No escape from danger: LGBT refugees fled to Kakuma Camp for their lives, only to be greeted with hostility



Homophobia is pervasive in Kenya, and some LGBT refugees at Kakuma Camp say they have faced discrimination from fellow refugees and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) workers that has exacerbated living conditions in the overcrowded facility.

Mbazira Moses, a gay refugee currently living at the Kakuma Camp, said in an email interview, “I have been exposed to persecution and hostility ever since the time I arrived in Kakuma.”

Moses was assaulted and stabbed by a fellow refugee on Oct. 11, 2017. After reporting the incident to the police, Moses said nothing was done.

He claims he has been assaulted several times, but said police have never investigated. Instead of receiving help, Moses was jailed along with 18 other LGBT refugees who had peacefully protested their unfair treatment at UNHCR headquarters in Nairobi.

LGBT refugees peacefully protest at the UNHCR Headquarters in Nairobi.

After speaking with a lawyer, Moses was told to accept whatever charges were filed against him, as this was the only way he could expect assistance from UNHCR.

Established in 1992, Kakuma Camp is located in the northwestern region of Kenya. Ethiopian, Sudanese and Somali refugees fled their war-torn countries and came to Kakuma refugee camp, which is divided into four zones.

With an influx of new arrivals in 2014, Kakuma surpassed its capacity by over 58,000 individuals. The camp has expanded and currently holds 77,092 refugees, according to the UNHCR Kakuma informational pamphlet.

Moses said many of the staff at Kakuma Camp are homophobic and view the LGBT community as cursed. Individuals are not given the same opportunities as other refugees. They are not employable because of their sexual orientation and are not given proper medical treatment. Many medical centers refuse to serve them at all, he said, and if they are treated, they are often refused medication and treatment for HIV.

Moses Mbazira holds the LGBT flag in his tent at Kakuma Camp.

According to Moses and many other LGBT refugees living at Kakuma Camp, they face eviction due to homophobic neighbors, leaving them homeless in the camp. UNHCR has placed the LGBT community in a housing section next to the river, where they face flooding and mosquitoes. Many of the refugees have malaria and are not given the treatment they need. The homes themselves are just tents, not properly covered to protect from the rain.

Thirteen UNHCR employees stationed at Kakuma Camp were contacted about Moses’ allegations of mistreatment toward LGBT refugees in the camp. Only four responded, and they said they could not comment.

“Agony has brought action,” Moses said. “Many of the LGBT members who have been granted asylum and refugee status under UNHCR within Kenya, receive consistent persecutions and grief by the host community and other members living within the camp. We (LGBT Community) have articulated our concerns to UNHCR but have been overlooked. This has caused a need to call on UNHCR to permit us a convention letter that will grant us a fair free movement to seek asylum in a country where we reserve the same rights as other refugees regardless of our sexual orientation.”

Barnabas Wobilaya, 36, is a gay Ugandan refugee and HIV/AIDS activist who was resettled in Salt Lake City. He fled Uganda and arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2015. Wobilaya became an HIV/AIDS activist in Uganda because he had two siblings who lost their lives to HIV. Because of his activism, he was exposed as a gay man in the newspapers, lost his job, and had to move around a lot for his own safety.

“When you get to Kakuma, there is no housing. You arrive at the camp, and they give you land. You build your own house. They give you poles and a tent to put up yourself, some people use iron sheets for their roof,” Wobilaya said.

“The LGBT people are always the last people to get the services they need, always,” he said.

“Their cases are not being worked on. They have been there for years. Three years, five years. Cases of LGBT refugees are supposed to be fast because their need is so immediate. We suffer. I know people that have been in Kakuma since I arrived in Kenya that have still never seen their files. They don’t know what’s going on. Nothing happens.”

The resettlement process is in the hands of the Government of Kenya. Because Kenya still maintains largely homophobic outlooks  and policies, many LGBT folk are treated as criminals rather than asylum seekers and refugees.

“When I was in Kenya, I could not find a job,” Wobilaya said. “Kenyans know that many refugees from Uganda are gay. They are very homophobic. You go to the store to buy something, and they say ‘Uganda?’ and then they kick you out. You cannot buy things, if you can’t speak Swahili they will not give you service. They then say ‘these are gays’ in Swahili and you know to leave or else you will be beaten.”

LGBT refugees attempt to drain the water from the river that flooded their tent in Kakuma Camp.

Wobilaya was evicted from homes three times because his landlords discovered his sexual orientation. Many LGBT people are forced to live in Kakuma because landlords refuse to rent to them in Nairobi.

The UNHCR used to give refugees a stipend of 6,000 Kenyan shillings, which is about $60 U.S. per month. With that, they were supposed to pay their rent, medical bills, transportation cost and phone bill.

“Today they give them $45, but you have to pass an assessment that your living conditions are horrible, many people have to live in one room, a lot end up on the streets as sex workers so they can afford to live,” Wobilaya said.

“Now that I am in the States it is difficult to find ways to help. They tell me ‘we are dying’ and I can’t do much. After I pay my rent and bills I send my leftover money to my LGBT friends in Kenya. So I ask, let us help these people. Let’s fundraise. Help them to buy food,” Wobilaya said.

