A man stands in the apartment he shared with his boyfriend in Nairobi in 2015. They have since been granted asylum and resettled in the United States. (Photo: Jake Naughton)

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Young, Gay, and on the Run in East Africa

LGBT people in Uganda, Kenya, and other countries are often disowned by their families and face violence and discrimination. Here is the story of two brothers seeking asylum.
Aug 12, 2016· 10 MIN READ
Jacob Kushner reports on foreign investment and human rights in Africa. His work has appeared in NewYorker.com, Newsweek, Vice, Foreign Policy, and NationalGeographic.com.

“We have a bad, bad story,” begins Gloria Ibara, a refugee from Burundi and the mother of four. Sitting on a mattress in a simple Nairobi apartment, she tells me of her problem: “They want to kill our family.”

Her story begins in Burundi, a small country in Central Africa. Gloria, whose bright smile accents her worn face, was born in rural Gitega province to a family of farmers.

As her children grew, Gloria came to realize her son Eric was gay. (The names of the family members have been changed out of concern for their safety.)

At first “I told him to stop, that it’s not good,” Gloria says. But over time she decided that “that’s the way he was, and he couldn’t change it.” So she went on loving and caring for him just the same.

In many parts of East and Central Africa where homophobia is rife, parents react harshly on learning that a child is gay. Parents feel enormous pressure to either “fix” their gay kids or disown them. I’ve met dozens of LGBT refugees who have fled their home countries and escaped to Kenya, and only one—a woman, also from Burundi—wasn’t disowned by her family.

Some say their family sent them to counseling, sent them to church, tried introducing them to peers of the opposite sex—anything to make the gay go away. Others simply chased them out and told them never to return. In at least two cases, parents reported their children to the police, who arrested and imprisoned them. I met one who said a family member arranged for her to be gang-raped.

So when Gloria learned that Eric was gay, it was extraordinary for her not to reject him. Gloria had spent her career working for international agencies, including as a counselor for UNAIDS, where she learned about homosexuality. “I worked with different NGOs that treat HIV, so I used to treat even gays,” she says.

Stunned as she was when she later found out that her older son, Claude, then well into his teens, also was gay, she supported him too. “What Mom always tells people,” says Eric, “is ‘I love my children the way they are. They are my children. God gave them to me.’ ”

In 2010, a land dispute the Ibara family was fighting in court turned violent. Gunmen Gloria believed a cousin had hired killed some relatives who were siding with her in the case. Fearing for their lives, she decided she and her children—she had a daughter and a disabled son in addition to the older boys, all school-ageneeded to escape Burundi.

“We couldn’t go to a neighboring country because it was too close,” Gloria tells me. She worried that gunmen might find her there. From her human rights work, she knew that Kenya was the destination of many fleeing violence in the region, and her cousin would have a hard time tracking Gloria’s family across two international borders. In Kenya she could apply at one of the refugee camps for asylum and resettlement to someplace where her family might have a better life.

So she picked up her kids from school and hid out at a friend’s house. Within a week they left on a bus for Kenya. Gloria was able to buy a few things for the family, but they couldn’t return home to collect any of their belongings. On May 19, 2010, they arrived at Kakuma refugee camp.

After suffering attacks at the hands of other refugees, LGBT residents of the Kakuma camp in Kenya built a compound where they can live safely. (Photo: Jake Naughton)

There are 596,045 registered refugees living in Kenya as of February, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, of whom 41,288 are applying for asylum. In 2014, only 73,000 refugees in the entire world were granted asylum and resettled (the asylum designation itself doesn’t get refugees out of a camp—a country still has to accept them).

The Ibara brothers’ homosexuality isn’t what forced the family to leave Burundi, which is among the world’s two or three poorest countries (depending on who’s measuring). But at Kakuma, a camp of 187,000 refugees, many of whom escaped civil wars in Sudan, it would soon begin to haunt them.

“When we came to Kenya, my mom told me, ‘We don’t know how the community is, so keep a low profile,’ ” Eric says. Back in Burundi, the brothers were too young for their sexuality to be suspect. But in Kenya, as they progressed through their teenage years, other refugees in the camp began to notice that neither Eric nor Claude interacted much with girls—only with boys.

The U.N. is stretched. If you have two orphans from southern Sudan, and you have this gay man from Uganda, and you have one slot for resettlement, who would you take? It’s a dilemma.

Gitahi Githuku, human rights consultant in Kenya

Several years ago, some Burundian and Ugandan LGBT refugees banded together to establish a compound of their own at Kakuma, according to an LGBT activist there who goes by Brian (he would not be named out of fear it would jeopardize his work). He has documented the deaths, including by suspected poisoning, of six LGBT refugees at Kakuma during the past two years.

LGBT asylum seekers suffer the dual hazard of fleeing persecution and violence and, by virtue of their identity, finding further troubles in the nations they run to. A July 2015 report found that the U.N. in Kenya “struggled to respond to 
the unexpected influx" of LGBT people escaping violence, "one that coincided with a government crackdown on refugees.”

