By Nicholas Chisha
Last year, Denmark received 2.716 applications for asylum. The majority of the people seeking asylum in Denmark have come from the Middle East or Africa and may be seeking based on a number of factors, one of those being that they’ve escaped persecution as an LGBTI+ person. Refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark often face loneliness and isolation, as well as the pressure of having to “prove” their sexual orientation to avoid their application being rejected. All too often, their voices are silenced or ignored. In this column, we invited Nicholas Chisha to tell his story about the process of seeking asylum in Denmark.
I arrived in Denmark on December 29, 2016. I was on a 60-day tourist´s visa – 2 years prior, I had fled my home country, after which I lived in another country on a student’s visa. I was out of resources, and the risk of me having to go back home, after having lived freely as a gay man for 2 years, was looming.
With every morning came a heaviness, apprehension, and uncertainty. I decided that I had to apply for asylum – otherwise, I had to face the unbearable alternative of going ´home´.
I told my host of my decision. He tried to dissuade me, as he thought it was too difficult. His actual words were, “the system is too harsh on applicants, I wouldn’t advise you to go through with it.” I knew I couldn’t go back, so I figured I had nothing to lose. Though initially reluctant, he eventually supported me and asked me to wait a few days just to be sure. But my mind was already made up. A few days later, he introduced me to LGBT Asylum.
When I went to the police station in Odense to make my application, I remember being anxious. Luckily, my encounter with the police was pleasant. The harshness of the system wasn’t experienced until later. I was given a train ticket and instructed to proceed to centre Sandholm the next day. That evening I wrote to LGBT Asylum, and thus I was associated with the organisation.
Expecting the worst, I shaved off my hair before I went to Sandholm. My fingerprints were taken again, and the police had to verify that I hadn’t applied for asylum in another European state. The application was logged, and one week later I was moved to the transit centre Auderød. I stayed in Auderød for about 3 weeks before I was sent to centre Sønderborg. Here I got the first taste of life as an asylum seeker.
2 weeks after my arrival, the Danish immigration office notified me of an interview about my asylum application. The interview lasted about 5-6 hours, after which I was informed that they would call for a 2nd interview in 6 months. There was nothing more to do than wait.
In August 2017, we learned that Centre Sønderborg would close, and everyone would be transferred to a new centre by the end of September. This was stressful as it meant new acquaintances and new housemates. I moved to Centre Tranum. People disliked it because it was isolated. I loved it. The surrounding nature provided me with serenity. The biggest challenge was that we had no transport. So, if we wanted to go to e.g. Aalborg on the weekends, we had to pay for a taxi.
We received instruction in the Danish language for 2,5 hours, 4 times a week. There wasn´t much else to do. I needed more activity to stay sane, so I got an internship at a bakery in a town 15 km away. I was there for 7 months and then secured another internship for 9 months. I have fond memories of the last place. The owners were the most wonderful couple, and I had equally wonderful colleagues. They could barely speak English, and the man loved conversating. Consequently, my understanding of the Danish language grew.
In January 2018, 9 months after my first interview with immigration, I bumped into one of the Centre’s contact persons. The first thing she said was ”Weren’t you supposed to have travelled to Sandholm for your interview tomorrow?” I could feel my heart sink. A notification had been received by the centre in December but hadn’t gotten to me, so I was unaware of the pending interview. When I explained that I wasn’t prepared at all, she responded that “it will not look good if you don’t show up for your interview”. I don’t recall ever getting that mad before. I prepared as best as I could and took the 5 hours+ trip to Sandholm.
The following morning, my interview began. My first interview had felt like a simple collection of information. The second interview felt like an interrogation. The interviewer was cross-checking, probing, and taking me round in circles, as it seemed she was trying to trip me up in my story. I was questioned for around 5-6 hours. At both interviews, I remember this great wall of tears emerging that I almost couldn’t stop, and I would feel hollow for days after. There is a psychological trauma that follows the realisation that you must leave your home and seek refuge elsewhere. Those two interviews were the first times I had to relive everything. It was very tough and difficult. However, I found healing in talking about it, and finally accepting that I was here and planned never to return.
