put an apostrophe within. Now it is ‘I’m possible.’ And so, everything could happen. That is my motto.”