‘I’m not dying without a fight’: the story of Victor
This is the story of Victor, a Nigerian man who fled home because being gay is a crime and who wants his story to be one of hope [story collected by Elisa Menendez for Metro].
As Victor […] sped through the roads of Lagos desperately trying to escape police, the same words kept going over and over in his head:
‘I thought, if I’m going to die, I’m not going to go down without a fight. I’m not going to make it easy for you.’
Recalling the moment he was caught kissing his boyfriend in the car, Victor tells Metro.co.uk: ‘When two men are caught together, they’d be beaten up by a mob, set ablaze, burnt alive.
‘I was sure they were going to catch us.’
The 27-year-old never imagined he would become a refugee. Having come from a well-off family and launching his own business after studying mechanical engineering at university, Victor thought his life was set.
But growing up in Nigeria, where homosexuality is a crime, and with a strict religious family who believe it is a sin, he was left with no alternative.
Victor endured conversion therapy, exorcisms, and a brush with death before he sought UK asylum in 2017 with the hope of living life freely as a gay man. But his struggles were far from over and he became homeless within two months.
Fast-forward four years and Victor is now happily married living with his husband in Birmingham and fulfilled in his ‘wonderful’ work at Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre.
‘It’s given a purpose to my struggle,’ says the Refugee Week ambassador. ‘I feel like it wasn’t meaningless suffering because I can help other people – I can be a source of advice and comfort.’
Nigerian nationals have accounted for some of the highest numbers of UK asylum claims based on their sexuality over the past five years, with a 47% increase in 2019 alone.
It is largely put down to the introduction of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, passed in 2014 by Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan, which effectively bans homosexuality.
Under the law, gay marriage or sex is punishable by up to 14 years behind bars, while public displays of affection or membership of gay rights groups carry up to a 10-year sentence.
The harsh legislation has forced LGBT+ people in Nigeria to live a mainly underground existence, while human rights groups say it has left many open to police persecution and even torture.
In Victor’s case, he felt unsafe not only in public but also inside his own home.
Growing up in a devout Pentecostal Christian household led to ‘a lot of self- hate’ during his teenage years. One day, overcome with guilt over his first sexual relationship with a boy in his class, 16-year-old Victor confided in his pastor, who urged him to tell his mother.
‘After that, I got put in conversion therapy for the first time,’ he recalls. ‘I went through pretty much every type in the book. They wanted to believe I was “cured”.’
Over the next three years, Victor went through spiritual, psychological and religious methods of conversion therapy, which aims to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender.
‘Because I felt like I was committing a sin and this is wrong – that God would be angry with me – I kind of went willingly at first,’ he explains.
It wasn’t until Victor decided to travel overseas to Coventry University at age 19, that he realised he could ‘live a life that wasn’t shameful’ and came out as gay for the first time. He enjoyed relationships and got involved in the community, joining the LGBT+ society and working at a gay bar, before securing a job at a high-flying tech firm.
The then-student felt he’d even made a breakthrough with his paediatrician mother, having sent to her medical research papers that prove homosexuality is natural.
‘Going home I thought we could finally have a conversation about it in real scientific terms and not religious terms,’ he says. ‘Those were the hopes I held onto.’
But when Victor returned to Nigeria in late 2016, things worsened.
‘After having lived out for four years with all of that freedom, I really couldn’t be closeted as people would’ve expected,’ he explains.
Within weeks, his family became ‘very aggressive’ and started forcing him through ‘traumatic’ all-night exorcisms, which his relatives described as ‘night vigils’, while he was launching a tech start-up.
‘I’d get home from work and there would be a pastor in the kitchen waiting to exorcise me of the homosexual demons,’ he says.
He describes how he was put through ‘night vigils’ twice a week, before one ‘prophet’ concluded they would have to find Victor a wife. His family then set about planning a forced marriage.
On one occasion, he was driven hours out of Lagos city and told only that he was going to ‘The Mountain’, which he describes as a small church surrounded by forest.
‘I didn’t know where in the world I was,’ he recalls. ‘I was there three days with no food or water. It was a dry fast – I was basically starved.
‘There were 10 to 12 hours of prayer sessions every day, where the prophet and assistants would put me in a circle and jerk and push me around.
‘They’re very violent prayers. You’re being slapped to get the demons out of you. They say they’re not hitting you, that they’re hitting the demons – but, it’s me.’
