‘Why Did God Choose Me?’
From New York Blade
January 25, 2002
By Kim Krisberg
Just a handful of years ago, at age 16, Waleed had a familiar internal struggle when he realized he was gay.
"I didn’t believe it," he said, adding that he thought to himself, "This can’t be happening to me. … Why did God choose me?"
It’s not an uncommon thought process for a teenager grappling with sexual orientation issues even today. But for Waleed, who is now in his mid-20s, there were no support groups, no gay/straight school clubs, no openly gay celebrity role models — nothing except fear and a future in which he would be forced to lead a split life for dread of imprisonment.
"Waleed," who told his story to the Blade on the condition that his real name not be used, was born in Egypt and spent most of his adult life in the country. To come out or have his sexual orientation discovered would be a nightmare, he says.
Waleed has come to the United States to seek asylum on the basis of persecution because of sexual orientation. As part of his agreement to cooperate for this story, Waleed also insisted that his actual age, where he lived and worked in Egypt and the name of the college from which he graduated be disguised. He would not allow any photos to be taken of himself that would show any identifying features, allowing a photographer to shoot him only from behind while he wore a borrowed coat.
Told that a reporter had forgotten to bring a tape recorder for an interview, Waleed said "good," adding that he would not have allowed the interview to be recorded because he once hosted a radio show in Egypt and fears that his voice would be recognizable or matched.
To ponder this type of situation — that the Egyptian government could somehow obtain the tape recordings of a Blade reporter and then match them with old radio broadcasts — may seem over the top. Yet this is the type of extreme paranoia that Waleed has developed. He knows if his secret is found out while he is in Egypt, his life will be over.
A look at recent events in the Middle Eastern country as well as quick look at a Web site for gay Egyptians shows that Waleed’s fears are well founded.
The Web site GayEgypt.com displays this prominent warning: "Guess who’s watching? EGYPTIAN STATE SECURITY! Try to avoid always logging on from the same location!" Below that: "Boycott Egypt — Don’t Finance Torture!"
On the area of the site that advises tourists on where to go to experience gay Egypt, the site has another warning: "Following the imprisonment with hard labor of 23 men for their alleged sexual orientation and continuing widespread torture and intimidation by police we reluctantly advise and ask all tourists not to visit Egypt."
The site is referring to the May 2001 arrest of 62 men, of which 52 were later charged with "perverting religion" and "obscene behavior" and put on trial as alleged homosexuals. Most of the men were arrested on the Queen Boat, a known gay gathering place on the Nile in Cairo. In November, the verdicts were handed down in a State Security Court, where the verdicts cannot be appealed: Twenty-three of the men were convicted to between one and five years of hard labor and 29 were acquitted.
The men who were arrested had their names, addresses, and photos printed in Egyptian newspapers. In Waleed’s opinion, their lives ended then.
"They’ll want to die once they’re released [from jail]," he said. "They’ll have no appetite to live, that’s for sure."
Waleed collected a host of newspapers and clippings from America and Egypt about the "Cairo 52" case. On the cover of the magazine Al Ahram al Arabi, a weekly sub-publication of Al Ahram, Egypt’s highest circulating national daily newspaper, was a story about the "Cairo 52" case. The cover said (translated from Arabic): "Be a pervert and Uncle Sam will claim you." A sidebar to the story includes comments from a doctor who says the most modern cure for homosexuality is to "iron their anus" and causes for homosexuality are listed as the Internet and exposure to Western culture and television. Later in the article, an Islamic religious figure says gays should be dropped off a high cliff or burnt to death.
When he first read these articles in Egypt, he says he was embarrassed to even have the paper because he thought everyone would know he’s gay.
Waleed’s paranoia and fear rose to extreme heights during the arrests and trial of the 52 men.
"This thing is getting smaller and smaller and closer and closer, and I felt like I was going to get caught in it," he said.
He quickly changed his cell phone number because he knew the police were grilling the arrested men for the names and numbers of other gay men. That’s how the systematic gay witch-hunt works in Egypt, Waleed said. Those arrested for alleged homosexuality are interrogated and sometimes tortured to give out the names, addresses, and phone numbers of other gay men.
