A student attending Ithaca College in New York has been awarded the Youth Courage Award from the Colin Higgins Foundation, following his brave escape from a gay conversion camp in Africa.
The award also includes a $10,000 grant, which he plans to use for both his education and activism.
Last summer, Mahad Olad, a junior, went to Kenya with his family under the guise of a vacation.
Earlier this year, he wrote a personal account of his story for the school paper, The Ithacan.
‘When my mother invited me to come on a vacation to Kenya to visit our relatives, I thought it would be a good chance to spend some time together, reunite with family we hadn’t seen in awhile and explore East Africa,’ he wrote.
‘Little did I know that my mother had other plans in store for me.’
He explained his family came from a conservative Muslim background. Due to this cultural foundation, he had to hide both his atheism and his sexuality from them.
When they arrived in Kenya, Olad’s mother told him he wouldn’t be returning to the United States. He instead had to withdraw from school and would be ‘placed under the control of a group of sheiks whose goal would be to reform my religious beliefs and reorient my sexuality’.
He compared this place to conversion therapy elsewhere in the world, by employing abusive techniques.
‘They subject their captives to severe beatings, shackling, food deprivation and other cruel practices,’ he wrote.
Olad decided to go along with his mother, as part of his own ruse to escape.
He told her he was talking a walk and called the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA). This organization helps people who face discrimination for leaving Islam.
They got in touch with the US Embassy in Kenya, who took Olad in and paid for his airfare back to the US. Then Ithaca put him up in a place on campus.
Now 19, Olad hasn’t had any contact with his family.
‘Their rejection and treatment of me has been devastating,’ he wrote. ‘It has left me seriously questioning who I am and whether I deserve to be treated this way.
‘The loss of my family’s love and support, both financial and emotional, has been extremely traumatic.’
Screenwriter and director Colin Higgins (9 to 5) founded the organization in 1986. Its main goal is to help LGBTI youth in underserved communities.
The Youth Courage Award was established in 2000, honoring youth who have ‘endured overwhelming hardships, yet have handled themselves with the utmost grace and dignity.’
Olad was one of four winners from 167 nominees, and he said he was speechless when he got the news.
Now, he’s planning on using his money for his education and developing a project to highlight the experience of LGBTI Africans.
According to The Ithacan, the project is in early stages. Olad wants to feature both himself and his own story, as well as broader issues facing LGBTI people in Africa.