From Congo to Castro UNHCR Resettles Persecuted LGBTI Activist in the U.S.A.

Welcome Home Junior!

By Melanie Nathan, December 16, 2014.

Junior at Harvey in the famed gay district, The Castro, Photo: Melanie Nathan©
Junior at Harvey in the famed gay district, The Castro, Photo: Melanie Nathan©

I first met Junior Mayema back in 2011 when I was invited to keynote speak at Cape Town Pride’s Pink Gala in South Africa. At the time Junior, approached me along the Pride parade route. He told me that he was an LGBTI refugee from the DRC (Congo) sleeping on a park bench. Junior was clearly traumatized and in great discomfort. I invited him to my hotel that night and the generous hotel management agreed to put him up for several nights so we could search for accommodations. While Junior has received some help along the way from a few individuals, it has been an extremely difficult journey, fraught with homophobia, Xenophobia, and very little compassion from community and a fully equal South Africa, alike.

It has been a 3 plus year struggle to make his way to the USA. After struggling for some time, he received some aid from a few caring individuals from abroad. And finally, after much advocacy, he was able to get help from the resettlement program of UNHCR.

Though these organizations could never provide shelter and food, the biggest need and gap in the life of a refugee on the run, they paved the way and facilitated resettlement. The only LGBTI shelter in Africa at the time, the newly formed Pride Shelter Trust, in Cape Town, refused him a bed, with few coming to his aid from within South Africa.

Now Junior is in the great caring hands of Jewish Family and Children Services of the East Bay, in California and with the help of a bevvy of volunteers, is finding his way with much zest and enthusiasm, to his new life.

Junior in the famed gay district, The Castro, Photo: Melanie .
Junior in the famed gay district, The Castro, Photo: Melanie .

It was quite an emotional experience to meet Junior when he arrived here at San Francisco International Airport on November, 20th 2014, landing at his new home on the day of the year that means so much to many LGBTI people. Transgender Day Of Remembrance, of great meaning around the world, commemorating all of those killed by anti-transgender violence – the very type of violence Junior escaped.

As I watched Junior walk through the gate the enormous accomplishment hit me; I could hardly believe that he had actually made it here to San Francisco – the hub of LGBTI acceptance. What a contrast. And what a pleasure to watch him exude excitement as he began to slowly soak it all in.

Junior, Melanie Nathan and friends from Africa meet first weekend to celebrate in Castro Harvey's Cafe
Junior, Melanie Nathan and friends from Africa meet first weekend to celebrate in Castro Harvey’s Cafe

A testament to courage and perseverance, Junior fought hard for himself and was graced with the love and care of a good few along the way. After reading this – it is my hope that many more of you will step up to the plate to help LGBTI refugees around the world, as well as asylum seekers who have finally made their way to our shores. Rest assured, we will be seeing a lot more of our global LGBTI community in dire need, as state sanctioned persecution, fueled by anti-gay laws are heating up across Africa.

I wrote about Junior back in 2011. But now here is Junior’s story as told by Tina Ghelli in Cape Town, South Africa for UNHCR:

“CAPE TOWN, South Africa, December 16 (UNHCR) Junior Mayema hid his sexual orientation while growing up in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, but when his mother discovered that he was gay her anger knew no bounds.

“My mother is a pastor and she tried to kill me. It was very intense. Imagine, she carried me for nine months and she could arrange to have me killed. I couldn’t believe it,” the 27-year-old said before flying out of Cape Town last month to start a new life in the United States, where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTI) community is well established.

Mayema revealed that his mother wrote a newspaper article denouncing him as evil and his family tied him up and tortured him. “Most of my family members and other people wanted to kill me . . . as they felt my life was a disgrace to them. I didn’t feel safe being around my own family, l felt like an outcast.”

Faced with this threat and the fact that homosexuality is a crime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he decided to seek asylum in South Africa, whose constitution and national laws safeguard the rights of gays and lesbians.

