Caught Between Borders: The Stories of Ismail, Faith and Jimmy, three African SOGI people in need of asylum
[An] investigation into the plight of African LGBTI asylum seekers revealed that systemic gaps in the asylum process mean that […] if you’re African and LGBTI, true safety is often unachievable. By M. Politzer and A. Hylton.
The first time his father tried to kill him, Ismail was 15 years old. By the time he turned 19, he had escaped four attempts on his life […] His father was intent on killing him to protect the family’s “honor.” No matter where he went, it seemed, his father had enlisted Somali immigrants to mete out his execution. Ismail’s crime? He is gay.
Slender and tall, Ismail dresses sharply, favoring bright colors and tight cuts. He wears a signature mixture of ladies’ perfumes, and carries a silver-chain necklace and anklet in his backpack that he longs to wear but is too afraid to put on. From a young age, Ismail displayed traits that he said were “woman things” – his walk, the way he spoke, how he moved his hands – mannerisms that were not “normal” and provoked his father’s ire. His father forbade him from school and kept him under house arrest.
One day, Ismail’s mother was out when his father discovered him coloring his nails black with a marker. As punishment, he scalded Ismail with boiling water, leaving a maze of angry blisters across his torso and neck. Ismail fled to a neighbor’s house to avoid being beaten, and he hid there until his mother returned.
His father attacked him twice more before his mother convinced Ismail to flee somewhere – anywhere – he might be safe. “She said that she couldn’t save me anymore,” he said, “because my father and the community wanted to kill me.”
With little more than the clothes he was wearing and some money his mother had managed to scrape together, Ismail said goodbye to Mogadishu. Wearing a coat and a red baseball cap tilted over his eyes to disguise his face, he got on a bus destined for Kenya – and, he hoped, to a friendlier place.
Before he made it out of the city, the bus stopped, and five men – their faces concealed by scarves – got on. One of them grabbed the back of Ismail’s coat and dragged him off the bus. The others blindfolded him, bound his arms behind his back with black wire, and shoved him into a car. They drove him to an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of Mogadishu, where they took turns beating him for the next three days.
“They were wearing boots, and they were kicking me against the ground,” he said. Deprived of food and water, cold and wet from sleeping under the rain, and aching from the relentless beatings, Ismail began to grow weaker. He realized that if he stayed, he would die.
Ismail began to think of how he might escape. He asked one of the men to untie him, convincing him that he was far too weak to be a threat. “Please,” he told the man. “Even if I am going to die, can you help?”
That night, while one of the men was praying, and the others were sleeping, he unbound his legs, which had grown numb from the restricted blood, and slowly crept away from his captors. “At first I couldn’t walk,” he said. “I had to crawl; I was so dizzy … and then I ran.”
After fleeing his captors, Ismail stumbled through the darkness until he reached a nearby farmhouse. He pounded on the door and begged for help. The home belonged to a couple with two small children – and though the husband tried to shoo him away, the wife took pity on him. She discreetly slipped him money, gave him food and a niqab to conceal his identity, and convinced her husband to drop him off at a bus stop a few hours away.
Under the protection of the niqab, Ismail didn’t dare speak, lest he give himself away. He took the bus to the Kenyan border, where he managed to bribe a truck driver to smuggle him into the country. (His mother had wired him money.)
Nairobi, the largest city in Kenya, is a sprawling, vibrant, diverse metropolis of skyscrapers and incessant traffic jams. Upon arriving in the capital, Ismail began to relax, feeling a sense of security in melting into the anonymity of the bustling city. He got odd jobs where he could, and even made a friend: another Somali named Adil, who, after some time, revealed that he, too, was gay.
After a few short months, however, Somali immigrants found and beat Ismail; he learned that his father had circulated a photograph of him. “The community is very small,” he explained. “I even had a sister in Nairobi, but I didn’t dare to see her – I didn’t want anyone to know I was there.” After the incident, Adil tried to convince Ismail to apply for asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “He told me that I don’t have to be afraid, that we can go to UNHCR and tell them our stories, and that they would protect us,” he said.
Ismail refused, so his friend went alone. Two days later, Ismail read in a newspaper that Adil was dead. Though he has no proof, Ismail believes that the UNHCR interpreter had passed on his story to members of the Somali community in Nairobi, who stabbed him to death. Bereft, Ismail called his mother to tell her the news. After doing some research, she convinced him to flee to South Africa.
(While a UNHCR spokesperson said they don’t have enough information to comment on Adil’s case, they take such allegations very seriously and intend to open an investigation into it. At the end of 2018, UNHCR readvertised translator positions in Kenya due to “dissatisfaction with the quality of translation” and will be providing translators with sensitization trainings on LGBTI issues.)
Ismail left for Johannesburg the next day.
Many LGBTI asylum seekers look to South Africa – the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination of sexual orientation in its post-apartheid constitution and the fifth to legalize same-sex marriage – as a potential safe haven. And while its domestic legal framework includes protections for LGBTI asylum seekers on paper, in practice, very few individuals receive asylum on the basis of sexual orientation, causing many to live underground or to be deported.
