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

Story by KAYA DANAE

Photos by MBAZIRA MOSES and KAYA DANAE

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 cansizog@unhcr.org and you can donate to the LGBT Kakuma refugee community through a fundraiser established by a Salt Lake City LGBT activist.

 

 

 

 

 

You’re born naked and everything else is drag

By FRANCES MOODY

Drag queens are fabulous, but what makes them fabulous? Is it the sequined clothes, the big hair or the bright makeup? Maybe it’s the person behind the layers of foundation and eye shadow, the man behind the woman.

Püre at Club Sound on Friday night lights up with a main and weekly attraction, the drag queen show. Local celebrities, like the one and only Nova Starr, lip sync to pop music and spout choreographed dance moves.

Coming from the “House of Starr,” Nova pushed her way through the ranks of “salty gossip” (otherwise, known as the gay Salt Lake City gossip) and accomplished Salt Lake stardom. Adorned in bright makeup, a curly blond wig, and tight fitting clothes designed to hug the curves on Nova’s voluptuous figure, Nova adores busting out on stage with performances full of surprises However, her quest to change the minds of Salt Lake City citizens and to make an art form out of dressing in drag proved a tedious and frustrating task.

Nova moved to Salt Lake to chase the dream of becoming a costume designer at the Utah Opera Company. Perfecting her skills in costume design, Nova carried her talent her drag persona. A personality filled with expensive styling practices.

Now without the money to make costumes, style hair and live the performer lifestyle, Nova has decided to follow her dreams on tour. A path that was introduced after Nova was named in two books: 100 of the Most Influential Gay Entertainers and the Official Drag Handbook.

However, not wanting to disappoint her fans, Nova does her best to perform in Salt Lake City once a month. “Honey! As a drag performer, you spend hundreds of dollars on clothes and style. Yet, at Püre, I would only get paid $50 a night to perform once a week. That just doesn’t cut it.” Nova said.

Despite such societal stipulations, Nova, with her drag presence, created a niche for yearning drag queens, a niche that offered self-expression and a place to call home.

Like Nova, many other aspiring drag queens have experienced turmoil within the Salt Lake community whether it is the Salt Lake community in nightlife, gay-life or churchlife.

This home, this “House of Starr,” gave community fame to on-the-spur performers, like Paris Starr. It also inspired art admirers, like Vienna Starr.  Vienna Starr, real name, Justin Carter, is known in the real world simply as Justy. He is on hiatus from drag queen life. He gave several reasons.

Stomping into his friend’s bungalow in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood, Justy walked through the living room and straight into the kitchen. Pulling out a bottle of Danish vodka, he was ready to pour out his heart and the alcohol.

Like many others who perform in drag, Justy was attracted to the idea of acting as someone else. “It was very easy as to introduce myself as Vienna, get to know these people and then, hang out with them as a boy later… To do drag made social life a lot easier,” said Justy, after sipping from his signature drink, “a touch of class,” a concoction made from vodka, orange juice and tonic water.

It is easy to imagine Vienna’s popularity at Püre. Standing at six feet and dressed top to bottom in stylish couture clothes, Vienna pulled in attention from all corners of the club. Living drag made Justy’s life better in many ways, he said. Coming from Utah County, a predominantly LDS and politically conservative area, Justy hid himself and his homosexuality from the world.

Not coming “out of the closet” until he was 19, Justy thrust himself into the gay world and a new mode of self-expression. This representation of self and sexuality was delayed. Especially, when glancing upon Justy’s peers.

Now 22-years-old, Justy feels that he lived and still is living through, what he calls high school the sequel. To him, high school the sequel arouses gays to experience common adolescent issues. Experiences that his school friends thrust through in their teenage years. For instance, Justy, for the first time, went on his first “real” date, faced peer pressure involving drugs and made attempts to rebel against his family and the LDS lifestyle. Justy’s acceptance of his homosexuality, prompted him to jump over life’s hurdles at an older age and for him to find a place of acceptance.

This form of discovery can be seen in many young gay adults in Salt Lake City. Hoping to belong to a place where they are fully accepted, several of them have found solace at Püre. To some, Püre is a place to call home. It was and sometimes still is the House of Starr.

The documentary, Paris is Burning, produced more than 20 years ago, displayed the meaning of a “House” and it’s importance to the gay world. Nova made the point to prove the film’s presence. “A house is a group of gay people that comes together as a family… in Utah’s community, many people need a house or a family,” she said.

People like Justy found a new home. They also found a place to showcase their spectacular talents. Nova and others from the Starr family agree that drag is much more than dressing as a woman. It’s about expressing yourself as a person capable of achieving a dreamlike existence. “To be honest, drag is an extension on what I do best,” Nova said.

Though he found a family and attention, Justy experienced negativity in the world of “dragdom.” Skipping experiences as the “true” Justy when in his former years, Justy lived his newfound personality in younger and exuberant ways. These young ways presented many problems for him in the drag culture, problems existing in almost every high school setting.

Like Nova, Justy experienced a lack of appreciation both in and out of the drag queen circle. Justy lived in just one of the many subcultures within the gay community. Such subcultures hold places in a caste system structure. “It’s just like the movie ‘Mean Girls,’ girls, but it’s mean boys,” Justy said.

Speaking in young adult terms, drag queens are the most unpopular group within the gay circles. “Drag queens are at the bottom of the food chain, being at the bottom of the chain means you can’t get dates,” Justy said while browsing through the messages stored in his phone’s inbox.

Perhaps, people classify drag queens as social scum because they play the role of an alter ego. To a lot of the gay population, drag queens are characters that hide behind a mask, or in drag queen terms, layers of makeup. in spite of the existent profiling, Nova argues that dressing drag is an expansion of John Carter, her given name.

To Nova, most everyone adopts a role to play, whether it is on or off stage. “Drag Queens say, you’re born naked and everything else is drag. For instance, every gay man dresses drag, whether it’s a gym bunny with his shirt off or a twink wearing tight jeans (both are groups found in the gay community),” Nova said. Nova attempts to advertise her definition of drag, hoping that all people will find a connection to her personal lifestyle.

To Justy and Nova, many Utahns hold no respect for what drag queens do.  Nova wants people to know that dressing drag has been around for centuries and has surfaced in several cultures around the world. When talking about drag, Nova always mentions its history.

The word “drag” was used during the Elizabethan period to describe acclaimed actors who performed the roles of women in plays. “It makes you think about the bedroom scene in Romeo and Juliet a little bit differently,” Nova quipped.

Dressing drag is still a shock to much of the world. By choosing the drag queen lifestyle, Nova and Justy lived with many forms of discrimination. With Nova on tour and selling jewelry that has received attention from famous drag queen reality TV star RuPaul and Justy pursuing other areas of interest, one question remains: What will happen to the drag queen culture in Salt Lake City?

Said Nova: “Drag in Utah will evolve, though it may take longer to catch up with more liberal areas.”