“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-age—needed 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.
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.
“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 ostracization of the Ibaras escalated into violence: “My small brother,” he says, “he was raped.”