I waited a month before immigration’s decision arrived. I was rejected. Simply put, they didn’t believe I was gay.
Rejected cases, like mine, are automatically escalated to the Danish Refugee Appeals Board, and a lawyer is appointed to assist. They review the case again and make the final ruling. I had to wait for another 18 months before my hearing came up with the appeals board.
After I’d been rejected, I’d silently gone to my room, climbed into bed, and shut out the world. For 7 days I stayed in bed with little movement. I remember feeling like a lead weight had been laid over me so I couldn’t get up. Every morning my roommates would ask what was wrong, and I said I was fine and just needed rest. Hopelessness aside, I felt a certain comfort in reclusion. After the 7th day, I thought “I have to get up. I have to go on, this is not the end.”
At the centre, I had a cordial relationship with the staff and was particularly close to one. One day one of our mutual friends had received her final rejection and had to leave Denmark, and as she contemplated how to travel back with 2 kids, she cried in his office. After she left, he explained how work-rules dictated that ‘personal relationships’ were not allowed, but at times, close bonds would inevitably form. I asked how they coped with people leaving. He said, they tried to keep a distance, but as time went on, they became numb.
In April 2019, I was moved to Centre Hviding. It wasn’t until June that a date for my hearing was appointed. This time I wasn’t as anxious. Partly because I understood that I had great representation, and my contact person from LGBT Asylum had a background in law and was surprisingly resourceful. I had resolved that the only way I was going back to my home country was as a corpse, yet I didn’t plan to stay if I was rejected. That resolve was a great consolation – whatever happened, I wasn’t going home.
On July 12, the hearing began as scheduled. From the beginning, the translator had trouble translating my English and after 45 minutes the session was halted by the judges who decided to postpone. I wanted to continue anyway, as I was mentally and emotionally depleted from having waited for so long. The lawyer advised that it was in my best interest to take the judges counsel, so I went back to the Centre and waited yet again.
I was called in again on October 2nd. Different translator and a different set of judges. After an hour-long session, I was asked to step out. We waited for an hour before I was called in. I had been granted the right to live in Denmark, 2 years, and 8 months after I had written my first asylum application. It was surreal and felt like a dream. I kept pinching myself. It wasn’t long before I was overcome with emotion. Afterwards, I went to a friend’s home and cried. Fortunately, I had the necessary solitude allowing me to let out all the negative emotions that I had suppressed. The tears flowed freely for 3-4 days – It was such an intense relief.
My experiences have given me a wide perspective on life. I’ve seen how people with different cultures live life, witnessed a bloody knife fight, looked into the eyes of a reject facing deportation, and seen pain in a wounded soul. Speaking of solidarity, I’ve received great support from friends both LGBTI+ and heterosexual. These people have accepted every part of me, without expecting me to change. These are my family. I’ve experienced acceptance and realised that we are bound together, regardless of race, culture, and sexuality.
I understand that even in Denmark, it is difficult to be anything but heterosexual. However, those who’ve never left the shores of Denmark, have no idea what it is like to live in a region where culture forbids and criminalises anything non-heterosexual. Therefore “Pride” should be celebrated and supported by both queers and straights. And no outfit can be too outrageous, or too ‘out there’. It is a day when no one must try to fit in. Someone said, “Gay pride was not born of a need to celebrate being gay, but our right to exist without persecution. So instead of wondering why there isn’t a straight pride movement, be thankful you don’t need one.” I remember marching in one of the pride marches with LGBT Asylum, when a spectator nodded to a young girl of around 10 or 11 – most likely her daughter. This young girl pushed through the crowd and handed me a pride flag and then walked back to her mother. I couldn’t tell whether one of them identified as LGBTI+ or not, but it was a powerful moment for me that symbolised solidarity. Talking about solidarity, I was conveying my gratitude to a friend of mine for the support and he said, “No don’t thank me. I give my support because I realise how lucky I am to be in Denmark. Had I been born in another time, or another country, it could very easily have been me in your shoes right now”.