Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast
Alex: Today, we’re going to be talking about immigration. The first story we’re going to hear is from Ilo Sabine. Ilo is a Latinx genderqueer person from Venezuela.
Ilo: I was in Venezuela. I used to practice medicine there. At the time I started dating this girl who is originally from New York city.
It was really nice. It was, I was very much in love and it was a very good relationship until a person in my… in our neighborhood, our neighbor kind of started getting suspicious because she was staying over in my house all the time. And she ratted us out to her family who lived across the street from me. And when that happened, our whole community found out about it.
I felt rejected in every aspect of my life. My friends and people who were like my family asked me not to be part of their lives anymore. Except when they were sick, they would call me. My girlfriend’s family, who I grew up with, basically, and who I had as my own family stopped talking to me and they asked me not only to not come visit them, but they actually asked me to move away from the neighborhood.
Added to all of this life as a gay person in Venezuela was very hard. People in general are not very receptive and they make jokes about gay people all the time. It was also, the police were a threat. I remember one time they… I was with one of my girlfriends and I… they stopped me. There was no reason for me to be stopped, but when they realized that I was gay, they tried to take my car away. I had to be really careful because they wanted to plant drugs on my car. It just… kind of to create a very difficult situation for me. The only way that I was able to get out of that was by paying.
We were targeted all the time. So whenever I went out, I had to try to be with one of my guy friends as a… what do they call it? A beard? A couple of months later, my girlfriend who was… who is from New York city, moved back. And so I was now even in a worse place because I didn’t even have her. So I try to get a visa to come and visit and try to figure out what we’re going to do with our lives and I was rejected.
A couple of months went by. I was getting more and more desperate. And one of my aunts finally reached out to me and offered to help me with some money so that I could come here and practice medicine and study. And so I applied for a student visa and I got it. In three days, I got a ticket, I said, goodbye, I packed everything and left.
Once in the U S so it was amazing for me. Suddenly I could hold my girlfriend’s hand. You know, for me, just, that was such a difference from Venezuela. I started as a student and I had a problem with my visa or something. And I was just studying to pass the boards and they told me that I needed to go back to Venezuela after a year being here.
I was horrified. It’s not a thing about lifestyles. It’s because my life was actually in danger. And the situation in Venezuela has even… that had been getting worse and worse with the regime and everything else. And as a gay person in a lawless country, it would have been fatal.
I talked with my girlfriend at the time, and we decided to seek help with immigration equality, which is a nonprofit organization that helps people like me. And they heard my story and they agreed that my life would have been in danger if I returned to Venezuela. And so they accepted my case and they helped me out.
I had to wait a couple of months before I could apply. And in the meantime I couldn’t work. And so it was very hard for me because not only I couldn’t work, but the money that I had saved in Venezuela, I couldn’t get out of Venezuela because the regime put all these rules and didn’t allow people to get their own money. So all the money that I had worked for, I had to give away in Venezuela. It was useless here. So I was pretty broke. It was pretty… it was really hard not being able to contribute and not knowing if things were going to go through or not was… it was really hard.
I was given asylum once the process started like six weeks after. It was – it was incredibly fast one of the fastest cases, I think, that anybody has seen, at least that I know of. Getting asylum was it was a huge victory for me because, well, first of all, it meant I was safe. And secondly, I could work.
Luckily enough, I found a good job which I’m still writing medical stuff and doing videos about medicine and teaching all the doctors. It’s been a very amazing change. That’s gone little by little, but at this point, 7 years after getting asylum, I feel like, well, maybe there was a reason for that or the difficulties also have their very good slide.
This year has been kind of crazy, but in the middle of all this things that are happening in the world, I got citizenship. It’s a reason to breathe even more. And it’s good to feel safe and that threat over my head, it’s kind of gone. And I still can’t believe it but it happened.
Phil: I think one of the things that really struck me about this story is what it felt like for Ilo once they found out that there was an issue with the student visa and that meant that they would have to go back to Venezuela after living in the US for a year. So can you imagine having, you know, leaving – fleeing your country and feeling so… like fleeing danger essentially, and then coming into a situation where you finally are able to sort of relax, you’re able to sort of breathe within in your own skin and be who you are and, you know, be with this person that you’re in this relationship with, and then know that you might have to go back. That must’ve been terrifying
Alex: To me it just points to, like, the precarity of that situation that just like [snaps] something in the system – that was me snapping – something in the system goes wrong, how resourced you have to be to be able to just do the paperwork or know the right person to contact, or like be able to get asylum based on whatever laws are in place under a specific administration.
Phil: So next we’re going to get into the story of Adrian Miller, who’s from Jamaica.
Adrian: I spent most of my life growing up with my mom in Jamaica. It was pretty difficult for me because I found out at an early age that I was gay. Didn’t really understand much of what it was, but I found it really difficult to accept and love myself because of what people thought of me.
