For Wilberforce* – a gay Ugandan refugee – resettlement couldn’t have come sooner.
Wilberforce’s partner had come visiting at his apartment, like he always did. Once the two were settled inside they heard a knock on the door and opened it to find his partner’s brother, who worked for the Ugandan military. Like the rest of their families, the brother didn’t approve of their same sex relationship. He had tracked them down to Wilberforce’s place, where he believed the two spent time nurturing their secret relationship.
On entering the house, he pounced on Wilberforce and started beating him up. When his partner tried to intervene, he received a beating of his own – worse than what had been meted out to Wilberforce. His head was crushed hard against the concrete floor. By the time the situation was contained and the brother restrained by Wilberforce, it was already too late. Wilberforce’s partner had suffered internal head injuries that resulted in a fatal brain hemorrhage. Wilberforce almost breaks down narrating this to me on phone.
Wilberforce’s father disowned him after the incident, telling him he was no longer his son and asking him never to be in touch with his family. His father’s decree came after the publication of names of gay Ugandans by a leading tabloid. He had escaped the tabloid’s net, but people around him had started suspecting that he and his lover were having a relationship. Once his lover’s brother struck, there was nowhere for Wilberforce to hide.
He abandoned his comfortable life in Kampala and fled to Nairobi.
Once in Nairobi, Wilberforce contacted UNHCR, which advised him to find his way to Kakuma refugee camp. He took a bus from Nairobi to Eldoret, a town in the Kenyan Rift Valley. From there he took a second bus to Kitale and it was already 2am when he started the next journey to Lodwar in arid Northern Kenya, before the final four hour journey to Kakuma. Here he met other Ugandans on the run from persecution. This made Wilberforce part of the early group of Ugandans that arrived in Kenya in 2011 and whose caseload was prioritised and fast-tracked by the UNHCR.
The Makerere University graduate lived for two and a half years in the Kakuma refugee camp in the semi desert of Northern Kenya. When life got unbearable – as he says it does for everyone at the camp and especially for gay and transgender refugees and asylum seekers – Wilberforce would contemplate leaving the camp to come and live in Nairobi. But he opted to stay on, since in Nairobi he would be on his own with no direct support from UNHCR. Kakuma was hell, he says, but at least UNHCR was present, providing tents, basic healthcare and food.
Wilberforce says they were very few Ugandans in those early days, all of them living in an enclosed area which made them lonely and vulnerable to other groups in the camp. Yet Wilberforce is in fact most sympathetic to the plight of LGBTI refugees from other countries. He says Somali refugees faced the worst forms of harassment and discrimination thanks to their community’s hostility towards homosexuality. The situation was made worse because they could not leave Kakuma and come to Nairobi, fearing police harassment, since all Somali refugees are now suspected of terrorism. And like the Burundians, Congolese and Ethiopians, the other big challenge for the Somalis was their inadequate grasp of languages beyond their local dialects, making it almost impossible for them to secure employment within the camp. The Ugandans who spoke English were employed to teach in the local schools within the camp. This, Wilberforce says, made things a little better for them.
Eventually, he was brought to the International Organization of Migration’s (IOM) transit house in Nairobi. He says once he got here he wasn’t allowed to leave until the time came for him to be taken to the airport. Everything was done for him – you are catered for – he says. The transit house in Nairobi had beds, like a lodging, and Wilberforce stayed there for two days before being taken to the airport. There, as he waited to board his flight, alongside other refugees making the journey, Wilberforce was given snacks he could only have dreamed of in Kakuma.
Wilberforce’s sense of relief is palpable over the phone, even a year later, from thousands of miles away where he is starting a new life.”
Wilberforce’s sense of relief is palpable over the phone, even a year later, from thousands of miles away where he is starting a new life.
I ask Wilberforce what it feels like to be in a new country away from the hardships of Kakuma, and now he can’t talk. He tries to utter words but they are swallowed by huge sighs.
“It’s a huge relief,’’ he finally says. ‘‘It‘s such a huge relief.”
In March 2015, almost a year after Wilberforce had started his new life in a new country, a group of LGBTI Ugandan refugees and asylum seekers showed up at UNHCR’s Nairobi office on Waiyaki Way in Westlands. They brought with them a memorandum of demands, telling UNHCR officials they wouldn’t vacate the premises unless their demands were met. When the UNHCR wouldn’t budge, the Ugandans brought out blankets and spent the night outside in the cold. The following day Kenyan police were called in. The Ugandans refugees say they were manhandled by both the police and UNHCR security guards, who were trying to make them vacate the premises.
