'Nowhere To Go,' Ugandan LGBT Activist Applies For Asylum In U.S.

May 11, 2014
Originally published on May 11, 2014 5:31 pm

Citing an environment of fear, persecution and anti-gay violence in his home country of Uganda, John Abdallah Wambere has applied for asylum in the United States.

Wambere, 41, came to prominence for his work with Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, an organization that advocates for LGBT rights and provides health and education services.

He announced his decision to seek asylum at a news conference on May 6 in Boston. Wambere is currently living in Cambridge, Mass.

According to an affidavit filed in support of his asylum application, Wambere left Uganda for the U.S. on Feb. 20. At the time, he says, he planned to return home.

Then, on Feb. 24, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalizes homosexuality, as well as "aiding and abetting homosexuality," and "promotion of homosexuality."

Violators of the law can face sentences of 14 years in prison for a first-time offense, and up to life in prison for the offense of "aggravated homosexuality."

In the wake of the law's signing, Wambere said he feared what returning to Uganda could mean — physical violence, life imprisonment or even death.

Wambere's U.S. visa expired on May 7, but he will be able to remain in the country while awaiting a decision on his asylum application, filed with the assistance of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

If he's not granted asylum in the U.S., he tells NPR's Arun Rath, "I have nowhere to go. Home is not safe, and it's not even a place I would want to think about."


Interview Highlights

On deciding to apply for asylum

When I came to the U.S., I didn't have any intention of seeking asylum. I was coming to do my usual work — lobby, advocate and fundraise for my organization, Spectrum Uganda.

And three days later [after my arrival], the bill was signed. This made it very difficult for me to think how, if I went back, I would be at risk, because the [Ugandan] newspapers went ahead and outed me and a couple of my colleagues, giving names and addresses.

And I just imagined what it would mean if I was on [the] ground, being someone who has been so much on the forefront [of gay rights in Uganda].

Through all this, I kept pondering, "What could I do?" And I noticed that I would still be able to support my people back home, while I'm in a much more safe environment.

On the current environment for LGBT Ugandans

It reached an extent where you weren't even guaranteed of your own security, where you wouldn't even trust the next person, because ... people were being compromised by all the anti-gay groups who are trying to spy on you.

The fact that you cannot be able to know what your neighbor is thinking, this has put a lot of people in danger, where police have swung into action, storming people's houses and picking them out of the houses.

There is a lot of blackmail and extortion going on with the police. A couple of people have been undressed in public just to ensure or to prove, "Are you a woman or a man?"

I mean, [there have been] situations where people are being degraded and humiliated, being paraded before the media, and all these hate speeches and all the negative [reporting] that has come out in the [Ugandan] media.

On telling his family about his decision to seek asylum

I haven't discussed this with my immediate family, apart from one. And I told him not to actually reveal it. My [16-year-old] daughter doesn't know that I'm not going back. My nephews, I mean, they write me emails and they are like, "Uncle, when are you coming back?"

And I have to tell them that I still have a couple of things that I am doing. It breaks me, because I'm still holding this from them, because I can't know how they will feel.

Just yesterday, one of my very own friends — actually, my staff at work — broke down and told me that he's so disappointed and ...he's so stressed that I'm not going back.

And I asked him what he felt like. And he's like, "It's so bad. We were just imagining your presence, how strong you have been there for us. A lot of people are going to miss you."

I mean, messages that make you feel broken. But, again, you have to stand firm, cause it is something that is a journey right now.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now to Uganda, where to be openly gay can mean living in fear for your life. This February, Uganda's president signed the Anti-homosexuality Act. First time offenders of the law can face 14 years in prison. People found guilty of what the law calls aggravated homosexuality can be sentenced to prison for life. And beyond the law, violent attacks on LGBT people, or even those thought to be gay, tend to go unpunished.

John Abdallah Wambere is directly affected by the law and surrounding anti-gay sentiment. He's an openly gay man and a prominent activist with a gay rights group Spectrum Uganda. Shortly before the law was signed, John traveled to the U.S. for his work. This past week, John announced that he was applying for Asylum in the United States. I spoke to John a few days after he announced his decision and he told me that after years of threats, attacks and violence against LGBT Ugandans, it is now simply too dangerous to return home.

JOHN ABDALLAH WAMBERE: When I come to the U.S., I didn't have any intention of seeking asylum. I was coming to do my usual work, LGBT advocate, and fundraise for my organization, Spectrum Uganda. And three days later the bill was signed. This made it very difficult for me to think how, if I went back, I would be at risk. And I just imagined what it would mean if I was on ground being someone who has been so much on the forefront.

Through all this, I kept pondering what could I do? And I noticed that I was still be able to support my people back home while I'm in a much more safe environment.

RATH: And how was it you're going to be supporting them from overseas?

WAMBERE: We're still doing the conversation with different partners. And whatever is being fundraised is being channeled back home. The need - actually, the major need is to ensure that people are - can still be facilitated to access medical services through a safe environment and also to ensure that we have emergency money in times of supporting court cases. And all this can be supported through financial support.

RATH: You know, following events from the outside it seems that over the years a situation for LGBT people in Uganda, it's just been getting worse and worse. Is that the case and the fact that you've had to now seek asylum, is that a sign that it's the worst that it's been?

WAMBERE: Yeah, it is a sign that it has got to us 'cause it reached an extent where you weren't even guaranteed of your own security, where you wouldn't even trust the next person. The fact that you cannot be able to know what your neighbor is thinking, this has put a lot of people in danger where police have swung into action, storming people's houses and picking them out of the houses. There is a lot of blackmail and extortion going on with the police.

A couple of people have been undressed in public just to ensure or to prove, are you a woman or a man? I mean, situations where people are being degraded and humiliated, being paraded before the media. And all these hate speeches and all the negative report that has come out in the media.

RATH: John, what family did you have to leave behind?

WAMBERE: I have relatives actually, my nephews whom I've been taking care of. There are seven children in total, my little brother's kids. And my own biological daughter who is 16 years. And a few who am I depend on so-so.

RATH: Were you able to discuss your decision with them?

WAMBERE: A few of them but I haven't discussed this with my immediate family, apart from one. And I told him not to actually reveal it. My daughter doesn't know that I'm not going back. My nephews, I mean, they write me emails and they are like, Uncle, when are you coming back? And I have to tell them that I still have a couple of things that I am doing. It breaks me because I'm still holding this from them, 'cause I can't know how they'll feel.

Just yesterday, one of my very own friends, actually my staff at work, broke down and told me that he's so disappointed and he can't imagine, he's so stressed that I'm not going back. And I asked him what he felt like. And he's like, it's so bad. We were just imagining your presence, how strong you have been there for us. A lot of people are going to miss you, and - I mean, messages that make you feel broken. But, again, you have to stand firm 'cause it is something that is a journey right now.

RATH: To get asylum, what do you have to prove? What do you have to do to make your case?

WAMBERE: The attorneys are holding that. I've just giving them my story and what I know is the truth.

RATH: And if it's not approved, if you're not granted asylum in the U.S., what will you do?

WAMBERE: I have nowhere to go. Home is not safe and it's not even a place I would want to think about.

RATH: John, thank you so much for speaking with us. We really appreciate you sharing your story.

WAMBERE: Thank you so much for inviting me.

RATH: John Abdallah Wambere is a gay rights activist from Uganda. He is currently awaiting a decision about whether the U.S. will grant him asylum or if he will have to leave the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.