At 22, Gramoz Prestreshi says he now has a reason to live. ''I'm in a safe country,'' he says, ''I can be just who I am -- that's all.''
Last week, Prestreshi received news that he had been granted political asylum in the United States, and no longer has to return to his native Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia.
It was in Kosovo that Prestreshi says he was brutally attacked more than once, and mocked by police and hospitals when seeking help, solely because he is gay.
(Photo by Todd Franson)
It's what ultimately led him to flee Kosovo in February, and eventually end up on the doorstep of Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington. With everything he owned packed in one suitcase and a backpack, Prestreshi had only three words to say: ''I need help.''
Todd Pilcher, a senior managing attorney at WWC, remembers meeting Prestreshi that day.
''He was unshaven, hadn't eaten in three days, and I think more than anything he wanted a cup of coffee,'' he says.
Pilcher says Prestreshi had stayed in a hotel upon his arrival in Washington until his money had run out, at which point he started asking people on the street where he should go for help. Prestreshi's encounter with people outside the downtown headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign led him to the Whitman-Walker Clinic, where he shared his story.
''My story starts from my family,'' Prestreshi says. ''They [found] out I'm gay from my aunt, because I needed to talk to somebody and I trusted her. So then she told them, and they started [to] beat me. I had to leave home.''
He then stayed at apartments in Kosovo that are maintained secretly by gay organizations. But things went from bad to worse when Prestreshi and his gay friend, Lorik, went out to celebrate New Year's Eve in 2005.
''We went [out] and [Lorik] was an [effeminate] guy, and you can't be different in my country,'' he says. ''We [were] beaten [by] two guys. They broke my nose, they cut my neck with a knife and ... they paralyzed [my friend's] hand.''
Prestreshi and Lorik called the police to report the attack. He later learned that the incident was the first time someone had called the police in Kosovo to report a hate crime based on sexual orientation.
''The police started joking with us, calling in my language words like 'faggot,''' says Prestreshi. ''Then they sent us [to a] hospital, where the doctor ignored us and said to us, 'You are sick people, I don't need HIV in my clinic.'''
After that attack, Prestreshi and Lorik talked to the press in Kosovo, and their story was published.
''They took a very, very courageous step in making it known publicly and speaking to the press,'' says Pilcher, ''Unfortunately, that even caused more negative attention for him.''
Prestreshi was brutally beaten again. And Lorik felt like he could not go on, Prestreshi says.
''He killed himself,'' he says, ''with pills and alcohol together. Because he couldn't push his life to live closed, and you know, you can't imagine [what it's like] to be in one room, and [not be able to] go outside.''
Upon hearing Prestreshi's story, Pilcher became his attorney, and determined to put the case on the fast track.
''There are clients who come to us in desperate situations and we do what we can to help them as quickly as possible, and there are other clients who are in a more stable conditions, and maybe we can spend a little more time, before we launch on being able to work on their case,'' says Pilcher. ''This is one that we felt we needed to take ... because he was in a very unstable situation. The sooner he could get asylum, the better.''
Kosovo, a partially self-governing and predominantly Muslim province of Serbia, is administered by the United Nations. According to Pilcher, the U.N. has established ''basic'' human rights laws, which prohibit discrimination against GLBT people.
''From what I understand, in practice that law is completely ignored,'' Pilcher says. ''The local governments, the courts, the prosecutors, the police do not recognize that as a valid law... . If [Prestreshi] were to go back as an openly gay man, he can expect to suffer as much as he did in the past couple of years, perhaps more,'' Pilcher says, noting that it would be difficult for him to find employment there, or walk in public without getting hurt, as he is now known for talking publicly about being gay.
''I think that people will hate him solely because of his sexual orientation, and will harm him without any fear of retribution from the government.''
Pilcher points out that, unfortunately, not everyone who shows up on Whitman-Walker's doorstep -- which he says happens often -- is granted political asylum.
''We get a new client practically every day, from all over the world,'' he says.
''Persecution is a very strong word,'' he says of why someone such as Prestreshi can hope to receive asylum. ''It's a much stronger word than 'discrimination.' It's when somebody's life or liberty is in great jeopardy by the government, or forces that the government can't or will not control, for a protected reason, like sexual orientation.''
Now that he has been granted political asylum, Prestreshi has the right to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely, according to Pilcher. Within one year after receiving asylum, Prestreshi will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, which grants lawful permanent residency. A few years after that he can apply for U.S. citizenship.
In addition to improving his English, Prestreshi says he is interested in studying sociology and fashion.
''I'm happy to start my life from zero,'' he says. ''I know it will be difficult for me... but I can be who I am, and be free in this country. It's just like a dream.''