Waleed has been on the Queen Boat twice and said every time he went to a gay gathering place, he felt unsafe. On one of those occasions, he and a friend were on the boat when a rumor began circulating that the police were coming. Waleed and his friend high-tailed it out of the club. On their way out, they began speaking in English to avoid the police since non-Egyptians are never arrested. He remembers that the police stopped the people directly behind him and asked for their IDs. He said that people were so scared they began jumping off the boat into the Nile just to get away from the police. As he relates the incident, Waleed’s facial expression shows his disgust: No one goes swimming in the Nile — it’s too polluted.
He tells the story of a friend in Egypt whose parents discovered he is gay. Waleed said the friend’s mother became semi-paralyzed at such a shock, and the father sent his friend to a mental clinic. Now out of the clinic, Waleed said his friend stutters and is severely depressed and ashamed.
But Egypt’s crackdown on the gay community is not a new phenomenon; Waleed said he was arrested and charged with alleged homosexuality in 1997. Driving through a suspected gay cruising area, Waleed said, he picked up a man and then drove to a different area and stopped the car. Soon the police arrived and began harassing Waleed simply for being in a car with another man. The police, he said, then began beating Waleed’s passenger, trying to force him to confess that the two were about to indulge in a sexual act. The passenger finally confessed at the police station after both were arrested.
Waleed said he spent the night in jail and was interrogated about being gay, but he refused to admit it. He instead told the police the he was only giving the man a ride. The next morning his father’s friend called a lawyer and Waleed was released the next evening. He said he has no idea what happened to his passenger.
Waleed’s experience with the police and his arrest was not as severe as the experiences of the men of the "Cairo 52," but the scandal had a serious affect on Waleed. After the May arrests of the men, Waleed said, all he could think about was getting asylum in the United States. He wasn’t sleeping or eating, and his life was being engulfed by paranoia.
"I was described as a freak because I was paranoid about everything," he said.
Then on Sept. 21, Waleed traveled to the United States with the purpose of applying for asylum. Even though it’s obvious that Waleed loves his country as he talks about the bustling city of Cairo with its 16 million inhabitants and the beautiful architecture and thousand-year-old historical sites, it’s also clear that he is desperate to lead a life without worrying about someone finding out he is gay.
"It’s been too humiliating and too degrading for me to ever want to live there," he said. "I am very optimistic that I won’t have to return — I can’t even think about it."
He adds, "If anyone were to be granted asylum, it should be from Egypt."
Asylum request, appeal denied by INS
In 1994, U.S. attorney general Janet Reno made it possible for gays to seek U.S. asylum by recognizing them as a "particular social group" persecuted in some countries. The U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees requires countries to grant asylum to anyone who faces government persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or "membership in a particular social group."
Waleed and his immigration attorney, Elizabeth H. McGrail, didn’t think Waleed would have much trouble gaining asylum, considering the highly publicized anti-gay abuses happening in Egypt.
"Egypt is the most compelling [case for asylum] insofar as in the state acting to get rid of homosexuality," McGrail said.
McGrail has worked on a number of asylum cases based on sexual orientation and said none of the countries from which her clients sought asylum were as flagrant in their anti-gay abuses as Egypt. Among the nationalities that McGrail has helped are asylum-seekers from Uzbekistan, Russia, Ukraine, Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, Pakistan, Iran and El Salvador.
As part of his application for asylum, Waleed was required to fulfill four prongs of a test. Those four prongs were:
Waleed said he believed he fulfilled those requirements beyond question. He is gay; he has already been arrested as a result of his homosexuality, so his persecutor is aware of him; the Egyptian government has clearly demonstrated its capability to pursue and persecute gay people; and that government has publicly announced its inclination to rid the country of gays during the trial of the "Cairo 52."
Waleed and his attorney went to his asylum interview at the Asylum Office in Northern Virginia in late November. They had previously sent in Waleed’s asylum application with a host of evidence of his persecution, including dozens of newspaper clippings from papers around the world documenting Egypt’s anti-gay abuses. They both hoped that the asylum officer in charge of Waleed’s case had gone through the evidence thoroughly. Now, they both believe she had not.
