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LGBT refugee recounts escape from Uganda

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Anita Nambasa shared her story of coming to the United States at the San Francisco LGBT Center on June 16. (Jaya Padmanabhan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

‘My name is Anita Nambasa, and I’m from Uganda,” she said, her voice strong and sure. “I was in detention for five months and two weeks.” And so, this remarkable woman began her story and it seemed fitting that it was at the San Francisco LGBT Center that she settled into her tale …

In Uganda, once it was discovered that she was a lesbian, Nambasa narrowly escaped being caught and put to death. It was in February 2014 that President Yoweri Museveni signed the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act criminalizing homosexuals and lesbians. The Ugandan Constitutional Court ruled the act invalid later that year.

Nambasa and her friends made the mistake of celebrating the court’s ruling. As a result, her picture, as well as those of other LGBT members who were by her side that day, appeared in newspapers and television channels. One night, local community members approached her parents and demanded they surrender their lesbian daughter or their house would be burnt down.

Nambasa climbed out of a back window and escaped with the clothes on her back. She made her way to the Ugandan-Kenyan border, where her mother had arranged to send some money. Nambasa’s mother subsequently paid $6,000 to an acquaintance, a ship’s captain, to take her to Canada, and Nambasa spent the entire ocean crossing in the hold of the ship.

The ship made its way to Brazil, whereupon the captain demanded another $6,000 to take Nambasa to Canada. Unable to pay the money, she disembarked in Brazil.

Nambasa remembered feeling confused and disoriented in Brazil, until she met a group of people from Africa. They decided to make the trek to the United States together. The group of 10 — Nambasa was the only girl in the group — boarded buses from Brazil to Peru to Ecuador to Colombia and then through the jungles of Panama to the U.S. border in San Diego.

At the border, Nambasa approached a United States border patrol agent and identified herself. When asked why she was there, Nambasa recalled responding, “I’m here for protection.” The agent then asked her to step aside and wait. It was about 10 hours later, around 8 p.m. that night, that Nambasa, along with another group of women were taken to “the room” — a place she described as the coldest place she’d ever been — with no blankets or mattresses.

“It’s like they put us in a refrigerator,” she said, her eyes narrowing.

A few women who were detained with Nambasa could not bear the cold and surrendered to the officers in charge and were immediately deported back to the countries they came from.

“But for us who don’t have a choice, we had to stay there,” Nambasa said.

After a week in that cold room, Nambasa was transferred to Mesa Verde immigration detention facility in Bakersfield. The travails of her journey across continents had sapped her strength, and she fell sick there.

According to Nambasa, she was told that at Mesa Verde they did not have the resources to treat her illness, so she was transferred to Richmond.

In Richmond, though, Nambasa found that “the medication was completely, completely poor.” In her words, “If you are sick and you want to be seen by the doctor, you have to make a call. And when you make a call, they tell you to wait for two days to be seen by a doctor. And when you go to see the doctor, they won’t treat you for the problem that you have, so they’ll just give you the painkillers, or sometimes they’ll say that they’re going to order for your medication but you never receive the medication.”

Reports of these kinds of abuses prompted California’s legislature to include a measure in the latest budget bill, which passed June 14, for greater oversight of immigration detention facilities. Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, called the measure a historic move.

“California becomes one of the first states to re-empower our Attorney General and the Department of Justice to really look at what’s happening and what are the conditions in these detention centers,” he remarked at a news conference at the SF LGBT Center.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra declared exultantly that “we know how to do things differently in
California and we do this for people because we believe that we are not only a nation of laws over men but we’re a nation that believes what the statue of liberty has said for so long and so we really want to communicate that
California will stand up even if some other parts of the country won’t.”

Under the provisions of this bill, the Attorney General and the Department of Justice will be authorized to conduct inspections of both private and public immigration detention facilities to ensure that detainees are treated with respect, that they are detained for the right reasons, and that the conditions of their detainment are humane and appropriate.

Nambasa said she was granted her asylum on Feb. 9, 2016, adding that she didn’t want anyone to go through what she experienced in Richmond, with no access to family members or to lawyers. She called the situation unfair for refugee asylum-seekers.

“I don’t think we really deserve that, because we ran away from our countries to come here for protection,” Nambasa said. “It’s not like we did a crime for coming here or something like that.”

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter:
@jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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