Saturday, August 11, 2007

Fellow blogger Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton says: Pay attention. You'll want to remember this face.

This is Sybille N. Nyeck. You'll want to remember her name.

Some of you have met her or at least read some of her writings in The Witness. She is, without a doubt, one of the most original, creative theologians I have ever read.

A native of Cameroon, she taught herself English (French and Bantu are her mother tongues). Her mother is a teacher, so much of her early education was home-based. She attended Bible School for a time where she was able to polish her academic skills but, as a woman in her country, earned no diploma, degree or certificate.

I first met Sybille in July of 2001 when, at age 23, she was visiting the Sisters of St. Helena in Vails Gate, NY. In conversation with her, it became clear that she was in no small amount of difficulty in her country.

Her mother had remarried after her father's death and she had a younger step-sister who had Down's Syndrome. She had recently discovered that her step-father was sexually abusing her sister. Outraged, she filed charges against the man.

Her outrage was met in kind. In her country, she explained, men sexually abuse younger women with impunity, never really fearing consequences for their heinous actions. To make matters worse, it is almost unheard of for a woman to file legal charges against a man - much less a daughter against a parent.

However, the evidence was overwhelming and her charges stuck. Her step-father was hauled off to jail to await his trial. When rumor had it that he would be released on bail, Sybille began to fear for her life. She had fled the country for a time, which included visiting the Convent of St. Helena, to allow the outrage in certain parts of her community to quiet down before the trial.

Two years later, in an effort to further discredit her, her sexuality became the source of public knowledge. Threats - most of them very, very serious - were made against her life. Sybille began to send emails to those of us who had met her, pleading for help.

An elaborate plan began to come together. She got herself invited to Brussels to deliver a paper, and so was granted a travel visa. We then combined that with a short "vacation" to Paris, where a young Parisian woman named Katia, a curator at the Louvre and a member of an African LGBT activist group, agreed to sponsor her.

From Paris, I was privileged to be part of a small group of friends including Louie Crew, Ethan Flad and Barbara Crafton to help her to the United States. I well remember the night our Ms. Conroy picked her up at Kennedy Airport and she stayed with us for a few days to decompress and get herself acclimated. The good Sisters at St. Helena then gave her sanctuary for a month before the Flad family took her in. She finally settled in with the Franciscan Brothers in Brooklyn, who gave her a room and helped her to get herself established in this country.

Against almost all odds (given her continent of origin and her sexuality) she was awarded political asylum almost a year to the day of her arrival in this country. Those of us who supported her in this process were told by the folks at INS that her research and writing, published at The Witness, not only made the compelling case for her asylum, but laid the ground work which would insure the asylum of other African LGBT people.

Indeed, my testimony about this case during the 2006 Immigration hearings at General Convention Committee on Urban and Social Justice was compelling enough for The Episcopal Church to pass a resolution condemning the oppression and death threats of LGBT people in Africa.

Her path has been nothing short of meteoric. She graduated at the top of her class at LaGuardia Community College in Queens two years ago and was accepted at several prestigious private colleges to complete her BA, and ultimately chose Swarthmore. I am delighted to say that there are three alumna/ae of Swarthmore in my congregation, one of whom wrote her a sterling recommendation.

Sybille has more than proven herself an amazing scholar. She graduated from Swarthmore in May with honors with a double major in Comparative Literature and Political Science. She also successfully wrote a grant and completed a documentary of interviews of Cameroonian LGBT people which was debuted at Swarthmore in April. She hopes to submit it to film festivals so that the truth about African LGBT people can be more widely known.

I saw the film on Tuesday night. It is very, very impressive and deeply moving. To my surprise and delight, she has included as part of the sound track a song she wrote shortly after meeting me. Sybille herself sings it in French and plays all of the instruments on the recording, which she also produced. It is called, simply, "Elizabeth." I didn't understand half the words. No matter. It still made me weep.

Sybille applied to a number of schools for graduate studies. I know of at least three that accepted her, and she has decided to enter the PhD program at UCLA in political science. She has been awarded the most prestigious merit-based fellowship given by Swarthmore president's office and the graduate division and a very generous scholarship from UCLA.

She leaves Thursday for a month's vacation in Paris where she will stay with her dear friend, Katia. It's the first time she has had a vacation in five years. She then leaves Paris for LA where she will move into graduate student housing and begin her doctoral course work.

On Tuesday evening, Sybille came to visit us in the Rectory in Chatham for what may be the last visit for a while. But, there is no doubt that our paths will cross again. And, God willing, again and again and again.

I also have no doubt that you will also be hearing from this amazing woman in the not-so-distant future.

May God continue to richly bless you, Sybille, that you may continue to be a blessing to those who come to know you and be inspired by your work and thoughts.

[Emphasis in document is mine. INS stands for Immigration and Nationalization Service; it has been renamed the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and continues to provide slow, sloppy service. The Witness is a liberal Episcopal web magazine that has sadly ceased publication, but the archives are available online.

As we celebrate Sybille's accomplishments and her successful flight from persecution, remember that obtaining asylum on any grounds can be a very iffy feat, and not just in this country. Not everyone has the ability to actually get out of their country and/or get noticed by sympathetic foreigners. As for legally getting asylum, Rev Kaeton has previously showed that if you get the wrong judge, you may be screwed.]

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