“The U.N. is stretched,” says Gitahi Githuku, who has consulted on human rights for the American Jewish World Service in Kenya, which has funded programs aimed at assisting LGBT refugees there. “If you have two orphans from southern Sudan whose parents died in that fighting, they are minors there in the camp. And you have this gay man from Uganda, and you have one slot for resettlement. Who would you take? It’s a dilemma.”

After nearly five years lingering in the camp, Eric, 20 by then, couldn’t hide any longer. “At some point I said, ‘This is not who I am. I need to be free to live my life. At least I can have a boyfriend.’ ”

One day Eric brought his boyfriend to the shelter where the Ibara family was living. “My mom wasn’t around. We started kissing,” Eric says. Soon they took off their clothes. “We were about to have sex,” says Eric, when, to his horror, his mom returned—accompanied by none other than the pastor of the church she attended.

Four members of the 'Ibara' family stand in the one-bedroom apartment they share in Nairobi. Two of the brothers (second from left and far right) are gay. The family has endured discrimination and violence because of the brothers' sexuality. (Photo: Jake Naughton)

“The pastor wanted to beat us. ‘You are cursed! You will not get into heaven’s gate! You deserve to die,’ ” Eric recalls him screaming. “My mom couldn’t say anything. She started crying.” The couple threw on what clothes they could and escaped to another part of the camp.

But word spread, and the backlash fell swiftly on Gloria. “They stopped Mom from going to church. People said the family was cursed,” Eric says. “She couldn’t fetch water. People would spit on her.” Twice, Gloria says, the small restaurant she had opened at the camp was burned to the ground. The sister in the family, Aria, was harassed in school. “They would say, ‘What kind of family are you?’ ” Eric recalls Aria telling him. “So she had to leave school.”

To disassociate his family from his sexuality, Eric decided to journey a few hours by bus to live in Lodwar, the town closest to Kakuma. After Eric left, the ostracism of the Ibaras escalated into violence: “My small brother,” he says, “he was raped.”

The boy was 12 years old and mentally impaired, with symptoms resembling Down syndrome. “He can tell you something, but he might get some of the words wrong,” Eric says. The boy communicates mostly by shaking or nodding his head in response to questions. From what the family could gather, Eric tells me as his mother and younger brother listen, a group of teenage boys who had previously taunted Eric and Claude stopped the younger boy as he was walking alone one day and assaulted him. The point, his brothers believe, was to teach the family a lesson—to “show him what his brothers are doing to other men,” says Eric.

At this point in the telling of the story, Gloria closes her eyes and covers her face with her hands. The young boy, who is sitting near her on the mattress, glances around absently.

“He was hurt,” Eric says. “He was really traumatized.” They feared nothing would come of it if they reported it to the police—at least, nothing good.

Many Kenyan police hold homophobic attitudes, and officers sometimes extort gays and lesbians by demanding bribes in exchange for not jailing them. Acts of homosexuality can earn those in Kenya 14 years in prison by law.

Brian has worked with the backing of an international NGO to sensitize police to the plight of gay refugees living at Kakuma. He says that once, when he went to meet with a group of officers, “they said the best thing you can do to help is to help them stop being gay.” But by informing the men of the hardships refugees faced in their home countries, Brian says, they began to understand. “It is not the role of the police to know whether you’re here for political reasons” such as persecution for homosexuality, Brian says he tells them. “You are not a judge, you are not a God—you are there to protect them.” But he says there’s high turnover among the police at Kakuma; educating officers to the plight of gay refugees is perpetual.

After four years living at Kakuma, with Brian's help Gloria and her family left the camp and traveled by bus to Nairobi. She hoped the cosmopolitan city would offer anonymity and a safer haven while they applied for resettlement abroad.

It didn’t.

Many LGBT refugees live in this neighborhood of Nairobi. Leaving their homes can be dangerous, especially after dark. Stories of beatings and attacks by homophobic gangs are common among the residents. (Photo: Jake Naughton)

One hot afternoon in October, I meet Claude outside a public school near the family’s home in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Nairobi. A thin, muscular 22-year-old with dreadlocks, he leads me down winding dirt paths obstructed by potholes and puddles to the three-story concrete apartment building where he, his three siblings, and his mother share a single room.

The door to their apartment is a heavy, blue metal gate. We leave our shoes outside. Gloria is sitting barefoot on the large mattress on the floor. As Claude walks in, he takes his mother’s hand and kisses her on the cheek before squatting on the mattress next to her.

Gloria spends most of her days sitting right there. She speaks only a little Swahili (the primary language of Kenya) and no English, which makes it difficult to find work. There are other Burundians living in the neighborhood with whom she could communicate if she wanted to, but she’s afraid to approach them—one might recognize her from back home and alert her cousin to their whereabouts.

