Once living out of his car and contemplating suicide, international student Alagie Jammeh now has a bright future in the U.S.
There was a knock on the window.
“Hey, what are you doing here? Are you sleeping in your car?” a policeman asked Alagie Jammeh, an international student from Gambia studying at UCSB.
Jammeh was in fact living out of his vehicle and struggling to feed himself, sometimes going days without food. The officer warned Jammeh he would be ticketed if he continued sleeping in his car on campus.
In September 2014, Jammeh posted on Facebook that “No one should be denied their basic fundamental human rights because of their sexuality.” Though he took the post down two days later after receiving calls from relatives back home warning him of the government’s reaction to his statement, it was too late. By November, his presidential scholarship from the Gambian government was cut off.
Jammeh said he desired to be part of a community that embraces all people, irrespective of their gender identity. As a result of his newfound convictions, Jammeh found himself ostracized from his homeland and fearing for his life.
“I was scared the Gambian government is going to send someone in America to kill me,” Jammeh said. “I was terrified that some people who disagreed with what I said on Facebook would eventually hunt me down.”
Located on the west coast of Africa with a population of approximately 1.9 million, Gambia is one of 70 countries in the world that can imprison citizens for their sexual orientation. President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh — a distant uncle of Alagie — stated during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2013 that homosexuality is one of the “biggest threats to human existence.”
“The president of the Gambia has been saying that any gay person that come to the Gambia — we will slit your throat. We will kill you. You will go to jail for the rest of your life. We will not allow gay men or gay women in our society,” Jammeh said.
Jammeh’s view on the gay community began to change after he learned his roommate and good friend was gay. He was further influenced by his friend Alexandra Brabson, who told him that individuals are born gay, rather than choosing to be so later in life.
“I couldn’t see any single thing that is ungodly or that is mean about gay people, so I decided that it was something that I was going to change my views on. I put myself in their situation,” Jammeh said, adding that if people were to insult him because he is black, he “would feel like someone had violated [his] basic human rights.”
A STRUGGLE TO STAY IN AMERICA
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security notified Jammeh on April 17, 2016, that he had been granted political asylum.
“You can stay here and work here and go to school here, without worrying about being deported,’” Jammeh recalled his lawyer telling him. “I am still trying to get used to it, because it feels like this is unreal; it feels like I am still dreaming.”
Habiba Simjee, coordinator with the Undocumented Student Services at UCSB and an attorney with the UC Undocumented Legal Services Counsel, worked with Jammeh to help find him legal representation after it became clear the first attorney he had been working with was mishandling the case.
“Alagie was in fact in a precarious situation because his funding had been cut off from the Gambian government. He could lose his international student status and then become undocumented,” Simjee said. “The previous attorney had made kind of a mess with the case; there were glaring issues.”
The two decided Jammeh should be represented by Public Counsel in Los Angeles because of a special agreement with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Asylum office in L.A. that would allow for Jammeh’s request to be processed more quickly.
“They have an agreement with the L.A. asylum office to hear their claims by April of the same year, whereas if had he gone with another attorney he would have been on the same schedule as everyone else, and it could take two years or more to get on the asylum calendar,” Simjee said. She went on to explain that the special agreement is because the attorneys at Public Counsel work with the UC Los Angeles School of Law, so for educational purposes students are allowed to go to the asylum hearings, which are scheduled before the end of the academic year.
“I couldn’t see any single thing that is ungodly or that is mean about gay people, so I decided that it was something that I was going to change my views on.”
— Alagie Jammeh
After visiting Los Angeles to meet with his lawyer every week for about four months, Jammeh travelled to the asylum office in early April for an interview that lasted approximately four hours. Two weeks later he returned to learn whether his request for asylum would be granted.
“It was this long wait. The lady before me, her case was filed to immigration court … I was scared because my case, if they deny it, has to go through immigration court, which I have to present again and do all those paper work all over again,” Jammeh said.