In addition to these overarching challenges facing all asylum seekers, those who identify as LGBTI face a double burden in getting their claims recognized and must contend with discrimination in the last place they’d expect it: in the asylum centers, many of which do not guarantee confidential interviews. Asylum seekers are at risk of being overheard by heteronormative asylum seekers hostile to people who are LGBTI; translators and asylum officers have, in certain cases, been prejudiced and lacked adequate training, so they ask intrusive questions or force alternative narratives; and the system operates on corruption, where bribes may be the only option to advance in the asylum process. According to Viljoen, these barriers can prevent people from asking for asylum, for fear of the persecution following them.
When a person lodges an asylum claim, they must explain the nature of their persecution, Viljoen explained: “But the centers are often packed with people. If you come from Nigeria, for example, you know that if you came out publicly as gay you’d be lynched and killed in the streets. And there you are in a crowd of Nigerians. You’re not going to disclose your real reason for applying for asylum.”
Ismail learned this lesson the hard way. It took him nine days to reach South Africa: He passed through vast areas of wilderness, rugged terrain, and farmland; and he crossed four international borders by foot, by car, by truck, by bus. When he entered South Africa from Mozambique, his mother had arranged to have someone pick him up, and he was taken to a Somali community in Johannesburg, where he lived for a few months. “I don’t know English; I don’t know anything,” he recalled, so he had no choice but to stay with the people whom he most feared. He did his best not to be noticed; he spoke to no one, and, except to eat meals with the group, he remained unseen.
One Friday, in 2015, he was standing in the Home Affairs queue, when he was attacked. The police were standing just a few feet away from him while he was being beaten, but they did nothing. “I said help me,” but “nobody tried to help,” he said. He managed to get away from his assailants and ran back to the place he was staying, where he cut his hair, changed into traditional Muslim clothes, then called his mother. She told him to go to Cape Town. Terrified, he never stepped foot inside the Johannesburg asylum center again.
Ismail hoped to have better odds when he boarded a bus from Johannesburg to Cape Town with less than 650 rand (about 50 USD) in his pocket and no contacts to help him. (His mother, having urgently researched on the Internet, had read that Cape Town was supposed to be friendly to LGBTI people.)
In Cape Town, Ismail wandered the streets until he found a mosque where he was able to wash his face. He went to the same mosque for the next three days to cleanse his skin, and, in between, he paced up and down the streets, hoping for some kind of miracle. Eventually, he decided to take a chance: he found a man who dressed “gay” and asked if he knew of a place he could shower. To communicate, the man used his smartphone to translate from English to Somali. He took Ismail to a sauna for gay men, and they soon became lovers.
Over the next year, the man gave Ismail a home and broke down the emotional walls Ismail had built to survive. Still, when he ventured outside, Ismail couldn’t avoid the perfidious: Three Somali men hid behind his boyfriend’s building, and as soon as Ismail stepped out of his temporary oasis, the men beat him with a stick and pounded the back of his head. The next morning, Ismail’s boyfriend took him to the police station. They never do much, however, he said of the police.
When we met Ismail in December 2017, he was aesthetically striking: He wore coiffed hair, a black cotton shirt, and African-printed pants; his bright eyes, contoured by long eyelashes, dripped when he spoke of his mother. His boyfriend had since left him, and he’d been recovering from the latest in a series of attacks: Another group of Somalis had mercilessly pummeled his genitals. He needed surgery to repair damage to his testicles that, for months, had been postponed.
While Cape Town has been called Africa’s “gay capital,” that openness doesn’t necessarily extend to LGBTI-identified people who also happen to be black. A 2017 study by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the South African Institute of Race Relations found that four out of 10 LGBTI South Africans know of someone who has been murdered “for being or suspected of being” LGBTI – with black members of the community twice as likely as white respondents to know someone who was murdered on account of their sexuality.
Ismail struggles to support himself financially and is frequently beaten. He periodically sends us WhatsApp messages with his face bloodied and swollen; he receives phone calls threatening him: “You will die soon,” the voice tells him. In May 2018, he was still waiting for asylum when authorities asked for a bank statement and proof of address, neither of which he has; he has since become undocumented. “Still,” he said, “I’m fighting.” In September he finally received his operation. He sent pictures of himself in a hospital cap and gown. “Everything’s OK now,” he said. “You don’t have to worry.”
[…] Nathan’s small organization, the African Human Rights Coalition, is technically dedicated to advocating for LGBTI rights in Africa, but, in reality, most of her time goes to fielding calls from terrified LGBTI Africans seeking safety. Nathan does her best to provide “ad hoc” exile strategies, humanitarian assistance, and general resources and advice – even if she knows that the scant information she can share is woefully inadequate.
For many LGBTI asylum seekers, the only available option is to apply for refugee status with UNHCR directly in a neighboring country.
Sometimes people call Nathan seeking help to escape their countries. “It’s extremely frustrating, because I don’t have a pretty picture to offer someone who is suffering so badly,” Nathan said. While she can tell them where to go, they must make the perilous journey – which is sometimes life-threatening, expensive, and can involve crossing multiple borders – alone. “It’s often extremely dangerous, and then once they arrive they’ll have to be in what is essentially a prison camp for the next three to four years, on the off chance that they’ll be resettled.”
