How Social Media Created a Political Enemy
International student Alagie Jammeh risks imprisonment and execution to speak out against homophobia
“No one should be denied their fundamental basic human rights because of their sexuality,” Alagie Jammeh posted on Facebook in September 2014. By November of that same year, Jammeh found his world crumbling around him.
Jammeh is a third-year global studies major at UCSB who could face life imprisonment or worse for his pro-LGBTQ views if he ever returned home to the Gambia. Jammeh came to California as an international student from the Gambia on a presidential scholarship in 2011. After posting his views on Facebook, he was cut off from his scholarship, friends and family, and may still lose his life.
The Washington Post quotes President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia as having said, “If you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it.”
Having grown up in the Gambia under the rule of President Jammeh — his distant uncle — Jammeh learned that homosexuality was one of the greatest sins humans could commit.
“They keep teaching people that homosexuality is evil and bad … They have this big law that homosexuality is the worst crime you could do as a human being,” Jammeh said. “When I got here [California], I see a different story.”
After learning his roommate and good friend identified as homosexual, Jammeh began to question the anti-gay views he was taught in his home country. And, in an attempt to show solidarity with his roommate, Jammeh wrote those 14 words that may one day get him killed.
Within hours after posting the message on his Facebook, Jammeh received a call from a relative in Gambia saying, “If the government sees this thing, you are dead.”
“I deleted the message,” Jammeh said, “but it was too late.”
The comment Jammeh wrote directly contradicts the views of his uncle, the president, and he soon found himself stripped of his scholarship, ostracized from his country and fearful for his survival.
“Going back to the Gambia is like committing suicide,” Jammeh said. “There are people who might feel sorry, but not really sorry.”
For months after posting this message, Jammeh was forced to sell many of his personal belongings, live in his own car, shower in the Recreation Center and hope for his next meal, all while continuing to attend UCSB and maintaining a GPA well above average.
History Department Chair Sharon Farmer taught a class which Jammeh attended during this time, and said she was amazed to discover he was living in his car the entire time.
“He is clearly a very sincere student, and to find out that the whole time he was in my class [he was living in his car] … He made it through two quarters and didn’t tell anybody” Farmer said.
Jammeh said during these months he was still expecting his government to begin providing him financial support again, but he never saw another penny.
“For two months, the money was on the way … never came,” Jammeh said. “When I go to class, I couldn’t concentrate — I kept having these suicidal thoughts.”
Despite his inward struggle, Farmer said Jammeh was “such a nice guy” who was “very motivated” in his studies.
After coming forward with his situation, Jammeh began working with the director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), Simran Singh, to find a way to continue to attend UCSB and survive.
According to Singh, Jammeh’s case has been taken very seriously by the administration and continues to be a primary concern of her office.
“You do not have a student come in and make that up,” said Singh. “It’s gone up the ladder — everybody is aware of the situation.”
According to David Whitman, the director of LGBT services and the Resource Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity, Jammeh’s case is a perfect example of “how alive and well homophobia is.”
“This isn’t out of convenience or luxury, this man is facing life in prison or worse for being supportive of the LGBTQ community,” Whitman said. “Give this student a penny, a dollar, because he is facing life in prison and he deserves it.”
Acting Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Mary Jacob said Jammeh’s case is “really a challenge” and that options for Jammeh are limited because of his status as an international student.
“He’s been supporting people who are gay, which could be viewed as supporting criminality [in the Gambia],” Jacob said. “He would definitely be imprisoned, and I really fear for his health and well-being.”
According to Singh, there have been many attempts to communicate with the Gambian government through their embassy in Washington D.C., but there has been no response from the President.
“The ambassador seemed pretty much helpless unless he got help from the Gambian government,” Singh said. “The money needs to be transferred from Gambia.”
Nonetheless, the university has temporarily allowed Jammeh to continue attending classes while he struggles to come up with funding and also seek political asylum, without which he could be sent back to the Gambia.
“Right now, the school said they were going to let me go to school for fall and then I have time to work and see if I could get some scholarships from somewhere, and I have also applied for asylum … So it’s 50-50,” Jammeh said.
External Vice President of Statewide Affairs and fourth-year sociology and black studies double major Mohsin Mirza said he looks to the UC Office of The President for its support of Jammeh and believes a community effort is absolutely necessary in supporting Jammeh.
“It’s a difficult situation, but I’m hopeful that the people can come together and donate to help and that administration and UCOP can take the actions needed so that Alagie can stay,” Mirza said.
Through the help of the OISS and other local organizations, Jammeh has secured temporary housing through the summer with local resident Mariela Marin and her family, as well as a job on campus.
“I can honestly say that [Jammeh] is someone who is clearly dedicated to the journey of understanding his world and others,” said Marin. “We’re just really lucky to have him.”
Nonetheless, Jammeh’s future remains highly uncertain, as it is unclear where he will live after the summer and whether or not he will be able to continue to attend the university.
Despite having deleted the original message and Facebook account, Jammeh now has a rainbow flag on his new profile picture and maintains that he is very firm in his belief that the LGBTQ community should be treated equally as human beings.
“If I could do something to change one person’s mind in Gambia, I would do that,” Jammeh said. “Freedom is a really expensive thing.”
Jacob, Farmer, Whitman and Singh each said the primary way to help Jammeh in his situation is through his gofundme.com account at gofundme.com/zzc9s24 that aims to raise money to pay for his next year of tuition.
“I really hope everybody can support him,” Jacob said. “He’s just a really fine human being, a fine student and I really want to see him graduate as a Gaucho.”
Jammeh says local communities have been instrumental in helping him to survive and continue to study towards his graduation.
“I feel really overwhelmed with the support I’m getting,” said Jammeh. “People helped me without asking any questions.”
A version of this story appeared on page 1 of Thursday, July 30, 2015’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.