This week President Obama spoke to the current participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) - a group of young leaders from various countries in Africa, chosen to come to the U.S.A. to attend campuses for leadership courses, engage in dialogue and meet with American leaders and officials. As part of the program, each year's chosen YALI group meets with President Obama.
This year the President met the group at the three day summit held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in D.C.. There the President made similar remarks to the comments he made on his recent visit to Kenya, speaking out against LGBT discrimination.
In response to an unrelated question from a YALI participant President Obama said: “The same, by the way, is true for sexual orientation…. “I spoke about this in Africa, and everybody is like, oh, oh, we don’t want to hear that. But the truth of the matter is, is that if you’re treating people differently just because of who they love and who they are, then there’s a connection between that mindset and the mindset that led to racism, and the mindset that leads to ethnic conflict. It means that you’re not able to see somebody else as a human being.”
The President also noted that older people on the continent may be stuck in their ways. It was clear that he was trying to impart his own evolved thinking on the potential young leaders, in the hope that one day African leaders would promote change.
I have personally spoken to as well as worked with several YALI participants over the years, and note that a few have identified as LGBT. Some gay participants feel they have no choice but to remain closeted, even amongst those whom they befriend, while in the U.S.A. While most the YALI participants are heterosexual, the few who are not, have a particularly difficult time returning to home countries. Some of the YALI participants have either contemplated or chosen to overstay their YALI visa and to apply for asylum in the U.S.A., feeling that it is not safe to return to a home country in Africa where they have suffered actual persecution.
This may seem a slight on the intention of the YALI scholarship - to return home to pursue their leadership roles leaders. However those who overstay their visas, feel conflcited and have made a very difficult choice. They have chosen to live life over possible death (or years in prison) - in the hope that they can impact change and provide help to their LGBT communities back home, from the safety of U.S. soil. This has proved to be an arduous journey as there are very little resources available to asylum seekers in the U.S.A. - who have no family and few, if any, friends. It is difficult to find pro bono legal repressentation, and host or affordable accommodations. Asylum seekers are unable to work until after six months from date of the filing of the asylum application. So after finding legal help this averages to about 9 months before one can start to support oneself, at which point jobs, commensurate with qualifications are difficult to find.
African HRC has provided assistance to such asylum seekers once in the U.S.A.
This Picture: Talking with members of civil society at the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Regional Leadership Center at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, July 26. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)