Until recently, many of her callers would end up in Kakuma refugee camp, in northwestern Kenya, bordering Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia.
That’s how Faith, a trans woman who was forced to flee Uganda after narrowly escaping death at the hands of her father, found herself in Kakuma camp. (In Uganda, being homosexual is illegal, with a penalty of life in prison. Human rights activists report that many inmates suffer torture and neglect while in police custody.) Faith’s first impression of Kakuma was that it was a desperate place. The camp consists of rows of simple buildings with corrugated-steel roofs surrounded by baked red earth in Turkana County, one of the poorest regions of northwestern Kenya. Originally established in 1991 to care for Sudan’s “lost boys,” it’s since ballooned into Kenya’s second-largest refugee camp, and, as of December 2018, it hosts more than 187,349 refugees from across Africa.
Faith immediately sought the LGBTI community, who, with the aid of UNHCR, established residence in a separate part of the camp – a deliberate segregation intended to keep them safe from other refugees, local Indigenous populations, and the police.
At first, Faith felt hopeful about her decision to travel to Kakuma. She met other transgender women for the first time, many of whom wore dresses and makeup. “I thought it is a safe place where I can make myself to be me,” she said. She, too, began to dress in a way that felt more authentic, wearing women’s clothing and makeup. “I was happy – it was the first time I really felt comfortable.”
But that impression quickly soured. Life in a refugee camp isn’t easy for anyone – Kakuma is crowded with people from many different countries, with differences in culture, all compounded by hunger due to food rationing. Frustrations over delays with asylum claims mean that conflicts are common.
Faith soon discovered that refugee camps are not as safe for LGBTI asylum seekers, who often encounter from fellow refugees the same homophobia, discrimination, and even violence that they sought to escape.
For Faith, the harassment started with cruel words from other refugees, but soon escalated to violent attacks. Faith said that other refugees would sometimes stalk her and other transgender women, and she soon felt afraid of leaving her tent. When she went to UNHCR to complain, she said they suggested that she try not to draw so much attention to herself by not wearing women’s clothes. “We reported every harassment, but they did nothing,” she said.
Faith and her friends began to feel unsafe inside their compounds, too. “We would sleep in shifts,” she said. “We were so frightened. So long as someone was awake, nothing would happen. But then one day I found everything was cut – my mattress was removed, my clothing was cut. They had just destroyed everything.”
That moment marked a tipping point for her. It was Easter, Faith said, and it was raining heavily that day when she and several other transgender women decided to protest outside of UNHCR. The small group stood near the office, shouting slogans, when they were approached by a group of men – members of the local Indigenous Turkana people.
“They had weapons – a panga, which is like a big knife, and big sticks with them,” she said. “There were many in number, probably more than thirty. I couldn’t count all of them.”
The group attacked them, beating them so badly that one of Faith’s friends ended up in a coma. While the local police broke up the fight, Faith said that they didn’t arrest any of the attackers, instead delivering the injured protestors to the UNHCR staff, who drove them to the hospital.
“After that, I didn’t want to go back to Kakuma,” she said. “It’s dangerous in Nairobi – you need to make your own way, and they can put you in jail – but at least it’s anonymous.”
Faith headed to Nairobi that same month, where, like in Uganda, she has suffered multiple beatings and risks imprisonment.
At long last, however, Faith recently received the hopeful news that her asylum application is under review at the Canadian embassy. Her interview took place at the end of January 2019. Her application was accepted, and she is supposed to be relocated in the next few months. “I am praying that it will go well,” she said. “Here there is no future for me.”
Jimmy*, a gay man, fled Uganda where he escaped being butchered, a family who disowned him, destruction of his property, and endless nights in police cells. In 2015, he ended up in Kakuma, where, like Faith, he faced daily threats of violence and illness. “This place is horrible; it’s like another hell,” he said over a voice note in February 2018.
In 2016, Jimmy was approved for resettlement in the United States and was scheduled to leave in January 2017, the month President Trump came into office and issued his infamous travel ban. But the call for Jimmy to board his flight to the United States never came. Months went by until finally the International Organization for Migration (IOM) informed Jimmy that he’d be on a flight in July 2017. He sold off all of his belongings, gave up his job, saved up the “little pennies” he had and borrowed money from friends. “I became very happy … I will finally leave this place,” he remembered thinking.
Two days before his departure date, the IOM told him that the Supreme Court had upheld parts of Trump’s executive order and that he would be unable to resettle in the United States at that time. “I’m waiting for my flight, but there is no flight for me,” Jimmy said. “I feel like hanging myself.” A few months ago, Jimmy contracted malaria. “It was the end of the road for me; I had to start from zero,” he said.
Finally, in November 2018, Jimmy was resettled to Chicago – but he is one of a small minority. According to UNHCR statistics, only 1 percent of refugee applicants globally are submitted for resettlement. And of those submitted for resettlement from Africa this year, there are only sufficient spaces allocated for 4 percent of applicants. That means that very few African LGBTI asylum seekers make it to a third country. Some become disillusioned with the long asylum-seeking process and disappear. Others don’t survive the wait.