Alagie Jammeh first came to the United States from his native Republic of the Gambia in 2011 to attend UCSB. He had been awarded a Gambian state-funded scholarship to complete a degree in global studies. At first things went well. His grades were good, he made friends, and his family seemed proud of his success. Suddenly everything changed. Around Thanksgiving he received a phone call from Gambia telling him his scholarship was immediately revoked and that he was to return home to apologize. Apologize for what? For posting a Facebook status in support of a gay friend. Now he is afraid he will not be able to stay in school, afraid he will lose his visa, afraid he will be deported, and, most importantly, afraid he will be forced to return to Gambia, where gay people and their supporters face intense persecution.
The post that caused all his troubles read: “No one should be denied their fundamental human rights because of their sexuality.” Jammeh wrote this because a gay friend had invited him to attend San Francisco’s Pride celebrations. His studies prevented him from going, so instead he decided to use social media to show his support. It was important to Jammeh to declare this because since coming to the United States, his views about gay people had changed substantially: “They’re not different.”
In Jammeh’s home country, to be gay is a serious crime. Even to vocalize support for gay rights is forbidden. Homosexual activity is currently punishable by life in prison and, in some cases, by death.
Even though his own family taught him to respect all people, at the same time he absorbed cultural ideas that were taught in Gambian schools, including that homosexuals are “evil.” But he never knew openly gay people until he came to this country. “When I got here,” he said, “I got helped by gay people. They gave me a ride. They talked to me. We went to the bar together. You know, we had fun.”
Commenting on the controversial post, Jammeh said, “I was just doing what I believe is right.” Essentially, Jammeh believes that homophobic laws are part of a culture that denies human rights to everyone: “All I’m saying is treat people equally.”
As a youngster growing up in his home village, he always dreamed of becoming a lawyer. After receiving top marks at the best high school in Gambia, Jammeh is the first person in his family to go to college. His dream was to return to Gambia, practice law, help his mother, and serve as an example to his 17 siblings that they, too, can follow their dreams. His goal has always been for other Gambian young people to hear about his path to education and say, “If he could do it, I could do it, too.” Now he wonders what would happen to him if he were forced to return. “I love my country,” he said, but he also believes that to return now would be dangerous.
In the meantime, he has found a temporary family within the Gaucho community: the university administrators who are helping in any way they can and his friends who have come together in support. Jammeh started a GoFundMe page to pay for his tuition, which has already raised over $10,000 in 10 days. But it’s the supportive messages he has received that are keeping him going. “I don’t want people to see me as a hero for this or for anything,” he said, “because I’m not.”
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