The story of Edafe Okporo is one of the fortunate cases of an LGBTQ+ Nigerian fleeing from persecution in his home country.
These were the words that Edafe Okporo heard as four men pounced on him at night in a small community in Delta state.
In a country where jungle justice prevails, it would be easy to think Okporo was a thief caught in the act. He was not. His crime? Edafe Okporo was beaten and left for dead because of his sexual orientation.
His story is one of many in Nigeria's homophobic society. However, while many are persecuted, hounded because of their sexual orientation and forced underground for fear of physical attacks, Okporo escaped to freedom. This is his story, a tale of walking in the dark and hoping for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Edafe Okporo was born 27 years ago in the oil-rich city of Warri in Delta state. The city has been at the heart of Nigeria's cursed relationship with crude oil as it has witnessed its share of unrest, militant activities and violence.
Warri, one of the hot spots of the unrest in the Niger Delta made a vivid impression on the young Edafe Okporo. "Growing up in Warri was interesting, difficult and fun. Warri has [always] promoted masculinity as [the] norm, because of the [different] ethnic and tribal wars for natural resources it shares, with crude oil being …the…[backbone] of Nigeria’s economy" he told A Nasty Boy (an alternative lifestyle website) in March 2018.
"I experienced the 1990 crisis and [those in the] 2000’s during the dawn of the new millennium and it was very difficult to adopt these narratives, so I could not live in Warri for a long time. [I] had to move in with my aunt when I was just 10 years old so I could continue my higher education" he further said in the Q&A feature.
In 2008 Okporo gained admission to Enugu State University of Science and Technology where he studied Food Science and Technology. He graduated in 2013.
In 2014 his sojourn into helping the LGBTQ+ community in Nigeria began when he became a program officer offering free legal aid and HIV/sensitization to sexual minorities in rural communities in Nigeria. Being in the forefront exposed to him the realities of the situation at hand.
"I never realized how difficult it was to be a member of the Nigerian LGBTQ+ community before I started this job," he told the site
"When I sat in this role, I discovered the reality of being a member of this community, receiving calls daily of people being blackmailed and mob attacks" he also stated.
"It resonated with me that almost all members of the Nigerian LGBTQ+ community experienced the difficulty in being acknowledged as human, this empathy for the community pushed me into being a better advocate. Being of the community and living in the community, is different from not being a member of the community and working for the community" Edafe Okporo also explained.
LGBTQ+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning. The + sign stands for 'more' such as pansexual, asexual, gender queer amongst others. LGBTQ+ is the umbrella term used to represent non-heterosexual people. The initials keep evolving to accommodate more types of people.
Speaking to Arise America in 2018, Edafe Okporo narrated how his front line experiences with homophobia, "In 2014 when the anti-gay law was passed in Nigeria, there was a prevalence of HIV/AIDS among gay men. This became a crisis."
Alleged gay men were beaten in the state capital after the passing of the homophobic law. Non-state actors took the laws into their hands.
Edafe Okporo created a non-profit in Abuja for gay men to access health care services. It wasn't a smooth ride as he suffered constant persecution from the government. Three months before he left Nigeria, his organization was raided by the environmental protection agency in Abuja.
In 2014, when the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013 was passed, Edafe Okporo was assaulted in his home state. After picking up his NYSC call-up letter in Enugu, Okporo was on his way back to Delta.
He arrived Asaba late in the night and decided to sleep in the motor park. A friend of his, however, provided accommodation in his home.
"The address he sent me was in Ibuzor, Delta State, a town very close to Asaba but not actually in Asaba. I got off the bus, which took about fifteen minutes from Asaba to Ibuzor, and called him. He sent an Okada to pick me up. The guy on the motorcycle drove me into the dark—as usual, a small community with no electricity and with few lampstands—but my mind was not troubled because that was a usual setting in most Nigerian villages" he recounted.
It was a trap. "Then the next sound I heard was a slap in my face. 'Hey, get down from the Okada, bloody faggot.'" A gang of four men used sticks to beat him and threw stones at him also.