My mom did the best she could, but at the same time for her, it was more embarrassing than anything else. You know, people going back to her and be like, “Oh, Nadine, your son is gay.” My dad hated my guts from the get go, from the moment he found out. And other family members beat and abused me. On a daily basis, I would be bullied. I would be fighting battles to survive. I’ve always had to fight physical fights to make it through the day.
And whenever it’s a verbal altercation, they wouldn’t use like harsh words like batty man, baby germs, maggot, you know, versus saying gay. I feel like if they said I was gay or called me gay, that would be much better.
I remember my final year in college, just before exams were finishing up, this boy just chose to pick on me, pick on me. And he was sitting behind me. I was sitting in front and he threw crumpled a piece of paper and threw it across the room and it hit me. And everybody pointed and said it was him. I threw the paper back at him and I said, “Go throw it at your mom,” pretty much. And that just made him really pissed.
We got out of school, like at 3:00 PM and I met him and two other guys at the school gate and they attacked me. So this was me wrestling three other guys, you know, because of the fact that I was gay. I remember handling them really well. Like, you know, it was going in my favor and then out to the blue one guy just came running, hit me in the head. Still have the scar to this day. And I just fell flat on the ground.
They ran off and lucky enough, the buses and cars that were passing stopped. And I remember someone picked me up and a few hours later, I was in the hospital. I woke up with stitches in the head. And at that point, I said, you know what, it’s not gonna get any better.
I was doing my finals and I wasn’t finished doing my exams and I had to flee to the United States. My partner at the time was able to fly me over to New York. And once I got here, we discovered that I’m eligible for asylum. So after visiting Immigration Equality and them hearing my story, they said, “Yes, definitely. You have a case.”
Surprisingly, sveryone at the school, in terms of like the guidance counselor, the principal, they were really working with me and helping me to make my affidavit. I would reach out to them and they would fax the necessary documents that I needed to make my case strong enough to win asylum. The hospital was able to submit a medical record of what happened. I was able to win asylum. I’m now a citizen of the United States.
Phil: So if you’re an asylum seeker, it means that you’ve left your home country because of war or some other factors, you and maybe your family has left and fled to another country for safety. The thing that, like, I really think about in this situation and something he mentions is what is it like to be in an environment where you are the minority, where you are very alienated because of who you are? And how do you day after day, sort of live in that environment when you’re just being torn down, whether it’s physically, verbally, you’re being bullied, your parents are not even on board. What does it like to live like that? It’s just, I can’t imagine how difficult it has to be.
Alex: Also when you’re going through the process of having to file all this paperwork, then having to reach out and put trust in those people or in some of those parties who may have perpetuated those things, or at least were complicit in them, maybe to some degree. It really sucks that that’s what this process requires of people to come up with that proof and that the burden of proof is on them, and that it entails having to go back and reach out to the people who treated you that way.
Phil: Who knows what could have happened? Like he could have reached out to those, some of those folks and they would shut them down, decided not to help. In this case, he was helped. But how many cases have we heard of where people won’t come to that person’s aid?
Being someone who, you know, has a Caribbean background, you know, my parents are both from Trinidad, I feel very strongly about when I hear stories like this because I – as much as I am Caribbean, that is my background, I have a really very sort of fraught relationship with being Caribbean sometimes in some ways, because I don’t really feel like that part of who I am is embraced by the culture. It is looked down upon in fact. And it makes it very hard for me because I have friends who are, you know, who are also queer and Caribbean. I have friends who… who aren’t Caribbean and just, like, think being Caribbean is awesome. And they’re like, Wow, what an interesting background! And like, yeah, I mean, but there’s always this thing with me that I’m always trying to work through with the idea that like, if I go back to Trinidad and if I go there, sure, queerness now there is… there’s more, you’ll see a little more of it there than you would have before. But there is still always this feeling of like, am I really going to be accepted? Because the other thing is, is like if I go back being someone who’s masculine of center and being there, it’s again, not always – it doesn’t feel safe. There’s like, there’s a feeling of not feeling safe.
And I feel like I completely understand with Adrian because it was as if, obviously like him coming out as gay, they were able to read him as gay and that made it very unsafe for him. In Ilo’s story, we hear more about harassment. We hear more about like being sort of like made an outcast because of the fact that they are LGBTQ. In Adrian’s story, we’re talking about actual physical violence. And again, with Ilo’s story, we don’t know, maybe there was violence there as well, but they are literally have to leave where they are. And they have to get out of there because they have to, because they’re facing certain danger. for sure. When you think about what asylum seekers go through, you just, it breaks your heart to see people having to flee for their lives in this way. It really is just heartbreaking.
Alex: The broad swaths of these stories are that they are LGBTQ+ people who have their safety imminently threatened, who are needing to get to the US. They’re getting asylum and citizenship, but of course their stories are different in so many other ways, you know, with respect to where they’re living, with respect to their identities, with respect to all of those things. But definitely drives home just how momentous these kinds of challenges can be.
