Photo: Nelson Almeida / AFP / Getty Images
Photo: Nelson Almeida / AFP / Getty Images

It's been just over a year since Mahad Olad, a student activist and columnist for New York university website The Ithacan, escaped gay conversion therapy in Kenya.

Olad, who identifies as gay and an ex-Muslim, penned an emotive, in-depth article about his experiences; now both his bravery and his activism are being formally recognised by the Colin Higgins Foundation, which recently awarded him with a Youth Courage Prize.

The prize comes with a $10,000 grant, the majority of which Olad plans to spend on educational costs.

The Ithacanreported that Olad also plans to set some of the money aside to create a visual media project dedicated to capturing the lives and experiences of LGBT+ Africans.

This is a topic close to his heart: he's written in the past about his relationship with Islam, the challenges he's faced as a first-generation immigrant student and the necessity of campus hate speech policies to protect minorities from abuse.

His tale of escaping conversion therapy is particularly harrowing.

In the blog, Olad describes being tricked by his family and flown to Kenya, where he was advised to withdraw from college and surrender himself to a group of sheiks whose aim was to "reform [his] religious beliefs and reorient [his] sexuality."

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.

A panicked Olad soon fled the hotel, lied to his family and contacted Ex-Muslims of North America, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping Muslims who leave the religion and then face discrimination or misunderstanding.

The organisation helped him escape from that point onwards, providing aid which Olad writes sheltered him from the "known horrors" of gay and religious conversion camps.

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.

He has since dedicated himself to fighting against the practice of gay conversion therapy and trying to raise awareness of its survival in Africa, where it tends to be shrouded in secrecy. "We don't have exact numbers of how many young people are forced to go to these camps," he writes, "but we know the numbers are growing."

Conversion therapy also recently made UK headlines after the government officially launched its LGBT Action Plan.

One of its predominant aims was to stamp out the abusive practice, which has previously been condemned by the United Nations and listed as an example of 'torture and ill-treatment'.

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