While trying out Lagos’ underground LGBT+ dating scene Victor went through a series of devastating events, including falling victim to a scammer who purported to be gay to steal his money.
One night, while parked in an abandoned train station believing it was safe, Victor and his boyfriend were caught by two plain-clothed police officers on motorbikes.
‘He shone his flashlight into the car and saw us making out. We started to panic. Then he tried to yank open the door,’ he recalls.
Fearing for their lives, Victor locked the doors, turned the key in the ignition and fled. But while trying to get away, they smashed into a parked train, completely crushing the right side of the car and shattering the windscreen.
Miraculously, the pair were unharmed – despite being covered in shards of glass – and sped off again with the officers in pursuit. But just as Victor managed to lose them, they came to a police check point.
As an officer looked ‘puzzled’ at the wrecked car, he received a call from one of the cops on the motorbikes. Victor heard him scream down the phone ‘stop them’.
Victor backed up the car to make a run for it but as he sped towards the gate, officers put spikes up on the road. He put his foot on the accelerator and kept going ‘as fast as I could’ despite puncturing his tyres.
However, when the pair got to the main road, they hit traffic. Victor urged his partner to ‘get out and run’.
‘At that point I was relieved that at least I got to save him,’ he recalls.
Eventually, Victor managed to lose police by taking side roads until his left tyre deflated. He abandoned his car and took refuge at a friend’s house.
‘I couldn’t speak. I was in fear. They kept asking me what happened and every time I tried to, I just burst out in tears,’ he says.
Struggling to hold everything together, the graduate soon lost his UK work contract and his business fell apart. Stuck at home with no job, no car, no money and still undergoing weekly exorcisms, Victor fell into a deep depression and planned to take his own life.
‘I felt like the day I died was in that car… My life was completely bleak, there was nothing,’ he says.
After confiding his intentions to a friend, he was persuaded to get a job in PR in Lagos and look towards his graduation.
In July 2017, Victor returned to Coventry for the ceremony and a friend urged him to seek asylum.
‘I thought no. You hear the word “refugee” and you think “oh god that’s not me”,’ he says.
‘But a few days after my graduation, I was on a train looking out at the countryside and I remember feeling so peaceful. For the first time there was possibility. And I thought to myself, “you can’t go back”.
‘I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t make it past that year. If I wasn’t killed, I’d kill myself – it was one or the other.’
That month, Victor applied for asylum based on sexual orientation. But after struggling to access support, he ran out of money and became homeless after two months.
Following a stint in a shelter and emergency Home Office accommodation, he was finally moved into shared housing in December and spent the next year ‘stuck in limbo’, unable to work and living on £5.66 a day.
‘I knew I couldn’t go back because that was certain death. Staying here in that system – there was no other option. Even though it was marginally better, it was still a horrible time,’ he recalls.
In March 2019 his asylum application was finally approved and ‘felt like world had finally opened up’ to him.
Within weeks, he moved back to Coventry and got a job as a business coordinator at the refugee centre, where he has worked ever since.
‘It’s honestly wonderful. I feel like the difficulties I’ve experienced – it’s given meaning to that,’ he adds.
Since then, Victor has gone from strength to strength and recently got married in May, after proposing to his husband on a romantic Cape Verde getaway last year.
He is even speaking to his mother again, after having some difficult conversations.
Despite the immense hardships Victor has endured, he wants his story to be one of hope and to serve as a lesson against prejudice
He adds: ‘I used to think anyone could be successful if they just worked hard enough. I’ve learned from my own experience that that’s just not true. Everybody needs a bit of luck.
‘I never thought I’d take on the status of a refugee… I was successful but because of prejudice I lost it all.
‘Just look at a person and think that person could easily be me with a few changed circumstances.’
Speaking during Pride Month and Refugee Week, he said his message would be to urge others to show kindness – particularly to those who have not had the same opportunities.
‘Give people a chance and try not to judge,’ he adds. ‘We all have our preconceptions about different people – refugee, gay, lesbian, trans… the problem is those preconceptions can make us inhumane.
‘If the people who are suffering the most – asylum seekers who can’t find their way through the system, people sleeping rough – had kindness and opportunity, you would be amazed at the things they will go on to do.
‘Going through difficulty has a way of making resilience out of people. It’s absolutely true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’