"I was not afraid because I thought, I have met my doom. This would be the last day my parents would see me, my family who was happy that the last child had broken the curse and was going for NYSC. All hope of my family having a child with a college degree had been lost because of my identity" said Edafe Okporo.
After beating him, they pushed him to the road for a truck to run him over. The leader of the gang left him with these words "This will teach him a very good lesson, bloody faggot."
Edafe Okporo did not die. He continued doing his work in the LGBTQ+ community which did not go unnoticed. In October 2016, he won the Omololu Falobi award for his contribution to Public Health and Equality.
With the good also came the bad. As a human rights activist working for the first LGBTI organization that provides services for gay men, he was a constant target for homophobes.
The angels were with him that night. His LGBTQ+ work "led to persecution in my community to be brought down dead or alive. People were after me saying I should be brought down for advocating against their religious beliefs."
When things really got heated up he had to leave the country for fear of his life. Luckily, he had a US visa to attend an award ceremony, an invitation which he could not honour. Now, with a US visa, he travelled to Cairo to JFK Airport in New York asking for asylum.
"The community was calling for my execution, so I had to flee. I had a U.S. visa, and that was the only travel document I had to travel with" he told VOA in November 2017.
Sadly, Okporo's journey does not have a happy ending here. When he landed in America, 'the land of the brave and the home of the free' had become the land under Trump. America which once welcomed immigrants with open arms now turned its back on them.
On arrival, Edafe Okporo was alone with no one want to meet. He had no friends or family in North America. He also had no money. "I was told I was going to a jail. I was handcuffed, hands and legs, and thrown into a bus. So when I was taken to the detention centre, it was just a little box that I had to stay for six months. I couldn't come out."
The detention centre he was taken to is the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. A news article on NBC New York's website describes the centre as having "unhygienic and unsanitary conditions."
According to the article "toilets are separated by three-foot tall wall barriers that allow others to see individuals using the bathroom." This is backed up by Edafe Okporo who says there is a 'privacy wall' in showers and toilets that do not stop a person from seeing what others are doing. The bad conditions at the detention centre made the young activist depressed and lonely.
"I got alone. Lonely. … I've never been in that kind of isolation before. You are instructed on what to do and what not to do. And they are giving you food to eat, whether you like it or not, you just do it" he said to the VOA.
During his detention, he learnt about Immigration Equality, an LGBTQ+ immigrant rights organization. Immigration Equality helped Edafe Okporo secure the services of a law firm to help him win asylum in America.
Waiting for the decision, Okporo's fate hung in the balance. He couldn't go back home to a family that had cut him off and a homophobic country that nearly killed him. At that time also, America wasn't the warmest place for LGBTQ immigrants to come in. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"If I lose, I would be returning to my country. If I win, I would be released. Where would I be released? I was depressed because of my family … I do not have communications because my family do not accept me because of my sexual orientation" he said.
Luckily he won his asylum case and started a new journey of uncertainty. "When the judge granted me asylum it was awesome. I was granted asylum by 10 am and was released 11 pm at night. They just opened the gate and just said 'go'. No protocols. The detention centre is in the middle of nowhere" he said in his VOA interview.
With all he had been through, Okporo did not allow the reality of him being alone in a foreign country that has been taken up by anti-immigrant fever to break him down.
In his Q&A with A Nasty Boy, he said: "That was a trying time in my life, but the light shone so brightly when I was released from detention."
During his time in the detention centre, he started writing a book about his life experiences. In March 2018, the book 'Bed 26: A Memoir of an African Man’s Asylum in the United States' was released.
Edafe Okporo describes it as "the story of how I fought my way out of constant persecution and reclaimed my freedom. It is my hope that by sharing my experience and my pain, you will begin to understand why people are forced to immigrate. This is a revealing memoir and empowering manifesto, with contributions from other asylees, refugees, and Nigerians."
Now, Edafe Okporo is the Director of the RJD Refugee Shelter in New York and is helping raise awareness detained immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community in Africa.
Nearly murdered because of his sexual orientation and cut off by his family, Edafe Okporo braved the odds to travel to a country that had become unfriendly to not only immigrants but the LGBTQ+ community.
He survived the ordeal and today he is helping others pass through the dark journey and see the light at the end of the tunnel.