The treatment of Sulma Franco is a national disgrace

The signs read, “SULMA IS WELCOME HERE”, but for how long, and what is welcome? Ask Sulma Franco, a 31-year-old LGBT activist from Guatemala who has lived in Texas for six years, part of that in San Antonio, much of it in Austin. In Austin, she owned a thriving food truck business, La Ilusión. No longer.

In 2009, Sulma Franco applied for asylum as an open lesbian who faced violence if she returned home. She passed her initial interview with immigration officers, who determined she had a “credible fear” of returning to Guatemala. Released from detention, she was allowed to work. For years, she reported to immigration officers every three months. In June 2014, she was arrested and faced deportation. She says her former attorney failed to file some papers, and so her asylum case ended, abruptly and without her knowledge: “I didn’t have any problems until then. The immigration official said to me, ‘You know what, I want to tell you your case is closed and you’ll be detained.’ As simple as that. My record is clean. I’m not a criminal … I was paying taxes on my business, and was contributing to society. I had a work permit, driver’s license, business permits that were all in my name.”

No one disputes that Sulma Franco, as an open lesbian and prominent LGBT activist, faces peril if she returns to Guatemala. According to a 2012 study, Guatemala is a world leader in “the frequency and severity of violence against women — including lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender (LBT) women”. Sulma Franco already knows this: “The most difficult situation is that I would end up dead. The discrimination, the hate due to my sexual orientation … In my country, these are things that happen because of sexual orientation. That’s why I fear returning. They can’t tolerate the idea that two women can fall in love, have a child, run a business. If I fled this, why would I want to return? Here, I was able to take my girlfriend to a restaurant and have no problems … I don’t want to go back. I’ve suffered enough there. I’ve been discriminated against, abused and beaten up in every form because of my lifestyle … I can be tortured. I can be sexually abused. I can also be killed.”

On June 11, Sulma Franco was given sanctuary in an Austin church. Faith based groups joined immigrant rights organizers and women’s groups to push for a stay in deportation. On Tuesday, August 18, Sulma Franco was granted an order of supervision, which allows her to stay in the United States “for the time being.” Meanwhile, La Ilusión is no more, thanks to months in detention.

The treatment of Sulma Franco is a national disgrace, and it’s far from over. Yet again, for one woman to arrive at a precarious for-the-time-being, hundreds of people have to invest thousands of hours. In a famous scene in The Elephant Man, John Merrick, the protagonist, asks his mentor, “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?” His mentor replies, “I am sorry. It is just the way things are.” Sulma Franco knows the way things are: cruel mercy, injustice posing as rule of law, and massive and intensive exploitation of those women who dare to dream. As simple as that.

Sulma Franco

 

 

(Photo Credit 1: Mari Hernandez / The Austin Chronicle) (Photo Credit 2: Alberto Martinez / San Antonio Current)

What Dembe, Mari, Masani, and Flavirina knew and what they learned

Dembe Ainebyona has suffered: State violence, mob violence, rape. Ainebyona is a 31-year-old lesbian, originally from Uganda, currently living in the Cape Town metropolitan area. In 2009, she applied for asylum status in South Africa. Unaware of South Africa’s liberal laws concerning LGBTQ people, Ainebyona hid her lesbian identity and hid the real reasons she had fled Uganda. She was denied asylum. Her appeal comes up in a few months.

This is not a story about Uganda. This is a story about South Africa and the reality of its so-called liberal laws as lived by LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers. It’s not a pretty story.

A recent report, Economic Justice: Employment and Housing Discrimination Against LGBTI Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Africa, read against the account of Dembe Ainebyona, reveals a story, that of asylum seekers and refugees in the Cape Town area.

Why focus on Cape Town? Dembe Ainebyona lives there. It’s a global tourist as well as refugee destination. It’s a `model’ for neoliberal urban redevelopment.

And this: “In July 2012, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) closed its Cape Town RRO [Refugee Reception Office] and refused to accept any new requests for asylum at the location. The temporary shutdown was particularly problematic for undocumented LGBTI newcomers because it placed them at risk of detention and subsequent repatriation. In fact, the largest population of refugees and asylum seekers reside in Cape Town. To push back, PASSOP and other advocates protested outside the closed RRO. Another human rights organisation also challenged in court the legality of the RROs closing. In July 2012, the Western Cape High Court ordered the DHA to continue accepting new asylum applications until the court provided a final determination on the case, thereby providing new asylum seekers entering Cape Town interim relief. After months of rallies and public outcry spearheaded by PASSOP, the Western Cape High Court ordered in March 2013 that the RRO fully resume operations by July 2013. However, despite these 2012 and 2013 court rulings, it was reported in April 2013 that the Cape Town RRO had not accepted any new applications since June 2012.” Welcome to Cape Town!

Here’s the story of Mari, Masani, and Flavirina, residents of Cape Town.

Mari: “Lesbian asylum seeker Mari has an educational background in finance management and worked as an accountant in her home country of Angola. She reports that she had two interviews where, after having a positive reception on the phone, the potential employer would not even ask for her CV or paperwork after meeting her in person and assuming her sexual orientation … Mari, who recently escaped from Angola with her girlfriend, explained that she and her girlfriend had to sell all of their possessions and combine their savings to purchase plane tickets to flee to South Africa. Since arriving in Cape Town, they have been unable to find work and therefore are unable to afford housing. (Mari explains that despite their efforts to find employment, they are extremely limited because they cannot seek asylum seeker status and obtain legal documentation since the Cape Town DHA office has stopped accepting new arrival applicants.)”

Masani: “Lesbian refugees and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable as they are often victims of sexual assault. As a result of discriminatory attitudes, police officers do not take reports of sexual assaults targeting the LGBTI community seriously. [Masani, a Ugandan lesbian] explains that police often respond with additional harassment when speaking with victims, asking questions such as, `How can you enjoy sex with ladies?’”

Flavirina: “Flavirina arrived in Cape Town from Burundi as a guest for an LGBTI/transgender conference. When people in her hometown heard why she had left the country, an official from Burundi contacted her and warned her to stay out of the country or she would likely be imprisoned or attacked upon her return. She applied for refugee status in South Africa and is still pending a determination. Since living in South Africa, she has lived in various shelters, on the streets and is currently living in a township. At one point, Flavirina found refuge at a Christian shelter, where she had to hide both her Muslim religion and her gender identity. The shelter separated the living quarters by gender, forcing her to share showers, dressing rooms, and other living quarters with men. As the shelter did not allow new members to leave the premises for the first three months of their stay, Flavirina was trapped in this environment, having to dress and act male. After coming out to the pastor in charge of the shelter, he told her he could no longer guarantee her safety.”

Most interviewees in this report were aware of the protections in South Africa’s Constitution, and the minority that were not came to the country following rumors of tolerance in the nation’s communities.” They found violence and promise, persecution and hope. They found that, in South Africa, life can be hard and dangerous for lesbians. They found as well that, in South Africa, life can be hard and dangerous for women marked as `foreigner’.  As non-national Africans and as lesbians, they face housing and employment discrimination.

In February, Free Gender, the Khayelitsha-based Black lesbian organization, celebrated 20 years of democracy and lamented 20 years of fear. They celebrated the rule of law as they decried the rule of violence and torture.

For those who decry and work to reverse the current wave of homophobic legislation, continue to do so. At the same time, ensure your country has more than good laws. Make sure you welcome and care for the stranger in your strange land, whoever she may be.

 

(Video Credit: The Atlantic Philanthropies / YouTube)

Zimbabwe, Haiti, just go …

What are these lies?
They mean that the country wants to die.”

Haitians, Zimbabweans, everything at home is just fine. So say the United States and the United Kingdom. Everything is just fine and you must just go.

Except that everything is not just fine.

In Harare yesterday, Saturday, April 9, 2011, thousands met at a church service at St Peters Kubatana in Highfield. They engaged in a peaceful demonstration to pray for peace. They came together to pray to end the escalating violence in Zimbabwe. Police threw tear-gas canisters into the church, and when the parishioners and congregants ran out or leapt through the windows, the police attacked them, beating them with batons.

This is peace and unity in Zimbabwe today.

But, according to the UK, Zimbabwe is a-ok, so much so that it’s time to start deporting all those pesky `failed’ and `undocumented’ asylum seekers, people like Nyasha Musvingo. Musvingo fled Zimbabwe after her husband was beaten, tortured, and then died as a result. She knows she can’t return, because of `the situation’.

The UK would disagree. Last month, on March 14, the most senior immigration judge in the country, Mr. Justice Blake of the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), ruled that Zimbabwe is fine. The violence is over. People need not live in fear in Zimbabwe nor need they fear returning. So what if disappearances, indefinite detention, torture and violence have returned and are on the rise? Zimbabwe is `safe’ enough.

Likewise, in Haiti, everything is not just fine.

In Haiti, high levels of violence continue. Rape is epidemic. Over a million people remain homeless. Everyday, the so-called temporary camps seem to become more and more permanent. Cholera is on the rise. A recent study suggests that by November the number of cholera cases in Haiti will be close to 800,000, and the number of deaths will reach a little over 11,000. The crisis is worsening in Haiti.

The United States would disagree. This week, the United States government announced it has formally resumed deportations to Haiti. Haiti is `safe’ enough.

Cholera is on the rise in Zimbabwe as well.

In 2008 – 2009, in large part due to the intensification of political violence, Zimbabwe suffered a cholera epidemic that killed over 4000 people. Close to 100,000 cases were reported, and, according to a recent report, a rapid response, once the 400 cases were reported, would have reduced the number of cases by 34,900, or 40%, and the number of deaths by 1,695 deaths, also 40%. Why was nothing done, why were so many allowed to die? `The political situation.’

But that was then. This past Friday it was reported that over the last month, 36 people died of cholera in Manicaland and Masvingo provinces, in Zimbabwe. In the past week alone, 13 died, and the Ministry of Health notes that the death toll could be higher, as records are not up to date.

Sending people back to Zimbabwe is a death sentence. The United Kingdom would disagree … or would it? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office describes Zimbabwe:  violence on the farms, in the streets, random and targeted; abominable prison conditions; torture; and a culture of impunity. The most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights report, from 2009, paints an equally grim picture.

The Department for International Development describes the state as `unstable’. 25% of Zimbabwean children are described as `vulnerable’. Most live in households, and neighborhoods, built of poverty, HIV/AIDS and State violence. Well over half live in households headed by single women or girls. Of special concern are children living alongside incarcerated mothers and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

All of these statements come from United Kingdom government websites. And yet, somehow, Zimbabwe is now `safe enough’ for asylum seekers to return to.

Sending people back to Haiti is a death sentence. The United States would disagree … or would it? This past week the US State Department released its 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Haiti? “Alarming increases of sexual violence” against women and girls. Alarming increases of domestic violence. No effective agency to deal with sexual or domestic violence, and not much of a plan to do so. “Corrupt judges often release suspects for domestic violence and rape.” Often. LGBT persons face constant violence. The prisons are a hotspot for violence, torture, cholera, and worse.

All of this comes from the US State Department.

If the government of the United Kingdom finds Zimbabwe perilous and the government of the United States finds Haiti perilous, how is it possible in the same breath to determine that Zimbabwe and Haiti are `safe’? In both Haiti and Zimbabwe, the prisons are a nightmare. Deportees to both countries typically `return’ through an extended stay in prison. In both Haiti and Zimbabwe, cholera is on the rise, violence is epidemic, violence against women and girls is more than epidemic, and not only sexual violence.

Sending asylum seekers and prisoners to Zimbabwe and to Haiti is a death sentence. Whether the individual persons live or die matters … terribly. At the same time, the political economy of this moment is that the lives of Zimbabweans and of Haitians to the so-called democracies of the world are of no value. If you are Haitian, if you are Zimbabwean, you must just go. If you die, you die. If you live, perhaps you were fortunate, perhaps not. Either way, you are no longer `our problem’. Your country is `safe enough’. Just go.

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.marieclaire.co.uk)

Not just another murder, Brenda Namigadde

On February 4, 2006, almost five years ago, Zoliswa Nkonyana, “a young Khayelitsha lesbian”, was chased by a group of 20 or so young men. When they caught up with her, they clubbed, kicked and beat her to death. They tortured her to death for being lesbian, for being openly lesbian, for being a woman, for being.

It took two weeks for the news of her brutal murder to finally reach the media. The police didn’t make much of the death or its circumstances. The press in Khayelitsha, five years ago as today, is marked largely by its absence. It was `just another murder.’

Five years later, the case is still open, the trial is not yet finalized. Memorials will take place, no doubt, protests and commemorations.

Yesterday, January 26, 2011, gay rights activist David Kisule Kato was brutally murdered in Mukono, Kampala, Uganda. Kato was the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda. Along with Julian Pepe Onziema and Kasha Jacqueline, Kato had recently won a case against Rolling Stone, restraining it from publishing photos and names of gay men and lesbian women. The High Court ruled that the tabloid violated the rights to privacy and safety. This time the news of the murder spread quickly. The Kampala police claimed, almost immediately, that they’re on the case.

In both instances, and so many others, the assault is on the right to public being, the right to access as gay men and lesbian women, to public spaces, to common and shared experiences, to mutual recognition.

Brenda Namigadde is a woman from Uganda. She fled Uganda in 2003 after her house was destroyed and her life was threatened … because her life partner was a woman. Namigadde fled to the United Kingdom, where she sought asylum. She was turned down, because of insufficient proof of `being lesbian’. Now Namigadde sits in Yarl’s Wood, and awaits, in terror, to be deported to Uganda.

One way to honor the memory of Zoliswa Nkonyana, of David Kato, of all the other gay men and lesbian women who have been brutalized, tortured, murdered, for the sin of being gay in public, for the sin of sharing their love in the common and shared spaces, is to make sure that Brenda Namigadde and other gay and lesbian asylum seekers are not transported back to the House of Death. If not, then Zoliswa Nkonyana, David Kato, and all the others, they’re just another murder.

 

(Mosaic of Zoliswa Nkonyana by Ziyanda Majozi. Thanks to inkanyiso.org)