A Youth Courage prize has been handed to Mahad Olad, a Somali-born student who managed to escape gay conversion therapy in Kenya.
According to this report, Olad – the Ithaca College student activist and columnist for New York university’s website The Ithacan – was taken by his family to Kenya just over a year ago under the pretext that it was a holiday. But he was handed over to a group of Muslim sheikhs whose aim was to “reform [his] religious beliefs and reorient [his] sexuality.”
The courage of Olad was formally recognised by the Colin Higgins Foundation, which handed him the award plus $10,000 to further his education. The Ithacan reported that Olad plans to set some of the money aside to create a visual media project dedicated to spotlighting the lives and experiences of LGBT+ Africans.
This is a project close to his heart: he’s written in the past about his relationship with Islam, the challenges he’s faced as a first-generation immigrant student and the necessity of campus hate speech policies to protect minorities from abuse.
His tale of escaping conversion therapy is particularly harrowing. When he arrived in Kenya he was confronted by bunch of sheikhs:
They briefly spoke to me about how being gay and atheist is unequivocally against my Islamic upbringing and African heritage. I knew that when they came back to get me the following morning, I would be forced to go with them.
A panicked Olad soon fled the hotel, lied to his family and contacted Ex-Muslims of North America, (EXMNA ) a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping Muslims who leave the religion and then face discrimination or misunderstanding.
The organisation helped him escape, providing aid which Olad writes sheltered him from the “known horrors” of gay and religious conversion camps. He said:
The leaders operate the camps around grim parts of Somalia and Kenya. They submit 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.
He has since dedicated himself to fighting against the practice of gay conversion therapy and trying to raise awareness of its survival in Africa, where it tends to be shrouded in secrecy.
We don’t have exact numbers of how many young people are forced to go to these camps, but we know the numbers are growing.
Though he successfully escaped conversion therapy, Olad – according to this report – still struggles to balance his activism and well-being. He said he received numerous threats via social media, prompting the Office of Public Safety at his college to ensure his protection.
When Olad got word out that he was in Africa against his wishes, the President of EXMNA , Muhammad Syed, contacted the US embassy in Kenya on Olad’s behalf. Olad stayed in the embassy while arrangements were made for him to flee the country.
EXMNA works to create a supportive network for ex-Muslims who are stigmatised for their apostacy, Syed said via email.
Those that are discovered or have the courage to live honestly often lose everything. The first and often the most difficult step to change attitudes is to speak up. What’s unique about Mahad is precisely this. His great courage to highlight his experience, in turn inspiring others to do the same.