But he was recommended for approval, pending a background check to ensure he had no ties to any terrorist organization and held no criminal record. Three days later, Jammeh’s request for political asylum was granted.
Jammeh felt a responsibility to his supporters to make sure everything went smoothly throughout the asylum application process, according to Simjee.
“He was still so nervous and there were so many pieces that were up in the air,” Simjee said. “He just cared so much about all the other people that were invested in him.”
Though Jammeh can now work in the U.S., apply for scholarships, eventually become a permanent resident and no longer have to fear for his safety, he said he had mixed feelings when he received the news his asylum was granted because he can now never return to Gambia.
“I am going to miss the Gambia itself,” he said. “Everything about that country. You know, they also call the Gambia the smiling coast of Africa because almost everyone you meet, everyone is smiling. It doesn’t matter how their day is, terrible or bad or good, they are always smiling.”
Though Jammeh is still in touch with his mother, he no longer hears from any of his 17 siblings, many of whom called him shortly after his Facebook post in 2014 to share their disappointment over his pro-LGBT statement.
“Eventually my whole family stopped talking to me at the same time; that was the toughest part of all this thing,” Jammeh said. “[They ask] is the American government trying to influence me, trying to change me … This has nothing to do with the American government, this has nothing to do with friends here. This is about me. This is about me evolving. This is about me learning new things in my college, this is about me trying to accept people.”
Jammeh said his only family is the people at UCSB who have reached out to support him over the last two years, but that they can never replace his brothers and sisters in Gambia.
“Family is family, you know. You grew up with these people; this is blood. You know them from your childhood to becoming an adult to traveling and everyone has been there whether you are down or up,” Jammeh said.
With graduation just three weeks out, Jammeh said he fears having to start a new life when his time at UCSB comes to a close.
“You have to build a whole new family all over again; that’s terrifying,” he said. “Some of the people that I met here, like David Whitman, the bond we have, it’s going to last forever. The bond that I have with Simran and Mary Jacob … They don’t see me as another student, they see me as their friend, as their child.”
Simran Singh, director of the office of international students and scholars (OISS) where Jammeh now works, said she and Mary Jacob, senior associate dean for student affairs, made it their goal to give Jammeh as normal a life as they could.
“There’s no way he doesn’t miss his family because he does. He’s a kid with 17 brothers and sisters and all of the sudden he has nobody,” Singh said. “So we’ve tried our best to give him an atmosphere where he can be himself.”
Singh said she saw Jammeh “taxed to the limit” throughout the asylum application process.
“You’re put in front of a person who is going to challenge everything you say, and to have the mental strength and ability to sit before somebody and actually be able to recite what’s happened to you in your life in the past, and be able to come out the way he did: phenomenal,” Singh said.
“There’s no way he doesn’t miss his family because he does. He’s a kid with 17 brothers and sisters and all of the sudden he has nobody.” — Simran Singh
When she learned Jammeh had been living out of his car, Jacob invited him to stay in her home during Spring Quarter 2015, during which time she said it took time for him to begin to feel comfortable because he didn’t want to take advantage of her hospitality.
“So I made him a dish that comes from Senegal; his mom is from Senegal, so I made this stew,” Jacob said. “He said it was good. It wasn’t spicy enough. I made it pretty hot, but it wasn’t hot enough, but that I think that made him very, very happy because he couldn’t believe that I would do something like that for him.”
Jammeh said he does not want people to just feel sorry for him, but instead hopes people will talk to him as they would any other student on campus.
“One of the reasons I am staying on an extra quarter is to have the experiences of college life without worrying about my [asylum] papers, without worrying about other stuff, but just be a student,” he said. “I wanted that so bad. I wanted to go to school, come do your homework, Friday night go have drink with friends.”
Dave Whitman, director of LGBT services at the Resource Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity, has worked closely with Jammeh over the last year, sometimes checking in with him multiple times a week to inquire into his well-being, manage angry family members, organize fundraising or arrange speaking engagements.
