Q&A: LET’S HEAR FROM STEVE – ORAM REFUGEE
The ORAM communications team sat down with our Executive Director Steve Roth to ask him about his most recent trip to Kenya and Uganda. Here is what he had to say:
To start, why was it so important for you to embark on this trip to Kenya and Uganda?
It was important for me to meet the community we serve firsthand. I wanted to more fully understand the lived experiences and challenges facing LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees in this part of the world and see how ORAM can best serve this vulnerable population.
I chose my first trip to be to Kenya as it has become an epicenter for LGBTIQ asylum in the region. Being the only country in East Africa to accept asylum claims based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, it has seen a huge increase in people seeking refuge there. At the same time though same sex relations are still criminalized in Kenya, and discrimination, homophobia and transphobia run deep there. Consequently, LGBTIQ asylum seekers are facing increasing challenges during the asylum process. And as opportunities for resettlement become scarcer due to changing immigration policies in countries like the United States, asylum seekers are spending more time in host countries such as Kenya
What was the most surprising thing you experienced while there?
I honestly did not fully anticipate the high levels of trauma I encountered with some of the refugees and asylum seekers I met. I mean, it makes sense when you think of what these people have been through – that some of them have fled for their lives, that they still often face substantial danger and economic insecurity, and that they often do not receive adequate mental health and psychosocial support to address the trauma. It’s not surprising in retrospect but it still hits you hard when you encounter that up close and personally
On the positive side, I was blown away by the strong sense of family and community that LGBTIQ asylum seekers have succeeded in creating by sticking together and supporting each other. They’ve created “chosen families” – and in some cases more formal CBOs (community based organizations) – that take care of and support one another. Their extraordinary commitment to authenticity – to truly be themselves in spite of the overwhelming challenges – was also incredibly powerful and inspiring.
What are some of the most critical challenges facing LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in Kenya?
During my time in Kenya, I met with both the LGBTIQ population in the Kakuma refugee camp and the urban LGBTIQ refugees living in Nairobi. I quickly learned that both groups faced similar daily challenges and unique protection needs.
Safety is one of the key challenges. Marginalized by fellow refugees owing to their sexual orientation and gender identity and by the local Kenyan population both for being foreigners and LGBTIQ, most of the asylum seekers and refugees I met found themselves being pushed to the margins of society, facing extreme isolation and continued discrimination.
Lack of economic resources is another fundamental challenge as most struggle to find employment, pay their rent and even feed themselves, resulting in many living in poverty. As foreign nationals in Kenya, it’s very difficult to find formal work and on top of that their sexual orientation and gender identity often make them targets for further discrimination in the workplace.
Can you tell me about some of the people you met there?
Sure. I met a lot of people facing very difficult situations, like Jasmine*, a transgender asylum seeker from the Middle East who’s been a repeated target for violence and attacks due to her race as well as her gender identity. I got to know Darrell*, a gay man from Uganda who lives alone in Nairobi and struggles to pay his rent without a steady income. And I spoke with the sweet, young children of lesbian refugees who face harassment in school simply because of who their mothers are.
I also met Vanilla, the smart, sassy and resourceful Director of Refugee Trans Initiative in Nairobi. Vanilla runs RTI, a CBO and safe house that’s home to around 10 LGBTIQ refugees – mostly trans. In spite of the daily challenges paying rent, putting food on the table, dealing with nosy neighbors and managing lots of personalities, Vanilla keeps things moving forward with a sense of style, humor and personality, that really warmed my heart. At one point I told her “Vanilla, you need to write a book about your life someday,” and she said “You’re like the fifth person who’s told me that!” I’m really not surprised… she’s quite a character.
How do you think ORAM can assist this community?
My experiences over the two weeks reaffirmed a number of things for me: the great need for sustainable livelihoods and training/education to equip the community with tools for personal empowerment; the great need for targeted mental health services; and the need to enhance safety for LGBTIQ asylum seekers while addressing the discrimination, homophobia and transphobia that threatens their safety.
With our partner Alight, we were able to conduct a training session on how to apply for and obtain international funding with some of the CBO groups, which attendees found very helpful. We also funded several livelihoods projects, including a chicken farm and a rabbit farm. And together with our colleagues at Alight we threw a great party and supported a prayer session, because coming together in fun and positive ways as a community are critical to fostering mental health and creating joy.
Going forward, together with key partners we’re developing new programs to address these needs and mobilizing resources to make them a reality. It’s an exciting time as we all work together to help bring LGBTIQ asylum seekers the tools and resources they need where they are right now in their journeys.