USA: An Egyptian gay man is granted US asylum

The Washington Blade
A gay Egyptian man denied asylum in the United States and profiled in the Washington Blade newspaper in January, has now won asylum based on the recent history of anti-gay harassment in his home country.
Safe at last: An Egyptian gay man is granted U.S. asylum, after help from new lawyers and a congressman.
From the April 19, 2002 issue of the Washington Blade

Waleed, an Egyptian gay man recently granted asylum in the United States, still requests that his true identity remain hidden even though he is now safe from possible persecution in his native country. By Kim Krisberg
In the Blade profile, "Waleed," who has spoken to the newspaper on condition of anonymity, told a story of persecution and fear in Egypt on the basis of his sexual orientation. He was, however, denied asylum after an INS hearing officer discounted evidence he presented of a recent, high-profile crackdown against gays by the Egyptian government. A second INS interview yielded a different result.

Waleed told the Blade that the second INS officer was so sensitive to his case, he felt she "was going to break down in the middle of the interview.

Upon learning the result, Waleed said he breathed a long, grateful, and bittersweet sigh of relief. Despite winning asylum, he still requested that the Blade keep hidden any specific details of his life in Egypt. The paranoia that engulfed his life in Egypt has not yet completely vanished from his psyche, he said. He added that he worries about information traveling across the continents to his family, to whom he says he will never reveal his sexual orientation.

"Why would I want to be a source of misery for them?" he asked, adding that it is still hard to adjust to the American sense that to be out publicly is a better way to lead life. "It’s just so hard. I’m from a different culture."

Now Waleed can begin planning for a future in the United States, and said he would like to use his own experiences to do work on gay issues in North Africa and the Middle East.

Last September, Waleed traveled to the United States with the express purpose of seeking asylum based on his sexual orientation. He had been in Egypt during the highly publicized "Cairo 52" trial, in which more than 50 men were arrested on suspicion of homosexuality. Of those men, 23 were sentenced to terms of hard labor. Walleed had been at the Cairo nightclub, popular among gays, where many of the Cairo 52 were arrested.

Adding to his fears, Egyptian police arrested Waleed in 1997 after finding him sitting in a car with another man; authorities pressured Waleed to reveal his sexual orientation. Unlike his passenger at the time, who was beaten into telling police he is gay, Waleed refused to reveal the truth. His refusal to confess would become a major sticking point in his path to gain asylum.

Try, try again

After the United States denied Waleed asylum, he sought out the services of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights to help him re-file. The committee takes on certain cases and then sends those cases to private lawyers willing to offer free legal services. Waleed’s case sparked the interest of Ed Palmieri and Amy Mielke, two lawyers with the D.C. law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson. It was the first asylum case for both attorneys.

"When someone’s livelihood is in your hands, … that makes you work that much harder, but it makes it that much scarier, too," Palmieri said.

Besides gaining the representation of two new lawyers, Waleed also gained support from a staunch proponents of gay civil rights at home and abroad: openly gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Frank has harshly criticized the Egyptian government for what he views as a state-sponsored crackdown on gays.

On Feb. 5, Frank wrote a letter to Marla J. Belvedere, the director at the Arlington Asylum Office, the location at which Waleed had been interviewed for asylum. Frank cited the deteriorating environment for gays in Egypt and what he termed as inconsistencies between Waleed’s actual testimony and the testimony that was recorded in the asylum denial notice. The INS, according to Palmieri, under pressure from Frank and Waleed’s lawyers, re-examined the case and decided that Waleed deserved a second asylum interview. Officials at the INS did not return a Blade call by deadline

A major inconsistency pointed out by Frank and the lawyers was an inaccurate description of Waleed’s 1997 arrest in the asylum denial notice -- proof, says Waleed, that his first INS interviewing officer hadn’t really attempted to understand his story. The inconsistency in question is a line from the asylum denial notice that states: "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 did not admit to Egyptian police officers that he is gay, something he would never do, and said he made that clear to his first interviewing officer.

Palmieri said Waleed’s second interviewer was a "best-case scenario." He said she was polite, prepared, and seemed to have read all the evidence supporting Waleed’s asylum request.

"She seemed to really put the best foot forward," Palmieri said. "She was very respectful of [Waleed’s] circumstances."

When the INS finally approved Waleed’s request for asylum, Palmieri said, officials called the two lawyers to break the good news, who in turn called Waleed.

"It’s a day I’ll never forget," Waleed said. "I wake every morning now feeling reborn."