Whitman said the majority of students at UCSB can’t even begin to “wrap their heads around” the sacrifices Jammeh has made.
“There hasn’t been a UCSB student in collective memory that has gone through what he’s gone through, and so it’s a huge moment to honor allyship,” Whitman said. “I’ve never met an ally like him.”
A LOW POINT
Prior to reaching out to the university for assistance, Jammeh struggled on his own, searching for financial support that would enable him to stay in school. He applied for dozens of scholarships, but was denied each time because he was not a citizen or permanent resident in the U.S. Jammeh was alone, living out of his car, studying in the library, skipping meals.
Unwilling to drop out of school for fear of being an embarrassment to his country and unable to return home to Gambia, Jammeh began contemplating suicide.
“There was a point where I give up, literally give up,” Jammeh said. “I’m not going to drop out of school, that’s not an option for me. I’m not going to go back to Gambia, that’s not an option for me either. I’m not going to do anything. What I am going to do now is just end everything, just commit suicide,” he said.
Jammeh was standing on the Goleta Pier at 1 a.m. determined to end his life in the ocean when he received a call from a friend. According to Jammeh, the conversation was nothing special. They talked about “stupid stuff,” but it was enough to make him reconsider taking his life.
“It’s God telling me something through this guy. There is more to you than this, there is more to life than committing suicide. Committing suicide is not going to solve your problems … it’s also going to be a win for the people in the Gambia,” Jammeh said. “So stay on and fight. If you believe in what you said, just keep on fighting.”
Despite the strain of being homeless and unable to pay his university expenses, Jammeh maintained a GPA well above average.
“I don’t want to give the government of the Gambia something to just say ‘Oh, no we didn’t cut his funding because of what he said on Facebook, but we cut his funding because he wasn’t doing too well in school,’ he said. “I was sleeping in my car, doing all that stuff, but I never have a C.”
Singh said that after helping for some time, the Gambian embassy in Washington eventually stopped responding to OISS’ requests.
“There have been other asylum cases but … here there were threats, but the threats were made indirectly, so even for us to prove that this was happening became very difficult,” she said.
“Eventually my whole family stopped talking to me at the same time — that was the toughest part of all this thing.” — Alagie Jammeh
Jammeh took a class with Sharon Farmer, chair of the history department, while he was living out of his car. Farmer said Jammeh’s self-determination enabled him to overcome the many challenges he’s faced.
“On top of the financial strain, there was the whole emotion strain of his family,” Farmer said. “It seems to me that anybody who can balance all of those things and still make it through that term and a half when he was living in his car could balance the [asylum] application process on top of that.”
Jammeh said it was difficult to seek out counseling because of the stigma associated with it at home in Gambia.
“We have this belief that counseling is for people with mental problems,” he said. “People are asking me to go to counseling, but I’m like no I’m not going to go to counseling. I don’t have a mental problem. I have a problem with my government and a problem with my family, but mentally it’s draining and it’s tough to deal with, but I think I can deal with it by myself.”
While Jammeh did eventually visit the Counseling & Psychological Services (C.A.P.S.) center, he said he felt the experience was “a waste of time,” because the staff member he spoke with didn’t understand his culture.
“Counseling has to hire people that understand about international students because, my first person that I was talking to had no clue about anything that I was talking about,” Jammeh said. “I don’t blame them for not knowing my culture, but the university has to spend to teach these people about diversity so international students will feel safe to go and talk to them.”
Farmer said the faculty and staff should know the protocol for how best to help a distressed student.
“[We need] to constantly inform students that there’s a place to turn because there’s a lot of mental health issues these days and we need to recognize them and get people to the help they need,” she said.
Jammeh said it is incredibly important for students to watch for warning signs that their peers are in distress and talk to them about what they are going through.
