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Freedom House protects global refugees, American LGBTIs

The map in TJ Rogers’ office shows where every Freedom House resident he has worked with originated.  PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTO

The map in TJ Rogers’ office shows where every Freedom House resident he has worked with originated. PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTO

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — David Kato Kisule died while fighting a bill that is now law in Uganda — an anti-homosexuality law that makes being gay punishable by life imprisonment. Citizens in Uganda are now also required by law to report “homosexuals” to the government within 24 hours to avoid being prosecuted themselves. This legislation, however, is not unique to Uganda.

According to the 76crimes.com, 78 countries have “criminal laws against sexual activity by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people (LGBTI).” In addition to African countries, nations in Asia, including U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and India and Caribbean/American nations, such as Jamaica and Belize comprise the 78. These discriminatory laws have added to the masses of people around the world seeking political asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported 15.4 million worldwide refugees at the end of 2012.

Thirty-nine men and women seeking asylum in the United States have found their way to Detroit Freedom House.  Located on the city’s west side, Detroit Freedom House looks like any other quaint historic home on a quiet neighborhood street. But inside, political refugees and victims of human trafficking are preparing to begin new lives.  Freedom House offers political refugees and victims of human trafficking comprehensive services free of charge.

The organization provides shelter, food, clothing, health and beauty amenities, legal aid, medical and mental care. Freedom House’s administration, staff and offices occupy the house as well. It employs two full-time staff attorneys who provide residents with legal counsel, and partners with private individuals, firms and local universities — University of Detroit-Mercy, Wayne State University, University of Michigan, Cooley Law School — that also provide legal assistance.

As for mental health services, “The psycho-social component helps them process not only what they may have witnessed or endured, but deal with the stress of: leaving loved ones at home, the legal process, adjusting to new culture, and living in a shelter,” says T.J. Rogers, Freedom House program assistant/case manager. While everyone is grateful to be at Freedom House, he continues, “nobody wants to live in a shelter — having no control over what you eat, because it’s food that’s donated; having no control over what you wear, because its donated; or no control over what chore you perform because its assigned.”

But he says DFH residents work through that process realizing they will soon “close that chapter and prepare themselves to open a new one.” Refugees have one year to submit their application for asylum after arriving in the United States, but once filed, the government’s consideration of the application can take over a year. “In order to claim asylum, you have to prove you have a well-founded fear of persecution, either in the past, or if you were sent home that would be inflicted on you by the government or an organized entity that the government cannot or will not control,” Rogers told the Michigan Citizen. “The persecution is inflicted upon the individual for one of five reasons: political opinion, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity, nationality, or membership within a social group.”

Openly LGBTI people, Rogers says, not only qualify for being members of a social group, but, in places like Uganda, they are making a political statement by being open about their identity which also qualifies them for asylum. Rogers estimates 80 percent of Freedom House’s residents are from Sub-Saharan African countries, some of whom are escaping homophobic laws or social conditions.

To heighten awareness of LGBTI persecution, Freedom House is hosting the event The Plight for Equality — “A Luta Continua,” Feb. 20 at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. After a VIP reception, there will be a screening of the 2012 documentary “Call Me Kuchu” at 6:30 p.m.

The film depicts the plight of LGBTI Ugandans and their struggle for equality. Kisule, the central figure in the film’s events, lost his life during the events documented by filmmakers Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright.  In the film, proponents of anti-gay legislation argue homosexuality is “un-African,” and therefore detrimental to Ugandan families.

Frank Mugisha, executive director, SMUG  COURTESY PHOTO

Frank Mugisha, executive director, SMUG COURTESY PHOTO

A panel discussion will follow the film screening.  Allida Black, activist, managing director of the Allenswood Group, senior fellow at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, and research professor of history at the George Washington University, will moderate the discussion. Panelists will be Frank Mugisha, executive director, Sexual Minorities Uganda, the group once led by Kisule; Kelly AuBuchon, senior attorney, Freedom House; Donald Bierer, LGBT human rights specialist, Amnesty International USA; Jamiil M. Gaston, development coordinator, KICK — The Agency for LGBT African-Americans; and Husam Abdulkhaleq.

Rogers hopes participation from the Detroit-based KICK will localize the issues for people who attend the event. Although he says American laws are considerably less severe, LGBTIs in the U.S. still lack legal protections.

“Human Rights are LGBT rights and LGBT rights are human rights. There’s no differentiation,” says Rogers “Solidarity is borderless. It doesn’t stop at the line of Detroit, of Michigan, of the United States. Everyone around the globe wants the same thing — equality and freedom.”

The VIP portion of  The Plight for Equality will be held from at 5-6 p.m. in the Wright Museum’s rotunda after which the general public will be admitted, free of charge, into the General Motors theater for the screening of “Call me Kuchu.” For more information on Freedom House or the Feb. 20 event, email trogers@freedomhouse.org or call 313.964.4320 ext.18.

 

According to Dr. Blessing-Miles Tendi, a Zimbabwean researcher in African politics, “(L)ate 19th-century records on Africa and African oral history show that homosexual practices existed in pre-colonial Africa. One case in point are the Azande people in the north-east of modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where it was acceptable for kings, princes and soldiers to take young male lovers. Further evidence for the existence of homosexuality is that pre-colonial African ethnic groups ascribed tribal classifications to gay people. While some of these categorizations had negative associations, many had neutral connotations. Certain tribes in pre-colonial Burkina Faso and South Africa regarded lesbians as astrologers and traditional healers. A number of tribal groups in Cameroon and Gabon believed homosexuality had a medicinal effect.” Tendi and other experts argue that European colonial powers actually introduced homophobia, not homosexuality, to Africa, with the passage of laws such as British-controlled Rhodesia’s Immigration Act of 1914, which denied homosexuals the right to enter the territory. That law remained active until 1980. Present-day Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) is one of the countries where homosexuality is illegal today. Ugandan anti-sodomy laws have a similar history.

 

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