Although Eric and Claude dress no differently from young straight Kenyan men—jeans, sneakers, and loose T-shirts—just as in the camp, neighbors here took notice that they never seemed to flirt with women. Their homosexuality became an open secret, making them victims of pranks and abuse.

“Last month, a man came and put a diaper full of shit in our house,” Eric tells me in English. “They always say, ‘How come the mother can accept gay people in their family? They are not human. They are bringing trouble to humanity—that is the reason God causes bad things on the earth.’ ”

Eric says because not one but two of them are gay, that makes things exponentially worse. “It’s easy for them to discriminate because ‘the whole family is cursed.’ How can you have two brothers in the same family who are gay?”

They always say, ‘How come the mother can accept gay people in their family? That is the reason God causes bad things on the earth.’

'Eric,' a gay refugee from Burundi living illegally in Nairobi

His 18-year-old sister, Aria, tried for months to enroll herself and her younger brother in school but each school denied their applications. She wasn’t sure whether it was because they were refugees.

There is no free food or water for refugees in Nairobi, unlike at Kakuma. An NGO that partners with the U.N. offered the family a monthly stipend of about $240. But it was soon reduced by half—less than a dollar a day each for a family of five. In June the stipend ended altogether.

Eric has found only haphazard work, editing film for a media organization. Claude hasn’t had any luck getting a job. “What's really stressful is that I'm the firstborn of the family, and I can’t do anything to help the situation,” says Claude. Kenya’s economy is such that jobs are hard to come by, and being a foreigner makes him stand out. “I look for jobs, but they just deny.”

“Sometimes we don’t eat for a day because we can’t afford it,” says Eric. He says he feels guilty, because it was he who exposed his homosexuality when the pastor caught him with his boyfriend at Kakuma.

“I’m the one who put my family in this position,” he says. With no other way to earn money, Eric turned to sex work. He describes it in the least euphemistic terms: “Fucking somebody who pays me. At some point you find yourself with no other choice.” He says his mom doesn’t know.

It’s been more than six years since the Ibara family came to Kenya. In that time, they’ve seen refugees who arrived after they did get resettled. For a while, the United Nations expedited the cases of gay refugees from neighboring Uganda, where Evangelical Americans had helped drum up a wave of homophobia that made international headlines when Ugandan lawmakers debated a bill that would penalize acts of homosexuality with death. Eric says it’s unfair that the LGBT Ugandans who came long after his family were able to move to safe countries, while they wait in fear. But he and Claude are, after all, just two among hundreds of LGBT refugees in East Africa who left their home countries only to be further victimized in Kenya—a refugee-harboring nation where to be gay is a crime.

Yet the brothers’ sexuality isn’t the basis for the Ibaras’ asylum claim. It was the family land dispute that chased them out of Burundi. But the brothers might have faced a similar fate in Burundi had they stayed. The year before they fled, Burundi passed a law that criminalized acts of homosexuality with up to two years in prison. State-sponsored harassment of LGBT Burundians has caused at least one Burundian woman to go to Kenya.

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In March, the Ibara family receive a piece of good news: Their application for asylum has been accepted, and they are to be referred to the Swedish Embassy for a series of interviews and examinations to determine if they will be flown to safety in Sweden. Unless something goes awry, they will be among the small fraction of refugees in Kenya who get to be resettled. They’re trying to raise money to buy warm clothes for their new life—if and when they get the call.

The following month, I pay the Ibaras a visit to find out how they are coping while they wait. Eric is out trying to earn money. Claude managed to find work at a barbershop, but after three months his boss chased him away; he isn’t sure whether his sexuality had anything to do with it. “We don’t have many friends,” he tells me. “Most of the time we’re indoors.”

Aria, with her red-highlighted hair pleated in a single braid, tells me that she finally got her little brother enrolled in school. Aside from some bullying because of his mental condition, she says he’s doing well there. Still, “it has been so hard,” she says. They have had the water to their apartment shut off because they couldn’t pay the bill. Now they owe back payments. Their landlord is threatening to evict them because without the NGO’s monthly stipend, they have been unable to meet the rent. It would be the fourth time they’ve been forced out by landlords since arriving in Nairobi.

Aria plans to study to be a lawyer if they make it to Sweden. She hopes nothing more goes wrong while they wait for the phone call that will announce their departure, and she is inspired by the injustice the family faced during the fight over the land in Burundi. “I like rules,” she says. “They told us it’s a nice country, it’s a peaceful country.”

Recently, Claude tells me, some neighbors beat up Eric on his way home. “They had been waiting for him around that corner,” he says, gesturing down from the apartment to a dirt path outside the building. “They beat him, and he went to the hospital. It’s because he's gay, of course.”

They hope the phone call from the Swedish Embassy comes soon enough that Claude and Eric, now well into their 20s, might at last live in a place that’s more tolerant, and where to be gay is not a crime.