Still Going Strong

Marie Ramtu | May 17, 2016

Mental Health and Well-being of LGBTI Refugees

Kakuma Refugee Camp

The rainbow flag flies high above the compound in the Kakuma Refugee Camp that many LGBTI refugees call home.

In northwest Kenya, only 80 miles by road to South Sudan, is the country’s second largest refugee camp.  Frequented by dust storms and flash floods, the land surrounding the Kakuma Refugee Camp is challenging.  Still, the camp today hosts over 100,000 refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Eritrea and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.  

On Friday, May 6th, the Kenyan government released a statement announcing the disbanding of the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs and that the government is working on a “mechanism for closure of the two refugee camps [Dadaab and Kakuma] within the shortest time possible.”  While many refugees could face difficult circumstances ahead, concerns have been especially alarming for those who have sought refuge due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, known as SOGI asylum seekers.

The UNHCR Kakuma Field Office estimates that there are approximately 120 registered SOGI asylum seekers and refugees present in the camp as of February 2016.  The majority of the refugees previously fled violence surrounding the now overturned Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014.  They now face the added threat of homophobic and transphobic violence within the camp, in addition to coping with the harsh conditions present in Kakuma.

Shunned or persecuted by other refugee communities in Kakuma, many SOGI refugees from Uganda live in a separate compound.  Their shelter is typical for Kakuma, but while it may protect against the harsh environment, it does little to protect them from potential violence in the camp.  

Among residents there is a constant fear of attack from the surrounding refugee community.  Incidents of violence have been reported previously, and most of the shelter’s residents choose to remain indoors for fear of being targeted. They venture outside only when necessary and few are able to participate in the other community activities that take place in the camp.  Further compounding their isolation, other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, or LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers often disassociate with the primarily Ugandan residents in the compound due to a fear of being “outed” in the wider community.

In March I had the opportunity to spend time with the SOGI-persecuted residents in Kakuma.  As I finished the short ride through the camp, the vehicle took the last bend that led to the Ugandan compound and I quickly recognized the tattered rainbow flag waving in the desert wind above the compound.

The compound's residents listen to Rev. Elijah expound on Psalms 139. The rainbow flag flying high above.

The compound’s residents listen to Rev. Elijah expound on Psalms 139. The rainbow flag flying high above. credit: CWS / Marie Ramtu

The flag seemed to symbolize much of the residents’ current plight. I thought to myself, “tattered but still going strong.”  Supporting each other mentally and spiritually, the residents of the compound have developed a peer system.  They have also built a small shed that serves as a church; the church that previously welcomed the SOGI-persecuted refugees in the camp was burnt to the ground.  Now one of their own leads service each Sunday.

As I walked past the iron sheet that acted as the compound gate, it squeaked as it closed behind me.  I quickly absorbed my surroundings. The distinct mud shelters synonymous with the camp stood out.  Jerry cans were stacked to one side of a water faucet.

The compound was still and quiet.  I made my way to the shed that is used for Sunday church services.  When I entered, I could see two pairs of young adult men sitting a distance apart from each other; my colleagues and I had interrupted a peer counseling session being held in the church.  The men immediately turned and began sizing us up, always wary of newcomers.  When they recognized us, excitement broke out, and we began to exchange a heartfelt welcome.

Water containers waiting to be filled

Water containers waiting to be filled. Life in such a harsh climate means the faucet only provides water at scheduled times.

The gathering attracted more people from their houses.  We were then introduced to Brizan Ogollan, Director of Upper Rift Minorities, a sexual minority advocacy organization that works in the region and helped arrange the visit.  As everyone greeted each other, we also encountered the Reverend Elijah, one of the clergymen involved in the CWS supported Safe Space Program that works with faith leaders and communities to create inclusive space for LGBTI forced migrants.

Reflecting on his work, Rev. Elijah said he “realized that my brothers and sisters are lonely, vulnerable, desperate and isolated. I was touched by their excitement and joy to receive us.” After a round of introductions, we quickly made plans to return the following day so that we could witness a full Sunday church service in the compound.

The next day we found ourselves at a service co-led by Rev. Elijah and the locally based Pastor William, whose previous church in the camp was burnt to the ground for being open to LGBTI congregants.  The sermon that day was from Psalms 139:13-16:

13 For you created my inmost being;

   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

   your works are wonderful,

   I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

   when I was made in the secret place,

   when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

   all the days ordained for me were written in your book

   before one of them came to be.

Full of encouragement and hope for a community continually at risk, the message was affirming for the approximately 50 congregants in attendance.  During the service plastic containers were used as drums to accompany songs of praise and worship. A meal prepared by the community and supported by CWS was shared at the end of the service. As we left the compound, the occupants were singing, drumming and dancing to traditional songs.

Reflecting on his message, Rev. Elijah said, “I believe God was confirming to me and the world that LGBTI brothers and sisters are normal human beings created by God Himself in his own image. As clergy, our work should be to provide spiritual guidance, provide safe spaces for every human being, an opportunity to praise God without discrimination, intimidation, isolation and condemnation.”

May 17th marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, or IDAHOT for short.  This year’s IDAHOT theme focuses on mental health and well being.  Furthering that goal, the CWS supported Safe Space Program will continue to reach out to faith leaders and communities to promote the overall mental health and wellbeing of LGBTI persons in the context of forced migration. Spiritual connection for LGBTI persons and affirming ministries can significantly contribute to the holistic mental health and wellbeing of all sexual and gender minorities.  To learn more about the CWS Safe Space Program and our work in sub-Saharan Africa, please contact our Program Manager, Marie Ramtu at safespace@cwsafrica.org.