Phil: When I was, you know, I came out long before now. I came out some years ago. And I have seen firsthand what it’s like for someone who is maybe like white and Canadian to come and sort of, like, immigrate here as opposed to somebody who’s Brown and from a different country, I can saw the difference firsthand with how much easier it was for the person who was white and Canadian.
Alex: It’s like, even though you could go through all the necessary steps that the government would require from you, but there are things that just are immovable to you, you know?
Phil: That’s right.
Alex: I know some people in my life who… they are LGBTQ people, but they had to seek asylum because of very urgent issues that pose an immediate threat to their physical wellbeing. All to say, like, so incredible to hear those folks’ experiences of starting over again and being completely resourceful with absolutely nothing, and then also just being completely prepared to reestablish their lives. And I feel like one big piece for me is that I would – and there are so many organizations doing such amazing work and… and activists and advocates. So I don’t want to erase all the things that they’re already doing. A lot of times, I think the stories we hear about in the media is that it usually ends at the part where you hear that somebody becomes a citizen and that’s it.
But one thing that it made me think about is how I would like to see there be more support on the other side of that. So once people are actually able to get through these systems, get asylum, maybe get citizenship to ensure that there are all of these other resources on the other side, maybe it’s from getting healthcare to being able to access education, to being able to get a good job and housing and all of these other issues that come after just these questions around being able to access the proper documentation or, you know, go through these specific legal checkpoints.
Phil: I knew these people who are trying to do it before marriage equality was actually passed and it was a thing. And so it was really – to be gay that time to be under the LGBTQ sort of umbrella that time and not knowing – knowing that you will want to be with this partner and you want to move to the US and you don’t have a pathway to that, that was really intense at that time. It was a really scary time for that, because basically what it meant was now you have to either… you have to find a way to either get to work visa, or you have to like marry someone. You know, marry a man. I’ve definitely seen that happen. And I saw several people go through the process and I saw the stress and the toll it took on them. It was really terrible.
We don’t really talk about the complexities of all that’s involved with leaving and coming here. Even if, again, they’re trying to escape danger. There’s so much that comes with it. You know, they’re an entire person that lived in life in another country. And does all of that get erased now because now they’re here?
Ilo: I think before I used to live in absolutes and I had ideas about things, how they should be and how they shouldn’t be. And now I understand that the condition of humanity is to not be an absolute, that things change. Here I am 10 years later and I feel like I’ve lived and I’ve learned, I think, to have compassion, to not judge, because we don’t know what people are going through most of the time, and the importance of empathy.
Adrian: I’m now a citizen of the United States. I’m here in New York. I’m happy. I’m doing well. I finally connected with my family who hated my guts because I’m gay. The hardest part for me right now is forgiving them and I’m learning how to forgive, but it does take time. Hopefully, one day I can move from it and love them and show them that, you know what, no matter what I still love you.
Overall, everything is good. Everything is better. And I’m happy with who I am. Better is out there. You just have to figure it out. You have to be a fighter. Because if I wasn’t a fighter, if I didn’t want to live a better life, I wouldn’t have been here in the United States, but I took a chance. I came to New York with nothing, no money, nothing, and I made it. So I would definitely just say to them, fight, hold on. Don’t give up, do your research, use your resources and figure out a way to live.
Phil: LGBTQ rights have come quite a long way. We sometimes take for granted how easy we have it and how hard it is still in so many areas of the world, but the strength that it takes a start over someplace else, even when you’re running from certain danger, that’s – that requires a lot of strength.
Alex: A single presidential administration can have a direct impact on LGBTQ immigrants, specifically when it comes to walking back asylum policies to the atrocities of the policies that are being enacted at the border in terms of detention. Also, too, a lot of the stories of trans immigrants who are being detained and abused and even dying in U S custody.
One organization that I wanted to shout out is the international Rescue Committee. They do a lot of support with refugees specifically. And one of the reasons why I want to shout them out is because I know queer folk who are inside, who are doing really amazing work in terms of trying to make their efforts more intersectional and extending them to queer and trans refugees, so they’re just one organization of the many out there that are working really hard around this issue.
Phil: I know some people from IRC as well. IRC is a fantastic organization. I think that a couple of other organizations that would be good to shout out are Outright International, which is another amazing organization. They have some resources on their website for people who are seeking asylum.
And Immigration Equality, as we both mentioned, like, in both of these stories, Immigration Equality was a resource being used by both Ilo and Adrian. And I think the last one I want to mention is LGBTQ Asylum Project, which is another organization that helps for asylum for LGBTQ folks.
The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.
Phil: The podcast is recorded as part of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQIA+ story archive, and is funded in part from TD Bank and Heritage of Pride New York.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood was created by Nathan Manske to help queer and trans people learn more about their community, help straight people learn more about their neighbors, and help everyone learn more about themselves, all through the power of storytelling. The IFD program director is Damien Mittlefehldt. The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more.
Phil: At ImFromDriftwood.org. Please follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Our score is provided by Elevate Audio. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
Alex: Thanks y’all for listening.