June 27, 2015
This first appeared on Whitehouse.gov. Micheal Ighodaro is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.
I have been thinking about all the Champions out there—President Obama, David Kato, Nelson Mandela, many like myself. I am sorry for putting myself in line with all these great champions, but if there is anything I have learned about been a champion of change, it is that when you become a champion of a particular cause you live and dream that cause and it becomes the reason why you are alive. The great Muhammad Ali said, “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision.”
Growing up in a country like mine with a parent who was really struggling with the idea of who I was or I wasn’t, I was forced to leave my parents’ house at the age of 17. I dropped out of school and ended up in the street like several others. I was living in a room with four other young gay men. The oldest was 18. We struggled to take care of ourselves, doing unspeakable things to survive. Activism isn’t just a title. These experiences defines why I call myself an activist because being an activist means more than fighting for Gay rights, it is about survival.
After I attended the International AIDS Conference in 2012, a media organization based in the US decided to amplify my story more than I would have liked or wanted. This made it too dangerous for me to live in Nigeria. I moved to New York not sure of where I was going to stay or how I would eat. I got to this city I now can proudly call home with just a single bag. I moved from couch to couch, staying with well-meaning friends who have now become family.
I moved to more permanent housing just after a month after I got to New York. But then this well-meaning person who offered me his home was shot and killed in the streets of Brooklyn. I was shocked beyond words. I was then introduced to Housing Works, which is a non-profit organization based in New York. Housing Works got me an emergency housing, linked me to some legal assistance so I could start my asylum application process, and got me temporary medical insurance. They did all this without pre-planning or having the funds for it.
The housing they got me soon became a room for two, because as the days went by the number of LGBT asylum seekers grew. As these new asylum seekers were introduced to the “rushed and unfunded asylum program’” at Housing Works. I starting talking to service providers in the city, filling out several forms to understand the process. Before I knew it, we had a program that was catering for 15 asylum seekers—mostly from Nigeria. I am proud to say that as of today the program has almost 40 asylum seekers who are being provided stable housing and other services. Access to health care including treatment for HIV is a key part of those services. I am proud to be working at an organization called AVAC to help end AIDS among LGBT Africans and all people.
My refugee application process took less than three months, but I have friends who have taken about two years just to get an interview with the immigration officer. Some are detained for months and sometimes years. These are part of issues we still need to address in our efforts to reform the immigration system. The efforts of Housing Works in New York and the great work that Immigration Equality continues to do needs to be supported and funded because they are on the frontline of saving our lives and providing us an opportunity for a new life in America.