Arrested and tortured for being transgender, a Ugandan government worker gets asylum in U.S.

September 26, 2012 — This story had been previously posted in June of 2012 but was pulled after concerns were raised over some of the details shared. The story has been edited to address these concerns and names have been left out or substituted for security reasons.

On January 2, 2011, a young Ugandan lawyer, Tom, intercepted an email addressed to the Ugandan president, prime minister, cabinet, and all elected members of the Ugandan parliament. As a political aide in the Office of Presidential Affairs, it was his job to vet emails intended for the president and prime minister.

The email was sent by Lisa Salazar, a Canadian Christian transsexual. In the email Lisa voiced strong opposition to Uganda’s pending “Kill the Gays Bill” (KTGB), challenging Parliament to reject the bill and work instead towards the protection of human rights for Uganda’s sexual minorities.

That night after work Tom sent Lisa a private message from his home computer. He related that all of his life he had struggled with his gender identity. He wrote that he sensed Lisa was a person with whom it would be safe for him to share this deeply personal secret. He expressed his desire to begin a mutually supportive correspondence with Lisa. He also wrote of his fears of how quickly his life would unravel if anyone in Uganda were to discover that correspondence.

On the same day Lisa sent her open letter to the Ugandan parliament she had also created a website expressly designed to encourage others to join her in sending letters to officials in Uganda, with the hope of getting as many people as possible to add their voice to the international outcry over the KTGB. Thanks to his sensitive job in Uganda’s parliament, he was able to provide Lisa with timely information on the progress of the KTGB, including the identities of key players at any given time. Lisa would then post updates on her website so that people could send targeted emails to those key persons.

The proponents of the KTGB had been hoping to get the bill passed into law during the remaining days of the 8th Parliament, which was then nearing the end of its term. Elections were slated for early March 2011; the 9th Parliament would be sworn in a few months later. (Parliamentary terms in Uganda last five years.)

In May—between the end of the 8th and swearing in of the 9th Parliament—he, along with most other government officials in Uganda, was going to have some time off work. His vacation plan was to spend a week visiting his mother in western Uganda, briefly return to the Ugandan capital of Kampala, and from there drive to neighboring Kenya in order to visit with four members of Lisa’s Vancouver church who were working in a remote village located an eight-hour drive from Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi.

While driving back to Kampala after visiting his mother, he was tipped off by a friend that the Ugandan secret police were waiting at his house. So instead of going home he drove to a friend’s apartment to hide.

Two days later he received a phone call from his supervisor asking him to come into the office. Immediately upon reporting as requested he was arrested by the secret police. Before leaving for vacation he had inadvertently left in his desk the memory stick onto which he had saved many of his emails with Lisa. On the basis of those emails Tom was charged with treason, promoting homosexuality, sabotaging government programs, leaking classified information to enemies of the government, and collaborating with international forces to destabilize the government.

He was driven to his apartment, where the police ransacked his home, confiscating all of his computer equipment and his passport. From there he was taken to a military prison in Entebbe. From May 10 to June 12 he was there beaten, tortured, and mercilessly humiliated.

When she and her friends in Kenya realized that they had lost touch with him, Lisa began anxiously scouring the online Ugandan news services and death notices, searching for any news of her missing friend. In a Google search, she found an obscure short video clip from 2008, in which he is seen standing with two other persons in what appeared to be a photo opportunity.

Lisa fired off an email to the organization responsible for posting the video, requesting that, if possible, they forward her contact information to anyone who might know of her friend’s whereabouts.

A week later Lisa received an email from a young woman to whom her email had been forwarded. Cheryl (not her real name) wrote that not only did she know Tom, she knew of Lisa, whose acquaintance she was happy to make. Cheryl was one of only two people in Uganda with whom he was close enough to have shared the secret of his struggles with his gender identity. Cheryl referred to him using Angie (not her real name) and female pronouns when referring to Tom. (For the rest of this article, she will be referred to as Angie.)

It was Cheryl who informed Lisa of Angie’s arrest and imprisonment. Angie’s only glimmer of hope, explained Cheryl, was Angie’s uncle, a high-ranking government official already working to secure her release.

