When I first met “Michael,” he was in his late twenties. He walked into my office carrying a decade’s worth of legal documents, which he stacked in a tidy pile on my desk. Once he had settled, he began to tell me his story. Michael was from Ghana, and he was HIV positive. When he was only 19, his extended family poisoned his older brother to death after they learned that he had contracted HIV. When Michael began to lose weight and feel sick, he knew he had to get out of there.
By the time Michael found Immigration Equality, he had already filed for asylum on his own. He explained to immigration officials why it was too dangerous for him in Ghana, but they did not understand his case. Suddenly, he found himself in immigration court facing deportation. Over the course of the next two years, Michael and I got to know each other very well. He had a sly sense of humor, and he admitted to me that I was the only gay person he had ever known. Eventually, I would come to know all about Michael’s past and present, and about his dreams for the future. Michael told me that when he was younger, he did not understand HIV at all. Like many people in his country, Michael believed that only gay men, sex workers or drug users could contract HIV. He also told me that he thought he would die immediately if he confirmed that he was positive. For this reason, Michael waited years before he went to get tested.
While living in New York, Michael came to understand that anyone can contract HIV, and that he could live a happy and healthy life with the right medical treatment. This was a lesson he learned slowly, but eventually it became a message he wanted everyone to know. On the day of his trial, he did not even seem nervous. Months later, when the judge issued a decision granting him asylum, he was more joyful than I had ever seen. At his exit interview, I asked him what he might do next. In his deliberate and direct way, he said, “I will travel to Africa. I will teach them that it is okay to have HIV.” It was clear to me that he meant to do exactly that. I told him as much, and we talked about how to obtain a refugee travel document. When he left, I reminded him that while he could travel anywhere else in Africa, he could not travel to Ghana. “No” he said with a sad shake of his head, “never to Ghana.”