At Kakuma camp, World Food Program ( WFP) in partnership with UNHCR provides food distribution (maize, peas, flour, cooking oil, soap, salt, porridge) and some essential items like soap and toothpaste to every refugee within the camp.

However, the food supply has been continually decreasing, Wobilaya said, leaving LGBT refugees at a disadvantage since they are unable to find work and buy their own food. UNHCR has not created a system to notify LGBT members about their case progress levels, and they feel they cannot turn anywhere for support.

Wobilaya encourages the  LGBTQ community in Utah to help. “We in the LGBT community are one big family, so advocate for your brothers and sisters; that’s the only thing I ask.”

You can contact Tayyar Sukru Cansizoglu, the UNHCR head of sub-office in Kakuma, at and you can donate to the LGBT Kakuma refugee community through a fundraiser established by a Salt Lake City LGBT activist.






Gay minorities in Utah can face double discrimination

Story and multimedia by KAREN HOLT BENNION

Watch Jerry Rapier direct a reading of “The Scarlet Letter” for the 2011-2012 season.

Listen to Jennifer Freed talk about Jerry Rapier, director of Plan-B Theatre Co.

Jerry Rapier has made a name for himself in Salt Lake City as an award-winning producer and director.

This is the 11th season of Plan-B Theatre Co. which he founded in 1991 with Cheryl Cluff and Tobin Atkinson. Rapier has been given many honors, including the Salt Lake City’s Mayor’s Artist Award in the Performing Arts in 2008. In 2009, he was given the title of Alternative Pioneer by Salt Lake City Weekly. With many successful plays, a rewarding career and a loyal partner who has been with him for 15 years, some might say that Rapier is living the “American Dream.”

However, despite his current success, he still remembers facing trying times in his past. Jerry Rapier is Asian-American and he is gay. Consequently, he faces a double hardship in Utah.

He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, to an alcoholic mother. When he was 8 years old he was adopted by an American family and went to live with them in New Mexico. Life with his new family was trying at times because his family was “very, very LDS,” he said in an e-mail interview. When he was 23, he mustered all of his courage to come out to the family. Rapier says it was difficult for a few years because they needed time to adjust. “They are great now,” he said.

As a minority who is gay, Rapier is part of a small number of gay minorities in Utah. He says the main reason for the low figure is due to demographics. “This is not a very diverse place, period,” he said in a recent interview. On the other hand, he believes that minorities who are also gay fear coming out because they could be ostracized from their families. “But I will say that I believe this to be changing, slowly, surely,” Rapier said.

“I think it’s almost impossible to live your life now and not know a gay person — and that changes your perspective,” he said in the e-mail.

He remembers how isolated he felt as a teen and is upset by the bullying that is escalating against gay teens today across the country, with some ending in suicides. As a result, Plan B joined 40 other local Outreach Partners to put an end to bullying. The event on Sunday, Nov. 14, was called “Different is Amazing.” The fundraiser included theater, songs and dance. The festivities opened with a short dance by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s Step Up group, which consists of dancers from Salt Lake City high schools. All proceeds went to the Human Rights Education Center of Utah.

Another advocate for civil rights is Cathy Martinez. She is the director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center at the University of Utah. She agrees with Rapier about the small number of gay minorities in Utah. While she acknowledges that Utah is predominantly white, she says gay minorities are trapped in a stigma of being “a minority within a minority.” They are virtually forced to live in two communities.

Her experience with international students at the U has led her to realize some Asian families do not embrace or encourage members who have different sexual identities. “We need to talk about race too when we talk of sexual discrimination,” Martinez says. She recounts helping a  gay couple, who were international students studying at the U from China and Korea. When the Korean student’s family found out he was gay, they immediately st0pped paying for his schooling. Without money to continue his studies,  he was forced to return home.

“Not all cultures look down on homosexuality,” Martinez says. Thailand is the Asian hub for sexual reassignment surgery. Moreover, before missionaries arrived in early America many Native American tribes respected gay and transsexual members. They believed them to be two spirited.

Plan B’s latest production, “She Was My Brother,” which was directed by Rapier, is about a government ethnographer who is sent to study the Zuni Tribe of the Southwest in the late 1800s. The government official becomes attracted  to a male transgender tribal member. The tribal member is revered by the Zunis as very wise. Ironically, the Native American calls people in the “white society” uncivilized because of their intolerance to its citizens who fall outside of what society deems normal.

Martinez feels that education about race and sexuality and ability level (blind, deaf and disabled) must filter down to more high schools, junior highs and communities. She is working hard to educate people at the college level.

Brandi Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, says her office is working on educating the public as well. She says that being a gay minority is enduring “double marginalization.”

“There is not state for federal protection in housing and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Balken says.

Protection is available for those based on race, age and gender under the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, the Americans with Disabilities Act helps those with different levels of ability. However, people at Equality Utah are continually working with local legislators to pass state and federal laws to help all citizens of Utah gain the same rights to fair housing and employment.

Gay and transgendered citizens in seven Utah cities and counties have some protection regarding employment and housing rights.  They include: Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Park City, Summit County, Logan, Taylorsville and West Valley City.

With the help of Jerry Rapier, Cathy Martinez and Brandi Balken, the future could look brighter for people of all races and gender identities who are in need of support.

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