In their detailed memorandum, the Ugandans claim the Kenyan government had informed them that they did not qualify for asylum and that they were only being granted refugee status on ‘exceptional’ grounds. This, they said, was because the Kenyan state was trusting that the UNHCR would quickly get them all out of the country as soon as they received refugee status, since homosexuality is illegal in Kenya.
In other words the Ugandans were claiming the Kenyan state was giving them refugee status only as long as UNHCR would speedily and automatically resettle all of them. Among the things UNHCR told the Ugandans was that resettlement to third countries was not guaranteed and, even if it came, would take longer than imagined – up to three years – since a series of interviews had to be conducted at different stages. Resettlement was not a right but a privilege. The other heartbreaking piece of information, especially for newly arrived Ugandans, was that the duration between successive appointments on determination of refugee status and other UNHCR procedures was going to take months, due to what the UNHCR called lack of capacity. There wouldn’t be any financial assistance since most Ugandans had outlived the 3-month period during which UNHCR supports new arrivals.
Christopher*, one of the Ugandan refugees living in Nairobi (where he migrated after life in Kakuma got unbearable) claims the UNHCR is picking on Ugandans, and unfairly so. He tells me the UNHCR, through HIAS Kenya, its NGO implementing partner, had promised them a monthly stipend of 6,000 Ksh each for as long as they were in Nairobi. Christopher had previously worked as a teacher, earning 5,800 Ksh per month, before he lost his job in a controversy about his sexuality. The new stipend was introduced after he was deemed to be part of an at-risk group, unable to work. But after receiving the money for a few months they were told they should each present a business proposal to the UNHCR, which would be seed-funded with 20,000 Ksh. Christopher says this was impractical, since not all Ugandan escapees are business minded.
“What if the business fails? Out of three hundred, ten may succeed. Then what happens to the rest? Will they go back to receiving the 6,000 or will that be the end of the road?” he asks.
About the protest at UNHCR in Nairobi, of which he was a part, Christopher has no apologies.
“Twenty of us decided we were going to sleep at UNHCR. Others were scared. We slept there. UNHCR asked for our file numbers. The guy who took them didn’t return. We were hungry. We didn’t have transport to go back home. We were told to go back to HIAS and do an assessment. We told them we had done our assessments already. So we slept at UNHCR. UNHCR only acts when you push them. People wrote to Geneva the other time. That is how things started moving. Should we write to Geneva again or should we wait for Obama?” he asks.
But that’s not the end of the battle between the UNHCR and the Ugandans.
Part of a UNHCR document asks the Ugandans, like all urban refugees, to be discreet and not blow their cover as LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers. But Christopher feels the UNHCR has become unreasonable, saying it has asked them not to have sexual relationships with anyone outside the group of Ugandans, because if they do they will be exposing themselves to risk.
“It is natural to have feelings,” he says, “it doesn’t matter whether one is Kenyan or Ugandan or Somali. It is normal to get attracted to someone. And if I am attracted to someone and I have the courage to approach them then I will do so. I don’t understand how UNHCR can say I shouldn’t when I will be in Nairobi for next two years. Or am I supposed to live a confined life?” he asks.
Then, in tears, Christopher tells me a part of his story which he says he hasn’t used in his asylum seeking application because it may not be politically correct or sexy enough to have him granted refugee status. This is that his mother was a Muslim when she married his Christian father, and eventually converted to Christianity. Years later, when his family got to know that Christopher was gay, the whole blame was placed squarely on his mother, who was told her son’s supposedly deviant sexual orientation was punishment for her abandoning Islam. The resulting friction strained his parent’s marriage so much, he says, that they eventually parted ways.
Christopher still blames himself for his parent’s divorce.
Christopher’s mother remarried and had more children, his younger sisters, and for a brief period, life seemed livable once more. His stepfather sent him and his sisters to the best school money could afford in Kampala, and his mother looked happy again.
This was shattered when Christopher’s stepfather passed on, leaving the family in limbo.
Being just over 25 years old and having been in Kenya for the last four years trying to pursue his resettlement, Christopher considers himself a total failure.”
Tears flow freely when Christopher talks about his sisters going without food and his mother being an outcast. He tells me he blames himself for putting his mother in her current state, for ruining her marriage to his father and for not being in a position to support her now that she is a widow. Being just over 25 years old and having been in Kenya for the last four years trying to pursue his resettlement, Christopher considers himself a total failure.
He wipes his tears and tells me he can’t go back to Uganda in this empty handed state.
*The names of individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.