“When you see someone is not acting right, you just have to make an effort to talk to them,” Jammeh said. “‘Hey, what’s going on? Is everything ok?’ Those things, people see these as a small things, but they really help. When my friend called me and talked to me, that stopped everything. It’s like I was reborn again.”
A NEW HOME
The first of his siblings to graduate high school, Jammeh will again break new ground in his family on June 12, becoming the first to obtain a college degree when he graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in global studies.
Jammeh said the commencement date has “crept up” on him. He has plans to spend the summer break studying for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and then later apply to graduate school at UC Berkeley, USC, Columbia and Princeton.
“My ultimate goal is to be able to work in the United Nations where I will impact people’s lives. I will have a voice,” Jammeh said. “My hope is to become a human rights advocate all over the world, not just for gay rights but human rights in general: women’s rights, children’s rights and other rights.”
Jacob, senior associate dean for student affairs, said Jammeh could be an influential activist for gender equality in West Africa.
“He can play a role as a man from that part of the world to advocate on behalf of women as any ally in forms and ways that women might not be listened to but he, as a man, could,” Jacob said. “If there were a change in government [in Gambia] maybe it would be safe enough for him to return home to work there. If not there, then maybe in neighboring countries.
Whitman, director of LGBT services, described Jammeh as endlessly insightful, loving and gracious — an “old soul” who he will look up to for the rest of his life.
Whitman said he hopes Jammeh’s story will remind people of their own potential for giving back and reaffirm their gratitude for comfort and safety.
“He had the ability to think freely despite a socialization that would tell him otherwise … he had the power in his sense of self to break out of that,” Whitman said. “How are you giving your heart and mind to someone or something that isn’t about you? He does not identify with the community. It’s not about him. He could have easily just stayed quiet and I don’t see that a lot.”
Jammeh admitted that it would have been easier to remain in Gambia, where he would likely be married like many of his brothers and sisters, rather than pursuing an education in America. He attributed the decision to leave his old life behind to his desire to have control over his future.
“If you’re really good at what you do, people will find it very difficult to deny you of what you want,” Jammeh said. “If you’re good at what you do, they will run out of excuses to say no. You have to decide your future for yourself.”
Jammeh said he aims to be one of the most educated people in Africa, especially in Gambia.
“There hasn’t been a UCSB student in collective memory that has gone through what he’s gone through, and so it’s a huge moment to honor allyship.” — Dave Whitman
“I want children who grow up in the Gambia to think that they could become someone,” he said. “The Gambia is not going to be developed by some western or some European or some Chinese country. The Gambia is only going to be developed by the Gambian people, especially people who went to school in America or in the west to go back to Gambia and contribute.”
According to Jammeh, it will take more than a change in government in Gambia for him to be able to return home. The Gambian people hold a common belief that homosexuaity is a sin and a crime against humanity.
“Someone has to be advocating and talking to these communities and tell them, ‘Hey, I have a gay friend and he is normal, he thinks like you. He is smart. He is compassionate. He is loving,’” Jammeh said. “I’m really, really an optimistic person. Ten years ago, if you tell someone gay marriage is going to be legal in all 50 states in the United States, they would be like ‘What are you talking about?’ But it happened.”
Though Jammeh admits that his hopes may not be fulfilled in his lifetime, he has faith that one day the people of Gambia will treat all individuals with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“I’m hoping … I will wake up one day and see in the news that being gay is okay all over the world, being gay is okay in Gambia and gay people could go to work, without being discriminated against, go to church or go to mosque and pray without being discriminated against, do anything they want to do without being discriminated against. That would make me very, very happy,” Jammeh said.
Inspired in his childhood by activists like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., Jammeh says he has only begun his journey.
“I have a dream and that dream is not accomplished. I’m not even halfway there yet,” Jammeh said. “I’m not going to stop.”
A version of this story appeared on p. 1 of the Thursday, May 26, 2016, edition of the Daily Nexus.
The Nexus initially reported about Alagie Jammeh on July 28, 2015.