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We're So Inspired By This 19-Year-Old Who Escaped Gay Conversion Camp In Kenya

Let’s start this week off with an inspiring story of real-life bravery. Let’s shine a light on Ithaca College student Mahad Olad, a gay conversion camp survivor who has just been awarded the Colin Higgins Foundation’s annual Youth Courage Award.

Olad’s family is of Somali descent, and he comes from “an extremely conservative Muslim background.”. His family fled to Kenya 1991 to avoid the civil war. His immediate family now lives in Minnesota.  Olad studies at Ithaca College in New York. He wrote an account of his escape from conversion therapy in his school newspaper The Ithacan earlier this year.

Last year, following his freshman year in college, Olad was looking forward to spending summer vacation with his family. The plan was to go back to Kenya to visit relatives, and then to return home. Or so he thought.

Olad is gay, something he’d kept hidden from his family. One way or another they discovered his secret, and shortly after arriving in Kenya, his mother broke the news to him: he was there to be placed in a gay conversion therapy camp. His mother asked him to withdraw from college. He was to be placed under control of “a few sheiks” he met at the hotel the night they arrived. They told him that his homosexuality was “unequivocally” against the Muslim faith. He would be forced to go the camp the following morning.

Here’s what Olad knew of the camps:

“I was quite aware of the horrors of these gay and religious conversion camps. The leaders operate the camps around grim parts of Somalia and Kenya. They subject their captives to severe beatings, shackling, food deprivation and other cruel practices. It usually involves a rigorous Islamic curriculum. Those who fail to cooperate, make adequate progress or try to escape could possibly be killed.”

One more thing to note about conversion camps in Africa is that unlike camps in the U.S., they operate in secrecy. They answer to no one. 

Without access to money or even his passport, Olad made an incredible escape. He told his mother he would go along with her plans, and that he was going for a long walk. He made a call to Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), an organization that supports people who have chosen to leave Islam.

This put Olad in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. He was told that if he could make it there, he would be protected until he could figure out how to get back to the United States. He fled his hotel via taxi. EXMNA bought him a plane ticket home, and Ithaca College found a place for him to live on campus until classes resumed in the fall.

Olad is no longer in touch with his family, even those who weren't in on the plan to take him to the camp-- which he says has left him “devastated.” Now he is 19. He says he feels physically safer because the F.B.I. and campus police keep an eye on him, but “the nightmare isn’t over.”

He now says he wants to do everything he can to stop this from happening to other at-risk LGBTQ+ people.

“I am lucky enough to be over eighteen, a U.S. citizen and to have a large support network — all of which made it easier for me to get out of Kenya. Not everyone is so lucky, however. That is why I’m sharing my story: so the U.S. and other governments can do more to protect the vulnerable youth of Muslim backgrounds whose parents abuse them in the name of religion and culture.”

As part of the Youth Courage Award, Olad received a $10,000 grant, and he will be honored during Pride Weekend via an all-expensed-paid trip to New York City or Los Angeles. He also gets a trip to the Creating Change Conference to network with LGBTQ+ leaders from around the world.

For more, read Mahad Olad’s riveting, heartbreaking account in The Ithacan.

h/t: Pink News