Laughter, music and the smell of great food filled the West Rogers Park home of hosts Christopher Gent and Sergio Nunez. The good times and revelry Saturday raised money to Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program ( CLASP ) to find more shelter for gay men fleeing from their anti-gay home countries.
CLASP currently serves nine men. They include 25-year-old Kachi Nwosu of Nigeria. There are two more men, one from Nigeria and another in Maryland, who are waiting to come to Chicago.
Seeing the people gathered in Gent and Nunez's living room left Nwosu more than amazed.
"It's overwhelming," Nwosu said. "I feel an overwhelming sense of support from the community. It's touching."
He also pondered what CLASP has done for him.
"[It's] given me the opportunity to live a free and happy life," Nwosu said.
Fellow CLASP asylee Valentino Tumbi, 33, also of Nigeria, expressed gratitude for the turnout. But Tumbi also noted why the fundraiser is so important.
"I feel it's a great opportunity that CLASP has to support the LGBT community," he said.
Tumbi also considered the difference between his life now and life in his home country.
"In America, I've been able to have a free life," he said. "In my home country, I can do that."
Gent said he was thankful for the opportunity for him and Nunez to host the event.
"We always enjoy having an event," Gent said.
Nunez acknowledged that coming out journeys can take various twists and turns.
"It's different for everybody," he said. "It can be different in different ways."
While recognizing that he was "a White guy," Gent pointed out that different cultures have different rules and that "people have different experiences."
John Adewoye, CLASP co-founder, expressed his thanks for those who'd come out to support CLASP.
"When a person is in distress and a hand of help shows up anywhere, that's very encouraging," Adewoye said.
People helping CLASP ensures that "no one feels less human." Adewoye said events like the fundraiser help lets the whole world know what's happening.
"We need actions from this side of the world," he said.
The Rev. Lois McCullen Parr, pastor Broadway United Methodist Church and fellow CLASP co-founder, spoke to the crowd gathered in the living room. McCullen Parr said people, who apply for U.S. asylum in their home countries, receive various benefits, including housing. People, fleeing to the U.S. and seek asylum, receive nothing.
"We're trying to fill that gap," McCullen Parr said.
CLASP is a part of the LGBT Faith & Asylum Network ( LGBT-FAN ), according to McCullen Parr. She also noted that Adewoye's home, which houses seven of the men, is also home to the Center of Independent and Courageous Living. That organization provides support to asylees working the asylum process.
Dennis Ojiyoma, CLASP's first graduate, spoke to the crowd. Ojiyoma came to the United States for the second time in September 2013.
"Everything you have, you're leaving behind," he said. "I came with a plan."
Ojiyoma was a social worker in his home country of Nigeria. That experience allowed him to begin an internship with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. That was one of the sure things in his life.
"You cannot predict the length of time the asylum process will take," Ojiyoma said.
He now has an apartment and two jobs. While Ojiyoma enjoys his America freedom, he's still trying to other things.
"I've not gotten used to the American food," he said.
Coming out and embracing who they are came with a big price tag for the CLASP participants. Nwosu told the crowd that he "packed his whole life in two suitcases."
"I decided I had to survive and I had to go," he said.
Nwosu described depending on the kindness of strangers and wondered what he'd find upon arriving at O'Hare International Airport. He was pleasantly surprised.
"[Adewoye] was standing there with a plaque with my name on it," he said. "I was finally safe and free."