Jeffry knew he was gay as a young child. He also knew he had to hide his sexual identity due to the homophobic mentality in Jamaica. The St. Thomas native said everyone in his life suspected he was gay, but never had concrete proof until a police officer saw him at a gay club and told his father, a fellow officer.
His world changed overnight.
“I was dragged out of the closet,” said Jeffry, now 24, whose last name the Sun agreed not to publish due to safety concerns.
The aftermath was quick. Jeffry was fired from his job as a teacher, he could not go shopping because people refused to frequent establishments where a gay man was, and he had to hide in his home because of the discrimination he faced on the streets. His family threw him out of the house at 17 years old, but Jeffry fought back and went to court since he was a minor. His family kept him in the home until his 18th birthday.
However, even at home Jeffry was not allowed to eat and have dinner unless he brought his own utensils and plate. At one point, Jeffry was a teenager living on the streets until a gay couple took him in and helped him through school.
He was not even allowed to worship at his church, and his congregation formed “prayer squads” in order to pray for him and rid him of the sin of being homosexual. Jeffry said about the experience, “But I am gay and there is nothing you can say or do not to be gay.”
Fortunately, Jeffry had a friend who was an LGBT advocate and able to secure a visa for him. He made a choice: “I decided that if I could be myself in America then I would go there.”
Jeffry, who arrived here in July, first heard about the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force in Worcester through his friend at the embassy who knew Pastor Judy Hanlon. His original plan was to head to Worcester and stay at someone’s house, but after telling his story to Pastor Judy and a task force volunteer by the name of Bill Kadish, Jeffry was given housing at a home steeped in history.
Jeffry has been staying at the Brattle Street “Rainbow Railroad” home since September. He said that his hometown was more like Boston because “it never sleeps.” However after living in this residential area in Worcester, he said, “I realized that I’ve become a suburban boy.”
Established in 2008, the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force was developed by members of the Hadwen Park Congregational Church on Clover Street in Worcester. The task force provides resources, food, clothing, transportation and support to LGBT individuals who are seeking asylum and refuge in the United States.
Before becoming executive director of the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force in early 2015, Polly Laurelchild-Hertig was a volunteer stage manager for Drag Gospel, an annual event in Boston that raises thousands of dollars for the LGBT community.
“The goal was to make it less difficult for people to seek asylum,” she said.
Beatings, rapes, being burned alive, and ostracization are grave dangers that gay men and lesbian women face in homophobic countries. Whether they come out willingly or are discovered as being homosexual, these LGBT individuals are persecuted simply for being themselves.
“They already have a long history of trauma behind them,” Laurelchild-Hertig said.
Not only do these individuals leave everything behind in their homeland to seek freedom and safety in the United States, but once they are in the country they become stuck in a legal limbo.
“The United States has just made it an obstacle course,” Laurelchild-Hertig said about the legal difficulties asylum seekers face.
There is a great legal distinction between refugees and asylum seekers. Asylum seekers have to apply for an immigration status with a lawyer once they arrive in the country. The laws are complicated and sometimes asylum seekers are not aware of the requirements.
Further, they are forbidden to get a work permit, and since the immigration system is backed up, processing can take more than a year to be completed. Because during this time asylum seekers are unable to legally work, many become homeless, hungry and vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Laurelchild-Hertig called the current process for obtaining asylum status a “broken system.” These individuals cannot work, but any government-funded program is not allowed to help them either.
“They [LGBT asylum seekers] are not given any help,” she said. “Any government-funded program cannot help. But they are not allowed to help themselves.”
Because of the restriction on government-funded programs, there are only three organizations nationwide that help persecuted gay men and women seek asylum status in the United States based on their gender identity and sexuality.
For Laurelchild-Hertig, one of the saddest plights of the asylum seekers is that they are not allowed to send for their children until they have filed with immigration officials and been accepted as an immigrant. This process can take up to eight years, meaning that their children grow up without them.
“Out of all the things they have suffered, the separation from their children is the worst,” she said. Being able to apply for a work permit after 30 days and changing the law regarding children of asylum seekers are improvements that Laurelchild-Hertig would like to see.
Since its establishment the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force in Worcester has directly aided 110 asylum seekers from 16 countries and has provided emotional support to hundreds of LGBT individuals throughout the world. For Laurelchild-Hertig, the best aspect of guiding the task force is “seeing the ability of someone who has been through so much being able to look forward instead of looking back. I see that every day.”
