With a budget of hundreds of dollars when thousands are needed, Victor Mukasa, executive director of the Kuchu Diaspora Alliance (KDA), is operating a cross-border operation to house and protect Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya, where a current effort to promote a stone-the-gays bill is underway.
Mukasa, who now lives in Baltimore, is one of the world's most visible transgender Africans and one of Uganda's most well-known LGBT activists. In his new home, he feels safe from the threat of murder which befell his fellow cofounder of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the late SMUG Executive Director David Kato. Kato was killed following the publication of a list of Uganda's "100 Top Homos" by a now defunct tabloid newspaper in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
Mukasa works from American shores to help lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people (sometimes self-identified with the Swahili-originated Ugandan term, "Kuchu") in east Africa in the face of terrifying situations for LGBTs in Kenyan refugee camps. He described a particularly disturbing incident during a recent Q&A with The Advocate.
The Advocate: How does the decision by the Ugandan Constitutional Court overturning the Anti-Homosexuality Act impact Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya and elsewhere — will they rush to go back to Uganda?
Victor Mukasa: The decision by the Constitutional Court was based on a technicality and not the key issues of human rights within the petition. It was a win indeed, but that has not changed our people's attitudes towards LGBT Ugandans. Uganda remains unsafe for LGBT individuals. You are aware that the ruling is undergoing plans for petitioning before the Supreme Court of Uganda. There has been a lot of negative reactions to the ruling; threats by politicians and religious leaders, and hostility from the public toward LGBT persons. Besides this, we still have sodomy laws on our law books under the penal code. These laws target the act. They have caused a lot of suffering to LGBT Ugandans even before the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed.
What are their conditions like in refugee camps?
The Kuchu Diaspora Alliance-USA (KDA-USA) is aware of the presence of Ugandan LGBT refugees in camps in different parts of the world. However, we have focused on the situation of those in Kenya. There are two types of LGBT refugees in in Kenya: those in the Kakuma Camp, northwestern Kenya and the urban refugees living in Nairobi and neighboring cities.
The conditions for both types are horrible. In Kakuma Camp, they have lately been under attack because of their perceived sexual orientation by fellow refugees, mostly, Sudanese and Somalians. The refugees report that there is no protection from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR); and the police have been reported to threaten the victims with application of Kenyan law, which prohibits homosexuality. One such attack took place on June 27, 2014.
A Ugandan LGBT refugee was stoned by Sudanese refugees who claimed that homosexuals do not deserve to live among human beings. The attackers went ahead and raided the area where the LGBT refugees camped and attacked them too. Efforts to get protection from the UNHCR were in vain. The police in Kakuma are reported to have harassed the victims even further. The LGBT refugees, for fear of being killed by their attackers, left the camp and spent the night at the UNCHR offices only to be ordered to return to the camp the following day without any protection. These kinds of attacks happen every now and then.
Some LGBT refugees who have spent a long time in the camp had got jobs such as teaching in the camp schools. Once it was learnt that they are gay, they were dismissed from their jobs. So they cannot work in the camp and yet have needs that they cannot afford to get. Such needs include medication, food, clothes, transport to the UNHCR offices to process their documents, hygiene essentials, among others.
For the urban refugees, mainly in the capital, Nairobi, housing, medication and food are the major problems. A lot of gay men have resorted to commercial sex work in order to survive. Recently, the KDA-USA launched an online crowdfunding initiative on GoFundMe.com. Our hope was to raise $10,000 in the shortest time possible. The donations are very few and at the end of July, we were able to send $850 to the urban refugees for 17 small rooms that accommodate 35 LGBT refugees. Many have fled Kakuma Camp because of the unbearable conditions there and as a result, the numbers of homeless LGBT refugees are rising in Nairobi. We hear of different initiatives supporting them financially but the refugees themselves do not know where those funds go. They need help and that is why the KDA-USA has stood in the gap.
What countries are hosting LGBT Ugandan as refugees from the now overturned Anti-Homosexuality Act?
There are over 150 LGBT individuals in Kenya. We have learnt that there are a few in a camp located in Namibia, over 10 in the US, several in Europe (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark, UK, Scotland, etc) and an unknown number in Rwanda.
What is the purpose of your fundraising effort and how will it help — especially now that the AHA is overturned?
The purpose of the KDA-USA's fundraising effort is to support these Ugandan LGBT refugees both in Kakuma Camp and in Nairobi and surrounding cities. We intend to help them with rent, food supplies, medication, transport, communication, clothing, beddings, etc. They are human beings who have fled their homes for safety reasons and we cannot look on as they suffer in a country where they are not permitted to work; in a country where they are discriminated against and abused daily. We cannot give them up to death. Many are sick and weak.
We have therefore set up a fundraising page. Already we have sent $950 to Nairobi for rent and transport. We need much more than this. We have no idea where we will find the rent for September. We have no idea where we will find funds for those who don't have accommodation yet. We need food and medical drugs. We call upon everyone to consider making a donation starting from $5. $50 dollars is enough to pay for one room that accommodates two people for a month. We are initially looking for a total of $10,000 for this work.
These refugees cannot return to a country that is becoming more hostile. Our victory in the Constitutional Court of Uganda was big but it does not change the daily lived realities of LGBT individuals.