McGrail said the officer’s questions revealed that she had little experience with gay-based asylum cases. One instance which made the officer’s ignorance clear was that she seemed very surprised that Waleed didn’t tell his friends in Egypt he was gay, McGrail said.
Several calls to the supervisor of the Arlington Asylum Office, William Logan, were not returned by Blade deadline.
McGrail said she believes that if the officer had studied Waleed’s application, she would never have asked such a question. Part of gaining asylum is the ability to prove a well-founded fear of persecution and that that fear is reasonable by looking at documentation of a country’s condition for gays, which McGrail said is the hardest thing to prove. But in Egypt’s case, she said, that was not a hurdle.
"Egypt is the one country that has the most documentation on statewide persecution [of gays]," she said.
A few weeks after the interview, Waleed’s attorney received a "Notice of Intent to Deny" his asylum request from the Arlington Asylum Office. The interviewing officer did not believe Waleed’s was being persecuted for being gay.
Among the reasons the officer gave was that Waleed had visited the United States on two previous occasions and had returned to Egypt from the two trips without being harmed. In the notice to deny, the officer also wrote: "You stated you never had problems when you were in school because you always kept your feeling under control. You stated you associated with guys and girls while you were in school and you had no problems." The letter also stated that Waleed had not proved that there is an inclination on the part of the Egyptian government to harm him. Nothing in the letter talks about the highly publicized arrests of alleged homosexuals in Egypt.
The Immigration & Naturalization Service gives applicants a chance to appeal a denial and Waleed and his attorney both wrote letters of rebuttal to the denial.
In his letter, Waleed wrote: "What more do I need to say or provide for you to understand my severe mental suffering, deep depression and fear of persecution because of my country’s increasingly repressive and abusively violent regime against gays and against those who are merely suspected of being gay?" He ends his letter by saying: "All I am asking for is freedom; the basic dignity of being myself, for I am craving for a normal, productive life, the one any human deserves to have."
McGrail’s letter addressed what she called the officer’s failure "to include any reference to the substantial documentary evidence of current conditions in Egypt. Both applicant and applicant’s attorney urged the interviewing officer to read the material submitted." McGrail also made the point that current conditions in Egypt would give Waleed a reasonable fear of future persecution, something the INS does not think he has proven.
The INS also ruled that Waleed’s arrest in 1997 would be prosecution, not persecution, since Waleed was arrested because Egyptian police thought he was breaking the law. Waleed’s attorney wrote in her rebuttal notice that he was arrested for being gay, which is persecution.
"The Service fails to understand the difference between prosecution and persecution," McGrail wrote. "While punishment for a crime cognizable under an established legal system ordinarily will not constitute persecution, a state cannot hide behind its sovereignty and recognized authority to justify acts of violence against or oppression of its people."
In response to how Waleed was able to return to Egypt on two previous occasions without encountering harm, McGrail wrote: "Applicant survived his return to Egypt only by hiding his sexual identity. Country conditions that require an individual to renounce or hide an essential part of his identity constitute persecution."
Waleed and his attorney sent in their rebuttals to the denial and waited for an answer. In late December, Waleed received a "Final Denial Request for Asylum." The INS concluded that Waleed’s arrest did not constitute past persecution. The letter stated, again, that after Waleed’s 1997 arrest in Egypt he left the country twice and returned both times without harm.
"This shows that the government has no inclination to persecute you for any reason," the letter said.
But Waleed said he believes that the INS is not taking the time to investigate and understand his case thoroughly. To make his point he reads this line about his arrest from the final denial notice: "You admitted to the police that you were gay and you were released on bond the next day when your father paid your bail." Waleed said he would never admit to Egyptian police that he is gay and made that clear to the INS during his interview process. Obviously, Waleed said, the Asylum Office was not paying proper attention to the details of his case.
"This is the most egregious misapplication of asylum law," she said.
The final denial cannot be appealed, but Waleed is going to re-file for asylum. He has met with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the group has decided to take his case and assign him a lawyer.
The look on Waleed’s face as he talks about his asylum denial reveals utter disbelief. It’s like he’s in limbo: Every time he thinks about the freedom that he has in the United States, the thought is overshadowed with the looming threat of being returned to Egypt and a life of hiding.
"If they cared or understood to care," he said, "they wouldn’t do this to me