In Uganda, Johnson Niwagaba faced prosecution and life in prison for being gay. Ostracized by his family, and fearing for his safety, Niwagaba fled to the United States seeking asylum.
He ended up in an Orange County jail.
Niwagaba’s journey was one of five shared at “Asylum Anguish: Stories from the Border — A Staged Reading” Feb. 10 at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
Five UC Irvine theater majors read aloud the narratives of five immigration detainees jailed countywide. The readings were meant to raise awareness of the often-perilous plight of asylum seekers, while also serving as a fundraiser for Friends of Orange County Detainees.
Since its founding in 2012, the nonprofit’s volunteers have visited thousands of immigration detainees in jail and helped hundreds of released asylum seekers navigate their way.
The narratives in “Asylum Anguish” were drawn from the exact words of current or former detainees helped by the Friends group. Through interviews, they explain why their lives are in danger and why asylum in the U.S. is their only path to safety.
Each one gave permission to share their stories. Most wish to remain anonymous.
“If their story is released and their identity is disclosed, they risk significant harm,” said an event organizer, the Rev. Kent Doss of Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Lake Forest. “Their country of origin may complicate the legal asylum process or they may become vulnerable to attack from those who tried to harm them previously.”
Doss said that for the event, the nonprofit gravitated toward stories told by LGBTQ asylum seekers because “that piece of seeking asylum is generally not well understood.”
“There are many, many stories to tell,” the minister said. “The few presented in ‘Asylum Anguish’ come from people we know well, who had the courage to share.”
Chris Mansa, a graduate student at UC Irvine, shared the story of visiting an inmate from Togo, a country in West Africa.
The man says that because a high-ranking official in the country didn’t like his family, authorities seized his family’s estate and locked him in jail for eight years.
When he was released, he sought asylum in the U.S.
“I have an opportunity to stand on stage and tell his story to a group of people who may have the opportunity to do something about it,” Mansa said. “If one person or a group of people who hear his story … [are] inspired to do something and fight for him, it’s a huge victory in a broken system that we have for people who come to the U.S. seeking asylum.”
Actor Fox Worth read aloud the experiences of a gay man from Ghana.
“If you are gay, you are not safe in Ghana,” Worth said.
UCI student Anica Garcia-DeGraff shared the story of a transgender Honduran who fled for her life after being beaten and raped by gang members.
“I was warned that I should do whatever the gangs told me to do,” Garcia-DeGraff read in the woman’s own words. “I knew I had to leave Honduras.”
The performance was directed and written by UCI theater directors Jane Page and Gavin Cameron-Web, who are married and volunteer with the nonprofit.
“We feel like we needed to make something that was a performance-based expression of what the heck was going on,” Page said.
Niwagaba, the Ugandan, entered the U.S. on a flight to Los Angeles International Airport — a legal port of entry. He had told the U.S. embassy in Uganda that he was coming for a conference, fearing he wouldn’t receive a visa otherwise.
When he arrived at LAX with visa in hand, he told immigration officials that his true purpose for coming to the U.S. was to seek asylum, but authorities, citing the discrepancy, took him into custody.
With no legal representation, Niwagaba stated his case to a judge in immigration court.
He was denied asylum at two separate hearings.
Niwagaba appealed the rulings but still spent nine months incarcerated in Orange County.
He is now free on bond, awaiting his case to be heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I’m scared because my case is not yet closed,” Niwagaba, 27, said. “In my first hearings, I was not represented, so I lost my case. Now I have a pro bono attorney.”
While Niwagaba awaits his fate, he is grateful that his journey — and the journeys of other asylum seekers — are being made public.
“It’s good because the world will know what we asylum seekers go through and how the whole process is really hard,” Niwagaba said. “I’m hoping this show will bring up the real picture on what is happening with immigration detention.”