Gabrielle ( she prefers not to use her last name ) was at her breaking point when she left Ecuador more than 10 years ago.
"I left for many reasons," said Gabrielle. "My family did not accept that I am a transgender woman. I was bullied by fellow students and teachers my entire time at school and got fired from my job because they perceived that I was gay. I faced many dangers in public places. My transgender friends and I got arrested because we wore dresses in public. The cops also beat us and threw gas at us before putting us in a jail cell with dangerous criminals. We got raped and tortured by those criminals."
Gabrielle knew she identified as a girl at a young age but her parents punished her whenever they found her wearing her cousin's dresses and makeup or playing with dolls. She said that despite her parent's punishments these were the happiest moments of her childhood.
The outside world was not any better. Gabrielle got bullied at her public school for wanting to dance and do craft activities. Gabrielle's parents put her into a private Christian school because they thought she could be "cured" through the school's brand of "conversion therapy" which was forcing her to fast for four days. This mistreatment continued throughout her time at a Catholic university until she could not take it any longer.
"I gave my country many opportunities and tried to make a life there, but I always got hurt," said Gabrielle. "Of the 17 trans friends I knew growing up only three of us are alive, and it is because all of us left Ecuador. The others either disappeared, were murdered, got arrested and then murdered in prison or were denied healthcare and died."
When Gabrielle came to the U.S on a J-1 internship visa she chose Gurnee, Illinois because of its proximity to Chicago. At first, Gabrielle did not know she could apply for asylum due to the discrimination she faced in Ecuador because of her gender identity.
"I thought I did not have any rights at all," said Gabrielle. "When you suffer so many traumas in your life you think that is normal and you accept that as your destiny in life."
At first, Gabrielle pursued other routes to stay in the U.S. with her immigration attorney Mike Jarecki. This included sponsorship through a family member and a U-1 visa because she was a victim of a hate crime in 2012. Due to the long wait times for the visa benefit, Jarecki advised Gabrielle of her right to apply for asylum which she did in November 2013. The process was long and arduous, according to Gabrielle, because her interview did not take place until May 2017.
"The interview was not easy because I had to talk about every single horrible situation I suffered back in Ecuador," said Gabrielle. "I was also going through depression at the time which made it worse. A year passed by and I never got an answer, so I sued the government to demand that they make a decision on my long-pending case. Amazingly, six weeks after that, on June 20 of this year, they sent my approval letter for asylum. I felt like I could breath and my new life was just about to start."
Currently, Gabrielle is completing her master's degree in finance from a private Chicago university. When she graduates next year she will be pursuing her own hedge fund. Gabrielle's goal is to create a safe work place for anyone in the LGBTQ community who wants to work in finance. She also wants to start grant programs for other transgender and gender nonconforming people so they can pursue their own dreams.
Gabrielle will be participating in an upcoming panel discussion, If Not Us, Who?, focusing on the worldwide struggle of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers alongside Jarecki, Chicago and Midwest Human Rights Watch Director Jackie Kaplan Perkins, Rainbow Railroad U.S. Development Officer Eduardo Hernandez and Center on Halsted Community Outreach and Engagement Coordinator Joanna Thompson.
"This is the first time I am doing such an event, but I am excited to help my community by telling my story," said Gabrielle. "I think that people who do not advocate for change are contributing to the mistreatment of asylum seekers. Having a quota for how many people can be granted asylum per year is unconscionable. We are all humans who should take care of each other because it is the only way we will survive. I dream of a world where discrimination does not exist and everyone has a fair shot at happiness."
The panel discussion will take place Thursday, August 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Center on Halsted. To RSVP for this $10 event visit www.eventbrite.ca/e/if-not-us-who-tickets-47916204658 .