Laurelchild-Hertig is the only paid staff member of the task force. The rest are volunteers who give their time and resources. In the case of Bill Kadish, he not only gave his time to the organization, but went above and beyond when he decided to open his own home to asylum seekers.
A new railroad on Brattle Street
Formerly a resident of Shrewsbury, Kadish and his family moved to their 24 Brattle St. home in Worcester in 2009. The home is believed to have a unique history. A plaque on the facade (and Kadish’s research) suggest the house was part of the Underground Railroad and was used to help escaped slaves find freedom and safety in Canada. The couple who owned the house prior to Kadish renovated the residence, making every detail from the woodwork to the color of the walls historically accurate for the 1800s.
Kadish’s connection with the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force is very personal. In 2012, his oldest daughter, Jessica, came out to her parents. Kadish said that he and his wife were “surprised but supportive” of their daughter.
To show their support for their daughter and for the LGBT community, Kadish and his family attended the Worcester Pride Parade on Labor Day, where they first saw the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force. Inspired to help asylum seekers, Kadish joined the task force in 2013.
He described the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker. A refugee must have their status documented at a refugee camp before they even get into the United States. They receive immigration status and funding. In contrast, asylum seekers need to prove their status in order to stay.
Kadish added that those seeking asylum are “homeless, penniless, and have no services.” In most cases, they cannot even rely on their own families for help once their sexuality is revealed.
When Kadish first sought to help the task force, he was told that housing was the best way to assist asylum seekers. The Brattle Street home has two extra bedrooms and offers free housing to asylum seekers, which saves the task force about $6,000 to $8,000 per year. The idea of helping those persecuted for their differences find freedom and safety is a tradition that has been established in the home since the Underground Railroad.
To pay homage to its past, the home is fondly known as the Rainbow Railroad. Since being part of the task force network, the Rainbow Railroad has hosted five asylum seekers. According to Kadish, the majority of the individuals the task force assists are gay black men from Jamaica, Uganda and Nigeria. Currently there are two asylum seekers living in the home as they go through the immigration process.
The asylum seekers who stay in Kadish’s home are not just guests. They have become extended family. Kadish described how housing asylum seekers has impacted him: “It’s been a tremendous growth experience for us [Kadish’s family], not just for LGBT, but race and racism.”
A new beginning
For Jeffry there has been tremendous growth, too, but the first few steps were difficult.
“The hardest part was losing my job. Losing my job and not knowing where my money was coming from. And being discriminated against.” Since moving to the United States, he has kept in contact with his family, except for one brother who refuses to talk to him or accept his lifestyle.
According to Jeffry, the public does not understand the homophobia and persecution that exists in Jamaica. “People are definitely surprised. They don’t know that Jamaica is like this, that Jamaica is homophobic. I wish Obama would give me the chance to tell the public not to go there.”
Many gay men and lesbian women have been leaving the country in order to go to more tolerant areas such as the United States, Canada and Amsterdam. “Jamaica’s loss is America’s gain,” Jeffry said.
The LGBT Asylum Support Task Force has greatly assisted Jeffry by giving him housing, a support system, and a sense of community among other asylum seekers who share similar stories.
The future looks bright for Jeffry. He and his boyfriend have been together since Jeffry was 22, and their relationship is still going strong. He also finished his Holyoke Community College coursework as a community health worker and will complete an internship at Family Health Center, UMass Memorial Medical Center or the Worcester Division of Public Health.
In the fall, Jeffry would like to take criminal justice classes at Quinsigamond Community College before transferring to Worcester State University. Being a police officer has always been a dream and a family tradition. Besides his father, his grandmother and godfather are also officers. Jeffry now has the opportunity to explore that career himself.
“I want to pursue CJ to the fullest. I want to be at the point when someday I could help Jamaica to be better. This homophobia is bad down there.
“I have a voice now.”
According to Bill Kadish, the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force is “literally built on nickels and dimes.” Donations are key to continuing the lifesaving work the task force does on a daily basis. Monetary donations may be mailed to Hadwen Park Church, 6 Clover St., Worcester, MA 01603, with “LGBT Task Force” in the check’s memo line; or can be made through PayPal at http://www.lgbtasylum.org/volunteer.htm. Anyone interested in volunteering or opening their home to asylum seekers is asked to email Polly Laurelchild-Hertig at email@example.com. Open meetings are held at Hadwen Park Church the second Monday of every month.