By Melanie Nathan, March 30, 2015
After years on the run a young lesbian couple from an African country, surviving terrifying persecution, miraculously made their way to San Francisco where they are seeking asylum. They will no longer be waiting in the wings as their dream to marry will soon be realized.
Back in 2012, I wrote an article, “Lesbian Couple Under Siege Flee African Country,” and this is an update to that story.
The lesbian couple from Angola, who fled for their lives back in 2012, finally made their way to the United States, after years in limbo and a long harrowing journey. While seeking asylum, they are planning a wedding at San Francisco City Hall, for later in April. They may be the first asylum seeking lesbian couple to marry at San Francisco City Hall.
For many months I bore personal witness to some of their persecution. We would connect on Skype in the early hours of the morning, and I would see the mayhem outside their house window, where crowds of neighbors would gather, calling for their demise.
Mari and Cara fell in love over seven years ago. Their outing, first among family members, turned into many years of persecution, the story often too painful for them to repeat.
Their arrival in San Francisco may be what has saved their lives, yet the challenges ahead are daunting. They have no money to pay their way beyond a couple of weeks.
Under the law, an asylum seeker is only able to apply for a work permit six months after the date that the asylum application is filed. It usually takes at least 3 months to find pro bono legal services and then at least 1 to 2 months to prepare the cases for filing.
Mari and Cara have been surviving on the generosity of a few community members – but it is not nearly enough to cover their immediate and urgent needs.
Over the past few months we have managed to find ad hoc temporary accommodation through the generosity of local community both in San Francisco and West Marin County, to include that of a gay filmmaker, a gay couple in San Francisco and two straight Jewish families who provided host accommodations in West Marin County.
They have also now been provided with top notch pro bono legal representation from attorneys at the Cooley Law firm, who have agreed to take both of their asylum cases without charge.
We all know that LGBTI people are persecuted in almost every African country. What many may not realize is the fact that there are very little mechanisms in place to help people to exile. There was very little help to escape the extreme situation suffered by Mari and Cara; and now very little in the way of resources to resettle here in the Bay Area.
Mari and Cara’s Flight Story:
After falling in love and seeing each other for some time, Mari and Cara’s parents found out they were in a lesbian relationship. They were kicked out of their respective family homes.
One night, after making contact, Mari’s mother invited them back to her home and they thought her invitation was conciliatory. However that night after eating a dinner cooked especially for them, they both became violently ill. The food had been poisoned.
They miraculously survived and fled to another part of Angola. However because of their appearance and perceptions by community they suffered extreme harassment and became targets, wherever they stayed.
As time went by the persecution heated up. Mari, with clear tomboy looks, could not walk on the street without derogatory comments and serious threats.
After they had rented a new apartment and started a small business, their circumstances soon became a matter of life and death.
The neighbors assumed they were lesbians and in a relationship. Their dog was poisoned, epithets were written on their walls, their business equipment was stolen and destroyed and they were told “we are going to rape and burn you.”
Survival became impossible.
Then the siege in earnest began, day and night for months neighbors would cut off the electricity and their water supply and each time it was repaired it would happen again and again.
Soon neighbors prevented them from leaving the house. Groups of people would appear intermittently outside shouting slogans and threats. Their food began to run out and they had to take risks to go on the streets in a nearby area to sell their belongings to survive.
They lost all ability to function normally and to work to sustain themselves. They would take turns to sleep and at night one would sleep while the other would sit by the oddr armed with a hatchet, their only weapon.
As we spoke in the many late hours on Skype, I bore witness to the banging on the door, the threats, the mayhem on the street outside and their sheer terror. They taped images of the siege on a mobile phone, showing men lingering outside their apartment. One such video shows a man sitting for hours under their window, threatening them while exposing himself and masturbating.
There were times when the power would be cut in the midst of our Skype calls and I wondered if they had made it through the night.
They did not dare to call the police. Being gay could be interpreted as illegal under their country’s Penal Code. Their biggest fear was being detained by police and separated. Their country has a much feared police force renowned for its autocracy and corruption.
I sought help for them from various authorities including the U.S. Department of State, at the highest of levels. I asked a few members of the LGBT community for ideas, solutions and for money. I reached out to organizations asking if they had emergency funds. There was no financial help and no strategy by any organization in the USA to help LGBTI people in this predicament. There is no such thing as an asylum visa to the USA.It is because of this story and several other cases which I have worked on that African Human Rights Coalition was born.
Persecuted LGBT people have to find their way abroad, in circumstances where it is usually impossible to obtain visas and/or earn enough money for air tickets. The only other option is to become a UNHCR refugee in another African country, which has enormous hardship for lesbians who are advised to keep out of refugee camps.
After their first attempt at refuge in South Africa it became evident that asylum there was not a viable option, and after further hardship, they finally made their way, miraculously, to San Francisco.
While we have great talk of support of these very human rights issues from our President and the U.S. Secretary of State, very little has filtered down to those in urgent and desperate need and people like Mari and Cara have, in effect, had no help getting to the U.S.A.
The good news is now the Mari and Cara are safe – here in West Marin and are overjoyed that they have finally found the opportunity to seek asylum and live as a regular couple, free to marry in the city of San Francisco. And so the date for this historic wedding to be held at San Francisco City Hall has been set.
However their needs are great.
Their current host accommodation expires in April and we are urgently seeking a place for them to stay in the East Bay or anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. West Marin is remote and not conducive to a new life especially at the time when they are able to obtain work.
One also cannot lose sight of the fact that their freedom and the happiness it brings is bitter sweet and heartbreaking, as both Mari and Cara reflect back on the loss of family – and that is where we as a community must step in. We are their new family. We are asking all our friends, the faith based affirming community and the LGBTI community and allies to come out in full force to support Mari and Cara.
Please do what you can to spread the word – so that we can give Mari and Cara a warm LGBTI welcome, respite from their trauma, and a memorable wedding day. With much healing yet to come, and enormous work to conclude asylum applications – I have every faith that our religious and LGBTI communities will pull together to help them through the journey ahead – and what will still be months of great difficulty. Please help to make their wedding day magical!
Mari and Cara are afraid that notwithstanding the rejection and persecution by members of their families back home, they still fear homophobic stigma and reprisal against their families and so have chosen to use pseudonyms to protect them.
A huge big thank you to the Cooley Law firm for taking on this case, pro bono, with the solicitude, zest and passion it so deserves.
Contact Melanie Nathan – Nathan@AfricanHRC.org
We have established a Wedding and Life Fund for Mari and Cara at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/wedding-and-life-for-lgbt-asylum-seeking-couple/x/9186720 (CAMPAIGN ENDED)
Updated THE WEDDING April 17, 2015.: