Jackie Nanyonjo died last Friday

Jackie Nanyonjo

My grandmother did not die of uremic poisoning. She died because she was in hiding, in Nazi-occupied Brussels, and could not get the medical care she needed. And so she died and was buried in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field `somewhere in Brussels’.

Jackie Nanyonjo died in Kampala, Uganda, last Friday. Jackie Nanyonjo was a lesbian who fled Uganda, made it to England, and applied for asylum. In so doing, she joined women like Betty Tibikawa, Linda Nakibuuka and so many other Ugandan lesbians who, having asked for safe haven, trade one rung of hell for another.

Jackie Nanyonjo fought for the rights, power and dignity of women, LGBTI individuals and communities, lesbians, asylum seekers. She fought for those rights on the streets; in the cells and corridors of Yarl’s Wood; and in the airplane that took her, abducted her more accurately, to Kampala two months ago. When she arrived in Kampala, she went into hiding. She didn’t contact members of the organized LGBT rights communities, most likely because of the current pogroms against lesbians and gays and their organizations. And so, on Friday, March 8, 2013, International Women’s Day, Jackie Nanyonjo died, in hiding, in Kampala.

Friends report that she was in poor health in the United Kingdom and in very poor health when she arrived in Kampala.

My grandmother did not die of uremic poisoning. Jackie Nanyonjo did not die of poor health. They were both killed. May they both rest in peace. May we do better than merely remember and intone their names.


(Photo Credit: PinkNews)


Is Marie Therese Njila Nana a human being? Are you?

Subjected to the trials of Job, Marie Therese Njila Nana has survived with dignity, and is rewarded, by the United Kingdom, with prison and worse.

Nana is from Cameroon. In her area, her family was fairly prominent. When Marie Therese Nana converted to Pentecostalism, her family took, bound her, tortured and beat her. She fled to another part of the country, joined a local Pentecostal Church, and tried to begin a new life.

She lived in that town for ten years. Then the Church decided she must marry a Church elder. Nana refused, and was forced to move again, to avoid violence.

She met a man from another tribe, whom she married. Her family discovered this and sent nine masked family members to her house. They beat her.

Her husband left for Germany, for work. Threats, and worse, from Church and family escalated. Marie Therese Nana tried to reconcile with her family. She returned home to meet with her parents, or so she thought. Her family held her for days, beating her senseless and humiliating and degrading her, all in an attempt to `purify’ her. Then they took her to the police, where she was further beaten.

Marie Therese Njila Nana then fled, to England, where she applied for asylum. Which was denied. The Home Office claims that Marie Therese Njila Nana can return safely to Cameroon, because there are `support services’ available. Not the police, notoriously corrupt and violent and beyond reproach. Her family has proven its capacity to reach her anywhere in the country. The Pentecostal Church as well is all over the place. And her name is known. But somehow the United Kingdom Border Agency has decided that Marie Therese Njila Nana is not a true candidate for asylum.

And so they sent her to Yarl’s Wood, where she has been for the last nine months. Nana describes her experience in Yarl’s Wood as torture. According to doctors, she is clearly suffering from trauma, and has received no medical attention. To the contrary, guards have taunted and harassed her.

This is not surprising from an agency that commonly and blithely uses forces on pregnant prisoners. This is not surprising from an agency that, in report after report, is found to treat prisoners with abuse, violence, and viciousness. Prisoner after prisoner reports that the staff treats them “like dogs”, like animals. Marie Therese Nana puts it succinctly: “English people need to know that there are concentration camps in their country where aliens are tortured and oppressed.”

And now, the United Kingdom plans to send Marie Therese Njila Nana back to Cameroon. What’s the reward an African woman gets for having survived violence after violence after violence? More violence.

Marie Therese Njila Nana asks, “Am I a HUMAN BEING? I ran from my country to save my life and I just seek asylum. After destroying me mentally more than 8 months now they plot to send me back to my killers.” But the real question is this, “Are we human beings?” Only concerted and collective action to stop the flight, and all the flights, will do, if we want to answer, “Yes. Yes, we are human beings.”

