Federal immigration officials are recommending that the United States grant asylum to a prominent gay rights activist who feared death threats and antigay repression in his native Uganda.
John Abdallah Wambere hailed the decision in an emotional interview Tuesday, shortly after he learned of it, and vowed to continue advocating for gay rights in Uganda from abroad.
“I’m so excited; I’m overwhelmed,” he said by phone from New York, where he had attended a gay rights benefit the night before. “I felt like standing on the streets and shouting out to the whole world.”
US Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a letter Sept. 11 recommending Wambere for asylum, though the final approval is still pending a mandatory background check, according to the letter posted Tuesday by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the Boston legal nonprofit handling his case.
US immigration officials declined to comment because asylum cases are confidential.
Wambere, a tall, softspoken man with a daughter back home, battled for gay rights for more than 14 years in Uganda. He said he has been evicted, arrested three times, and beaten unconscious because he is gay. He also received anonymous death threats, including in 2011, after his friend, gay rights leader David Kato, was bludgeoned to death.
Wambere came to the United States in February to build support for gay rights in Uganda. Days later, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed a bill imposing tough penalties for same-sex conduct, including up to life in prison. Wambere applied for asylum in May, saying he feared for his safety if forced to return home.
In August, Uganda’s constitutional court overturned the law on technical grounds because Parliament had passed it without a quorum, but Wambere’s lawyers said same-sex conduct is still illegal in the African nation based on an earlier law. And some lawmakers have vowed to refile the overturned bill.
“The antigay sentiment has just been rising and rising over the years,” said Allison Wright, one of Wambere’s lawyers at GLAD. “Just because the act is gone doesn’t mean that hostility is not there. That hostility is very much still alive.”
The US State Department says antigay discrimination is a serious human rights violation in Uganda, one of dozens of nations where same-sex relationships are illegal.
In Uganda, gays have been jailed and attacked, and some newspapers have published their names, photographs, and addresses.
Wambere, 41, said Tuesday that his immediate plans are to enroll in school and find a job. He said he was grateful to the lawyers, friends, and supporters who have helped him.
Nathanael Bluhm, a disc jockey specializing in gay hip hop and Caribbean music, raised money to cover Wambere’s airfare and let him stay in his apartment until Wambere could rent a room. Kenneth Reeves, former mayor of Cambridge, introduced him to city services. Others pay his rent.
Yesterday, Bluhm said he wept when he heard that federal immigration officials had recommended Wambere for asylum.
“It’s awesome,” Bluhm said. “But the next thing is, he’s got a family. There’s thousands of people there still suffering.”
Wambere said Uganda is always on his mind as he adjusts to life in Massachusetts, which became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004. He said he was thunderstruck one recent day at the sight of a gay couple openly holding hands on Boston Common and the lack of a reaction from the people around them.
“To me, it was amazing,” Wambere said. “Nobody cared about it. Even they themselves were not even freaking out.”
But Wambere said reports of threats and violence against gay and lesbian people continue to flow from Uganda. He vowed to continue to help them from here.
“The truth is, deep in my heart, every day, my heart is thinking about the situation at home,” Wambere said. “Every day I’m thinking about Uganda.”
5/7: Gay Ugandan hopes to find refuge in US
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.