He thought he would have a much better life in South Africa than in the DRC, where he was born into a middle class family in Kinshasa, one of five children. His parents separated when Mayema was a child and he went to live with his father, who worked for an international organization.

Mayema knew he was different, but tried to conform. Meanwhile, he enrolled in law school at the University of Kinshasa. His family, especially his mother, kept asking him about a girlfriend. “The family became very suspicious and they started investigating me,” he said. When the truth came out, his life changed for ever.

Threatened by his intolerant family and ostracized by society, Mayema boarded a flight to Cape Town in 2010, ostensibly to visit a cousin, but on arrival he applied for asylum and contacted UNHCR for advice.

He soon became disillusioned with South Africa, starting with his asylum interview. “The officer said to me, ‘If I don’t like gay people, what are you going to do,'” Mayema recalled. “I thought he was going to deny me, but then I told him I had registered with UNHCR. He left to go to speak to some others and came back saying he was going to grant me [asylum].”

Hoping for an open, enlightened society, Mayema soon faced the same kind of discrimination that he had struggled against in Kinshasa. He found a place to live, but was regularly taunted by his homophobic landlord. “The landlord denied me my right to privacy; he would shout at me and only allowed female friends to come and visit me. Other tenants were treated differently. Sometimes he would beat me,” Mayema told UNHCR.

Last July, after yet another confrontation, the young Congolese went to the police to lodge a complaint against his landlord. But Mayema claimed that he was taken to the back of the police station and beaten. “I still believe in God, because if he wasn’t with me that day, I would have been killed,” he said. With the help of a local human rights organization, Mayema launched a case against the police officers who allegedly beat him.

UNHCR staff, meanwhile, had already referred Mayema’s case for resettlement when they heard of the alleged attack. Kizitos Okisai, the UNHCR resettlement officer handling his case, said it then took just four months for Mayema to be accepted for resettlement.

“It demonstrates how the international community can step up and help LGBTI refugees when they face persecution in their country of asylum and need to receive protection elsewhere,” Okisai said, while noting that UNHCR was trying to help other refugees facing a similar situation in South Africa.

Mayema, meanwhile, is delighted to be going somewhere where he will be accepted. “I want to be able to make my dream come true to become a human rights lawyer. l can only do that in a place where l feel safe.”

South Africa hosts some 65,000 refugees and more than 230,000 asylum-seekers, mostly from the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa. The number of LGBTI refugees is not known.”

Notwithstanding this account of Junior’s story, as provided by UNHCR above – there are many more details which speak to the terror and pain of Junior’s long journey, as well as many more players – both in persecution and kindness, along his arduous road. Now Junior is ready to tackle his new life with the very passion and zest that helped him to survive. He could not be broken; his passion for justice exudes, as he speaks about the future, one where he is determined to continue to make his extraordinary mark on the world.

Junior at Harvey in the Castro, Photo Note Harvey Milk's picture on wall behind: Pic: Melanie Nathan©
Junior at Harvey in the Castro, Photo Note Harvey Milk’s picture on wall behind: Picture: Melanie Nathan©
Camera and Volunteers waiting to meet Junior at SFO Pic: Melanie Nathan
Camera and Volunteers waiting to meet Junior at SFO Pic: Melanie Nathan

Copyright: Melanie Nathan© 2014.

To help LGBTI in hiding, Refugees and Asylum Seekers please visit this Campaign:
https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/lgbt-africa-relief-fund-4–2

or write to volunteer with help at nathan@africanhrc.org


6 thoughts on “From Congo to Castro UNHCR Resettles Persecuted LGBTI Activist in the U.S.A.

  1. I don’t just LIKE it … I LOVE IT! and I love you Melanie all who helped… I am not too fond of US MILLIONAIRES who won’t help… YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE! @HRC @Apple @oprah @OWNTV @NAACP @ACLU @glaad @Variety @SFGate

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