(Photo Credit: Muse / bensmawfield)

Betty Tibikawa’s asylum nightmare

Yarl’s Wood

Betty Tibikawa is a Ugandan lesbian who has applied for asylum in the United Kingdom. She has been turned down and sits in Yarl’s Wood, waiting to be deported, struggling to live.

Betty Tibikawa’s family has disowned her. The infamous Ugandan tabloid, the Red Pepper, identified Tibikawa as lesbian, and so extended the threat to her life and well being.

And she has been tortured. Having just graduated from high school, Betty Tibikawa was preparing to go to university in Kampala when three men abducted her. They took her to an abandoned building and branded her thighs with a hot iron. They left her unconscious. She remained at home, in bed, for two months. In the home of the family that then disowned her for being lesbian.

The United Kingdom Border Agency has decided that Betty Tibikawa shall not receive asylum. The scars are real, and they do indicate having been branded with a hot iron, but she shall not remain in the United Kingdom. Has the agency decided, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Uganda is now magically safe for LGBTQ persons? That can’t be. There’s too much evidence to the contrary. Is Betty Tibikawa not lesbian enough for the UKBA, and thus not in enough danger? Being tortured, being abducted, being threatened by a national newspaper, being disowned and abandoned by one’s family aren’t enough? What would be credible enough?

Betty Tibikawa’s story is an old story, a familiar story. In pleading for asylum, Tibikawa is  “at the mercy of states not only jealous of their own sovereignty but dominant on the international scene, pressed to intervene here rather than or sooner than there”. Hers is a story of mercy, a test of the sovereign nation-State’s capacity to engage in mercy. The State has failed … again.

She has come before strangers and revealed herself. She has been prodded, poked, interrogated, poked again, prodded again, all in the name of some sort of science. In this, Betty Tibikawa mirrors Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman brought to France, an African woman who, in the end, “craved … mercy. Mercy. I was one colored woman against a thousand dead white men.” All she craved was mercy. She found none. She found, instead, European men who claimed science, who claimed mercy.

Betty Tibikawa mirrors as well Joseph “John” Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, who looked at the world of English scientists and doctors and wondered aloud, “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?” The doctors responded that Merrick had much to learn about science, about religion, about mercy.

Where is mercy?

Is it to be found in a court of law? Does mercy abide anywhere in the processes of asylum? Do mercy and justice ever meet? What crime did Betty Tibikawa commit? The crime of self knowledge? The crime of knowing whom she loves? The crime of love itself?

Betty Tibikawa says she can’t sleep and has terrible nightmares. The current practice of asylum is a nightmare, a nightmare from which we all must try to awake. Meanwhile, Betty Tibikawa waits to be deported back to Uganda.


(Photo  credit: Dan Chung / Guardian)


Protection stalks transnational women workers

For many transnational women workers, life in the global economy is hard. They often deal with separation and alienation, abuse, isolation, and more, and worse. For some, the monetary rewards make it worthwhile. For others, the periods of autonomy, however partial, and the developing mastery of strange and foreign cultures is a kind of reward. For others still, over the years, they develop bonds, ties, community, intimacy. And for many, after all is said and done, they did what they felt they had to do, and really there’s nothing to be said, as far as they’re concerned.

That the contemporary world is a hard place for transnational women workers may be worth repeating, but it’s not news, and it’s not new. The `birth’ of the global economy, of world-systems of development and trade, with its reliance on women’s cheap and available labor, produced new species of vulnerability, precariousness, exploitation, hardship; and women workers have developed new strategies of survival with dignity and of struggle. We know this already.

The contemporary world is not only a hard place for transnational women workers. It’s an unforgiving place. Ask those whose names must be withheld. Ask them about `protection.’

There’s a woman from Moldova whose name must be withheld. At 14 she was abducted, forced into prostitution, and shipped from Moldova to Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Israel and the United Kingdom. For seven years, she was regularly beaten, raped, threatened with death. According to various reports, she was treated as a slave.

