No safe space; how one Salt Lake City resident has welcomed LGBT refugees

Connell O’Donovan at the annual Salt Lake City Utah Pride festival. Photo taken by David Newkirk.

Story by KAYA DANAE

Apollo Kann, a gay Ugandan refugee and HIV/AIDS education activist, landed in Salt Lake City after spending two years in Nairobi, Kenya, waiting to be resettled into the U.S. The first local contact he made was Connell O’Donovan, a genealogist and well known activist for LGBT rights.

The next day Barnabas Wobilaya, Kann’s friend and fellow HIV/AIDS education activist, arrived in Salt Lake City from Nairobi. “I’m professional friends with them,” O’Donovan said with a laugh. “It started out totally informally. Apollo sent me a friend request on Facebook and for whatever reason, I accepted his request!”

After offering his help, O’Donovan arrived at the apartment that Kann, Wobilaya and two other Ugandan refugees had been placed in by the International Rescue Committee. O’Donovan immediately noticed that their apartment was sparsely furnished.

“The IRC had provided very minimal furniture, a table, two chairs, two beds, linens, basic soap, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. They showed up with a literal knapsack each, that was it,” O’Donovan said.

O’Donovan reached out to his social circle and explained the situation, saying, “They need everything, what can you give?” Within 24 hours a truck was filled with everything they could possibly need, including a La-Z-Boy chair and new TV.

“I’ve just been a contact point with my circle of friends and the LGBT Community at large, anything that they need, they contact me. And I reach out and try to find it for them,” O’Donovan said.

He brought Kann and Wobilaya to the Utah Pride Center, where they were introduced to the Executive Director Carol Gnade.

The Utah Pride Center had begun to establish a refugee subcommittee called The Heart and Home Project in November 2016, but plans were changed when Donald Trump became president.

“We had been told by IRC that there would be 25 other LGBT refugees that would be coming from Uganda in June,” Gnade said in a phone interview. “We started scrambling to get a program together for all of these people, but they never came.”

The Heart and Home Project proposed to distribute a pamphlet to resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. These pamphlets would help teach refugees about the LGBT culture and resources in Salt Lake City. The project has been put on hold until more LGBT refugees are resettled into Utah.

The Pride Center currently offers free counseling for LGBT folk and happily welcomes refugees who identify as LGBT. Several refugee resettlement agencies also offer counseling for refugees experiencing PTSD. But LGBT refugees are often hesitant to use the services in fear of being exposed and mistreated.

Aden Batar, the immigration and refugee resettlement director for Catholic Community Services and the first Somalian refugee to step foot in Utah, stressed the importance of befriending refugees. “They (refugees) are leaving their homes, friends and families behind. It is very easy to become isolated. The connections and friendships that are made through our volunteer programs can completely change their lives.”

O’Donovan grew emotional when he began explaining that Uganda is one of the worst countries to live in for the LGBT community.

“You would not believe the circumstances these (LGBT) refugees are coming from,” he said.

In 2014, Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, in which being gay was punishable by death. It has since been updated and the penalty is now a lifetime prison sentence. It is not uncommon for the death penalty to be carried out in more rural areas.

Even if an LGBT Ugandan is placed in a refugee camp, conditions are not much better.

A United Nations Refugee Camp in Kakuma, Kenya, has been known to treat its LGBT enclave especially inhumanely. “There are about 250 (LGBT) refugees that are placed next to the shores of the river. When there is rain, they get flooded out, they’re constantly surrounded by mosquitos. Several of them have malaria, but they’re not getting medicine because they are not a priority. They are given ridiculous charges and sent to jail. The camp security will come by and beat the hell out of them,” said O’Donovan, who has been in contact with LGBT refugees staying at the camp.

Only five gay refugee men are known to be living in Salt Lake City, but two have not publicly come out in fear of being isolated from their own families and friends. Many LGBT refugees live their lives in hiding and secrecy. Even outing themselves in order to be granted asylum can be too dangerous. As openly gay men and HIV/AIDS education activists, Kann and Wobilaya have said they faced discrimination from fellow refugees here in Salt Lake City.

Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee have typically resettled approximately 1,200 refugees in Utah each year. Globally, 53 percent of all refugees are from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, all of which outlaw (some punishable by death) being an active LGBT citizen. Organizations like these are essential in helping refugees resettle into Salt Lake City, but Connell O’Donovan said that it is our responsibility as citizens to help our refugee neighbors feel welcome, especially those who may feel isolated in their own homes.

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