As Pride is celebrated in June, people are looking back on all of the accomplishments and progress the LGBTQ community has made — like the recent Supreme Court decision that bans LGBT employment discrimination.
But we also need to remember: In over 70 countries, it is still illegal to be gay, lesbian, or transgender. In four, the punishment is death. These hostile environments are life-threatening, leaving some with no choice but to escape and seek a new life in other countries to face entirely new challenges.
The new documentary Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America follows several LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers as they leave their home countries for safety in the United States — a country that continues to demonize immigrants and drastically restrict admittance of refugees and asylum seekers.
For Unsettled director Tom Shepard, volunteering with a refugee resettlement organization in 2014 sparked the inspiration for this project. But Shepard knew that finding subjects who were willing to share their journeys would require more than just meeting people. He would need to listen, watch, and establish relationships.
"I think they saw too that I was interested in not just swooping in and telling a story, but being around for months if not years and getting to know people and building trust," he says.
Through volunteering, Shepard met his documentary's subjects: Subhi Nahas from Syria, Junior Mayema from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cheyenne Adriano and Mari N'Timansieme from Angola.
"The reason why we accepted to be in the film is that we saw we could actually help educate people, society," says Adriano. "Because a lot of people have no idea the difference between refugee and asylum seekers, first of all. And there's still that stigma that refugees or asylum seekers or immigrants come to the United States to steal American jobs or take something away from them ... so we kind of wanted to show the struggles we actually go through."
Adriano and her now-wife Mari N'Timansieme met over 10 years ago, fell in love and worked together as musicians, performers, and entrepreneurs in Angola. However, harassment from their community and families only intensified the longer they stayed together.
"All the persecution just started getting worse [to the point] where our lives were in danger, so that's when we had to find a way to escape," recalls Adriano.
After first trying to seek refugee status in South Africa, they had to return to Angola after their visas expired. After facing danger once again, Adriano and N'Timansieme secured student visas to the United States and started their three-year adjudication process for asylum.
Shepard notes that resettlement in the United States is largely modeled on families where people can get connected with other people from their country and have access to more resources. But when you're an LGBTQ person trying to resettle in America, you may not even want to see other countrymen out of fear that you'll face the same treatment or harassment in your home country.
"What we were finding as we were making the film is the LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers are at much higher risk for isolation and also depression and PTSD," he explains. "And if [volunteer] groups are not in place who is going to help people?"
Adriano says it's important that Unsettled shows the ups and downs of a very long legalization process.
"This is really what we were here for — to build a dignified life, not being persecuted," she says.
The years it took to officially get approved to stay in the United States were filled with challenges for Adriano and N'Timansieme. From working under the table to support themselves to recounting their shared stories of persecution over and over to state officials, Adriano says it's not easy to get over. But she's hopeful that the stories shared in Unsettled can make a positive change.
"It takes time. There are days that you're definitely going to fall into that rabbit hole again and get that depression, but I don't have any hate or anger in my heart honestly ... I'm very at peace now," she says.
Unsettled premiered on DocWorld on PBS on June 28. It is now available to stream for free until July 12.