In 2003, she was arrested in a brothel in England. No one bothered to listen to, or to ask for, her story. No one asked if she needed, wanted or could use `protection’, and none was offered. Instead, she served three months in Holloway prison, and then was summarily turned over to the UK Border Agency. At Oakington detention centre, she was shot through the Detained Fast-Track system, and then ejected. It was all very efficient. Seek protection in this world, and ye shall find deportation.

The woman was shipped back to Moldova. The men who had kidnapped her in the first place knew she was coming, found her, savagely beat her, and forced her back into prostitution. Four years later, in 2007, she was again arrested in England and sent to Yarl’s Wood. There, someone from the Eaves Housing Poppy Project identified her as a refugee, and helped her to make a successful asylum claim. At last, someone saw her, identified her, as a woman, as a human being.

This week, four years later, the United Kingdom Home Office finally agreed to a `groundbreaking’ settlement with the woman, paying her a `substantial’ amount for having so efficiently sent her back into a place where she was destined to encounter extraordinary violence against her person.

Today, the woman remains anonymous, her name is withheld, because the men who kidnapped, tortured, and exploited her are still out there, and her life and the lives of her family members are in danger.

There is a woman from the Philippines whose name likewise must be withheld. She is a domestic worker in Dubai. She is 42 years old, the mother of one. She has worked as a maid for three years. She has worked in one household, where the conditions have been intolerable. And yet, for three years, she tolerated the intolerable. Finally, in January, she gave her boss a one-month notice, after three years of mental abuse, 16-hour work days, 7 days a week. Her boss refused to accept her resignation. He told her she must stay.

He said he controlled her. Her visa depended on her employer. He placed a visa ban on her, and informed the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department. The Department concurred. In Dubai, as in all the United Arab Emirates, a visa ban means one must leave and one can never return.

The employment agency that had placed her offered to replace her with a new maid. The employer refused.

Having exhausted every possible legal means, the woman fled. She sought refuge at the Philippines Overseas Labour Office. They offered to help her fight, to help her stay and find another job, to help her get the visa ban lifted.

But they could not offer the woman protection. In Dubai, every month, over fifty domestic workers appeal to their various embassies for help, for protection. This was just one more case.

The woman was arrested and taken to Al Wasl immigration holding prison, where she now awaits imminent deportation. “All I want to do is work hard for a good family. Now I have to go back with nothing. I can’t stand to tell my family in the Philippines, they rely on me for financial support.”

These stories of abuse are altogether unexceptional. They are absolutely ordinary stories of ordinary violence committed by ordinary employers, States, everyone against ordinary transnational women workers, women whose names must be withheld. They are part of the everyday, of the parable of protection that is global, intimate, and everywhere. In the global economy, protection stalks transnational women workers.


(Photo Credit: scholarlymartyr.wordpress.com)

Prison labor haunts `history’

Elaine Brown

When is slavery not slavery? When the slaves are called prisoners, their condition is not slavery. It’s … history. The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution says so, and so do the United Kingdom Border Authority, UKBA, and the private prison corporation, Serco.

Last month, on December 9, 2010, prisoners in several prisons across Georgia went on strike.  According to Elaine Brown, one of the prisoners’ spokespersons, the strike involved “Augusta, Baldwin, Calhoun, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Rogers, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware state prisons.” Others claim seven prisons were involved. The strike concerned prisoners’ working and living conditions across the state. The conditions of prisoners in Georgia are famously bad. Prisoners in Georgia receive no pay for the work they perform. The possibility of going to jail in Georgia, especially for people of color, is infamously high. Georgia has the highest rate of prison `involvement’ in United States: “In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.” The national average is 1 in 31.

The strike was non violent, peaceful even. The media focused on the capacity of prisoners to organize a structured, non spontaneous, non violent work stoppage across the state. This was facilitated by the use of contraband cell phones, bought largely from guards.

