David and Simon were living in a tiny apartment in Nairobi when I met them. It was a single room with a mattress on the floor, but it was still more than they could afford. As refugees, the two twenty-seven-year-olds weren’t officially allowed to live and work in Nairobi, but as a gay couple, they didn’t think they’d be protected in a refugee camp.

So they had splurged on this $100-a-month haven. “We came here to be safe,” David said, referring to the building’s gate and guard. And yet they had to lie to live there—pretending to be students and keeping their relationship secret—and spent most of their time indoors, for fear of harassment.

David and Simon (whose names have been changed for their protection) met as college students in Uganda and fled to Kenya to escape persecution. Between the two of them they had survived sexual assault and been kicked out of their homes by relatives who threatened to bring them to the police. Yet Kenya still has strict laws making homosexuality punishable by up to fourteen years in prison—and the couple said attackers shouting anti-gay slurs had broken Simon’s arm. Anyone who knows they are refugees from Uganda immediately knows they are gay, they said, since there is no other reason that people seek asylum from that country. “Kenya is not different from Uganda,” Simon said. “People are homophobic.”

Still, they have found support. David, who arrived about three years ago and was later joined by Simon, received official refugee status after about a year in Kenya. Because he is considered particularly vulnerable, he has been scheduled for a resettlement interview in August 2019, which will kick off a process that usually takes years. During the long wait for that appointment—which he called torture—David was getting help from HIAS, a global refugee agency known for providing legal aid, psychosocial counseling, and livelihood assistance to the most vulnerable refugees. “At HIAS, we recognize that LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] refugees have specific needs that are often not adequately addressed by standard refugee protection mechanisms,” said Devon Cone, F08, director of protection programs for HIAS.

HIAS’s protection and advocacy for LGBTI refugees, which dates back to 2009 in Kenya, is particularly important in Africa. Homosexuality is illegal in more than thirty of the continent’s fifty-four countries and sex between men is punishable by death in Sudan and Mauritania. Ugandan lawmakers proposed the death penalty for homosexuality in 2009 and in 2010 a Ugandan tabloid published the names, photos, and addresses of one hundred gays and lesbians under the headline “Hang Them.” One of the gay activists listed was later found murdered in his home. The original bill was revised to change the death penalty to life imprisonment and made law in 2014.

Even though the law was deemed invalid by the Ugandan Constitutional Court, HIAS saw its LGBTI caseload in Nairobi jump dramatically. The agency responded by offering services including short-term safe housing for LGBTI refugees who have experienced harassment and assault, and a livelihoods initiative that provides small-business training.

For David and Simon, who briefly stayed in a safe house, paying for food and rent is a constant challenge. In 2016, David worked for two months as a receptionist in a hair salon, but had to leave when the owner learned he was gay. “That was my first and last job in Kenya,” he told me.

David made jewelry for a few months, but he couldn’t turn a profit. He then wanted to try online work, but he didn’t own a laptop, so he and Simon were surviving with assistance from HIAS. After Simon contracted typhoid and they were attacked again, they had to move to an even cheaper apartment. Before long, they couldn’t keep up with that rent and started staying with friends. Looking ahead, David worried about how changing U.S. policies on refugee resettlement might affect them—and he worried about money. “I don’t know how to pay rent or buy food or medication,” he told me. “We stay every day in the house. Watch movies. Sleep. Wait.”

Heather Stephenson

Heather Stephenson, senior writer at Tufts and editor of Fletcher Magazine, can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.