Two weeks later Angie was released into her uncle’s custody with the proviso that she report weekly to security operatives. Because Angie’s knees had been beaten with a metal rod, upon her release she was unable to walk. While recovering at her mother’s home, Angie received word that further legal action was soon to be taken against her. Friends immediately transported her a remote part of Uganda, where she went into hiding.

Angie and those nearest her decided that for her safety she needed to escape Uganda and seek political and LGBT asylum. First she would need to heal from a surgery to her right knee, performed by a doctor sympathetic to her plight while she was in hiding.

While Angie had been suffering in prison, Lisa had contacted an human rights advocacy group based in San Diego, CA. Months earlier Lisa met them on Facebook, and they had since shared information regarding the progress of the KTGB. Upon hearing her story, Lisa’s friend reached out to his contacts in the U.S. State Department, and a plan for her escape and asylum from Uganda began to be developed.

The first thing Angie needed to do in order to secure the help of the United States was to get herself to the American Embassy in Kenya, one of only three American embassies in Africa which process applications for refugees seeking asylum.

After receiving this information from Lisa, traveling only at night in order to avoid detection, Angie made her way to a location in Uganda from which she was able to pay to have herself smuggled across the border into Kenya. Once inside Kenya, she used the last of her money to purchase a ticket for a bus ride to Nairobi, where she arrived on a Friday evening. With the American embassy closed for the weekend, and no idea to whom she might turn for a safe place to stay, Angie contacted Lisa from an Internet cafe to ask for further instructions.

Startled by how quickly Angie had managed to arrive in Nairobi, Lisa immediately logged onto Facebook to see if any of her few Facebook acquaintances in Nairobi happened to be online. She recognized the name of a Nairobi resident who in the past had occasionally left a supportive comment on her blog.

Lisa sent an instant message to this person. Aware that revealing too much too soon could endanger Angie (the Kenyan secret police work in full cooperation with their Ugandan counterparts), Lisa asked the person if they might be willing to take a risk to help a total stranger who was currently waiting in a Nairobi cafe.

Lisa’s Facebook friend was not only ready and willing to help, she knew just what to do. Within ten minutes Angie’s rescue was underway; within the hour she was being driven to a safe house ten miles outside of Nairobi, where for the next six weeks she would remain in hiding.

It took eleven more months to complete the processing of Angie’s application for asylum in America. (And that was fast; she had initially been told the process could take up to three years.) During those months she moved from place to place, always in danger of being discovered, and always under the careful protection of new friends. Angie met with representatives of the U.S. Embassy, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS). She had to register with the government of Kenya as a refugee, and be certified as a bonafide refugee claimant by both UNHCR and HIAS. Unable to work, Angie lived mainly off donations from Lisa and her church, from the human rights advocacy group in San Diego, and from a HIAS grant.

Throughout those sometimes interminable and often frightening days, Angie began daring to hope that she might really make it safely to America. Lisa promised Angie that she would—and that, when she first stepped off the plane onto American ground, Lisa would be there to greet her. This encouragement from Lisa meant a great deal to Angie; at times it felt like the only thing keeping her going.

Largely through the support of a couple of international NGOs that help with refugee resettlents, airfare and safe passage out of Kenya was provided, Angie arrived in New York at noon on Tuesday, June 19. By way of thwarting interference by the Ugandan or Kenyan authorities, all details of her itinerary had been kept strictly confidential; no one outside of a few select operatives had any idea at all where in America she was being flown, or when. Because of this Lisa was not able to be present when Angie feet first arrived in America.

At 8 p.m. on June 19, 2012 Angie finally arrived, and greeting her along with Lisa was the San Diego couple from an LGBT affirming church with whom she spent her first months. Angie is has been working hard to resettle and is slowly starting her new life in the United States.

The total number of individuals who took part in this amazing rescue, who need to be thanked for the part they played, is beyond measure. There are many persons who must be thanked and acknowledged in the U.S. State Department, the American Embassy in Kenya, the several NGOs, as well as persons who were willing to take risks on behalf of a friend, and in many cases, a total stranger.

There are hundreds, if not thousands more LGBT persons who live in fear throughout the world. Hopefully this your transgender person’s story will help to shine more light on their plight so that more can be done to ensure their stories also have a happy ending.
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