Mahad Olad is a resident of Minnesota, an ex-Muslim, and a columnist for The Ithacan, Ithaca University's student newspaper. He has just been named the most recent winner of the Colin Higgins Foundation's Youth Courage Prize for his bravery when escaping gay conversion therapy in Kenya, an experience he has written about at length.


The prize includes a $10,000 grant, which Olad plans to put toward his education as well as "a visual media project dedicated to capturing the lives and experiences of LGBT+ Africans."

Olad's bravery is remarkable. After his freshman year of college, his family took him to Kenya, telling him it was a vacation to see their family. Once he arrived, however, his mother informed him there would be no family vacation. Instead, there were several sheikhs at their hotel who planned to escort him to gay conversion therapy — the next day:

I knew that it wasn't really a choice. A few sheiks were at our hotel that night. They briefly spoke to me about how being gay and atheist is unequivocally against my Islamic upbringing and African heritage. I knew that when they came back to get me the following morning, I would be forced to go with them.

Kenyan gay conversion therapy camps are dangerous and secretive, not unlike those in the United States:

The leaders operate the camps around grim parts of Somalia and Kenya. They submit their captives to severe beatings, shackling, food deprivation and other cruel practices.
It usually involves a rigorous Islamic curriculum. Those who fail to cooperate, make adequate progress or try to escape could possibly be killed.

Pretending to go along with his mother's plan, Olad went for a walk. He knew he needed help to escape back to the U.S.:

I knew I had to get out immediately. I was without access to money or even my passport, so I needed assistance. To buy myself some time, I told my mother that I was willing to go along with her plans. I told her I was going for a walk, and then I made a call to Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), an organization that supports people who have chosen to leave Islam. They quickly put me in touch with Executive Director Muhammad Syed, based in Washington, D.C. Mr. Syed reached out to the United States Embassy in Kenya to see if they could help me escape. I was told that if I could take a cab to the embassy they could shelter me and help me figure out how I could get back to the U.S.

Once his family was asleep, Olad escaped to the U.S. embassy, where many organizations collaborated to bring him to safety:

In the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep, I escaped from the hotel and made it to the embassy. Thankfully, the consul general welcomed me into his home until we could formulate a plan. The next problem was that I had no place to go and no money to get back to the U.S. I couldn't go back home to Minnesota and Ithaca College was basically closed for the summer. The consul general reached out to the college to see if they could help. Luckily, they were able to find a place for me on campus and EXMNA was generous enough to pay for my airfare back to the U.S.

Olad is now trying to raise awareness of the dangerous practice of conversion therapy and its continued presence in Africa:

We don't have exact numbers of how many young people are forced to go to these camps but we know the numbers are growing.


Olad earned this recognition for his courage and dedication. The United Nations has condemned conversion therapy as an example of "torture and ill-treatment," though many countries, including the U.S., continue its practice.

H/T - Indy 100, The Ithacan

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