The strike was called `historic’, in two senses. On one hand, it was massive. Again according to Elaine Brown, the strike was “historic in scope and in the unity of thousands of black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian and Rastafarian prisoners.” Others claimed it was one of the largest prison strikes and the biggest prisoner strike in U.S. history. In terms of scale, of numbers of prisoners involved, of numbers of kinds of prisoners involved, the action was historic.

On the other hand, the strike was historic in that it protested the history of prison labor. Prison labor has historically been part of a racially, ethnically segregated labor market, “an emblem of racial subjugation.” Prison labor, especially in the United States, has its roots in slavery. Read the Constitution of the United States.

According to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” For prisoners, slavery and involuntary servitude are constitutionally just fine. Where do slavery and justice sleep comfortably together? In prison.

And not only in the United States.

At Yarl’s Wood, in the United Kingdom, women refugees and asylum seekers are held in detention … for the crime of applying for asylum. This week, current and former prisoners, all women, revealed their working conditions and described them as modern day slavery.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their application is in process. But not at Yarl’s Wood. There they work, for next to nothing. Gloria Sestus, a 32-year-old Nigerian, says she is paid £1 to clean the dining room twice a day. The job takes more than an hour each time. As former prisoner Nordia Hylton, 34-year-old Jamaican asylum seeker, noted, “People who work without papers to try and feed their families are arrested for illegally working and detained. But once they get to Yarl’s Wood they can work for next to nothing. The UKBA and Serco are hypocrites. They are taking advantage of people’s situation.”

Gloria Sestus sees it as more than hypocrisy, “It is like slavery in a modernised form.”

It is like slavery in a modernized form. African women, Afro Caribbean women, women of the African diaspora know a thing or two about the history of slavery. The prison strike across Georgia was historic. The prisoners’ testimonies and protests concerning Yarl’s Wood are historic as well. Both call on us to speak and address the historic name of prison labor: slavery.


(Photo Credit: hiphopandpolitics.com)


Azbaa’s anguish, Auden’s blues

Azbaa Dar

Pakistani born Azbaa Dar is being held in Yarl’s Wood. On Monday of this week she reported, dutifully, to the Liverpool office of the UK Border Agency. She has been applying for asylum for nine years, and as part of the process, she has to `visit’ the UKBA offices regularly. At this visit, she was given a letter denying her asylum. She was then taken to Yarl’s Wood and told she was to be returned to Pakistan.

Azbaa’s family had been turned down for asylum on Easter 2006, after a five year asylum process. Her father, Arif, a local high school governor, her mother, her four younger sisters were sent to Yarl’s Wood, and then shipped back to Pakistan. Since their return, Arif has been detained and tortured on a number of occasions, her mother is ill, her sisters have been threatened if they pursue formal education. And then of course there are the floods.

Azbaa escaped capture and lived clandestinely around Liverpool for close to four years. Finally, a deal was struck that if she turned herself in and came regularly to the office, she’d be fast tracked. She was. To Yarl’s Wood.

She was supposed to fall under a `legacy’ agreement, that would take into account the roots of the applicant in her new community. Azbaa has won Good Citizenship awards, has logged in 800 hours of volunteer, unpaid service at a local hospital, and is generally viewed as a model. She was supposed to be treated with some modicum of decency, recognition, appreciation. She was supposed to receive due process of some sort.

Instead, she has been treated as a dangerous criminal, a threat to society.

Azbaa Dar’s story, and that of her family for that matter, is all too common in the so-called advanced democracies. Pregnant Tamil asylum seekers are kept as prisoners in Canada. An Australian candidate for Prime Minister of Australia bases his campaign on severely limiting the number of asylum seekers who reach the nation’s golden shores.

It’s a common story. Seventy one years ago, 1939, on the verge of World War II, W.H. Auden wrote “Refugee Blues”. Here are some stanzas:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us….

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me….

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.”

I dreamed I saw Azbaa Dar and W.H. Auden, walking down the road, smiling. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we live with the anguish of the asylum seekers, in the UK, in Canada, in Australia, in the US, in the great democracies of the world. Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.


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