Our safe haven and even more danger
Edward (27) came to Germany half a year ago. His commitment to the safety of others put him in danger himself and led him to flee Uganda. He was recently able to move from Geisenhausen in Bavaria to Munich and has been granted a three-year stay. In an interview, Edward explains how he wanted to create a safe shelter for queer people through his Safe Housing project in Uganda - and why ultimately, he failed.
Edward, first of all: What is Safe Housing?
A safe house is generally a place where anyone can be whoever they are and live as they please without fear of the outside world. My safe house in Uganda was mainly for outcast LGBT people, but sex workers also needed safe shelter. When I speak of safety here, I mean everything from the sleeping place to personal care, catering, medical care, further training for craftsmen and bureaucratic support. All this in a safe community far away from the violence of the police, families and the public, makes freedom possible.
Why does Uganda need a Safe Housing project?
Uganda needs several Safe Housing projects! Because on the one hand, homosexuality is still forbidden and on the other hand, violence within families and homophobia are extremely widespread in the population. Every queer person runs the risk of being persecuted and injured by the police and the population.
So, above all a refuge for people in need or is it also about prevention?
You need to consider the age of most residents in a safe house. Most of them are young people who have fled from the violence of their families or who have been rejected. When these young people then end up on the streets without any support, they often only have sex work to survive. However, if the young people have a place to sleep and something to eat, then they can also find other options. We don't just need one, two or three safe housing projects, but as many as possible throughout Uganda! Only in this way can queer young people really decide freely against sex work and be protected from being subjected to violence from families, the police and the population.
In what capacity were you involved with the safe house?
I launched the project and was head of our house and board member of the organization "Let's Walk Uganda". The Safe House was the biggest and most important project of our organization. I took care of the organizational aspects and made new contacts and recruited helpers. I couldn't do all of it alone. Some volunteers, for example, took care of the healthcare for the young people in the Safe House. Others offered handicraft courses free of charge for the residents. Without all the volunteers, the project would not have been possible.
How "safe" is a safe house?
I don't want to lie here, and I would not want to read anywhere that a safe house is really completely safe. Especially in a society like Uganda, a safe house can be easily attacked by different groups. The police would actually need a court order to search the house, but they usually don't keep to it. In principle, the police can do what they want. So, as soon as the policemen know about a safe house of queer teenagers, it becomes extremely risky for everyone. A safe house is therefore only "safe" as long as the residents are not noticed in public. I have always said from the beginning that every single one of us has to keep a low profile on the outside. Only if nobody draws attention, there is a chance of security for everyone.
Can "not being noticed" be a desirable resolution?
Many of the teenagers were transgender. When they go into public places like shops or bars, it is extremely dangerous. Every transgender always runs the risk of being attacked in public. The population then remembers which house they came from and so the entire house is exposed. In the house, anyone can be what they want but outside the house, nobody should stand out.
When we go to a gay party together, we take a taxi to another safe place. We never use public transport and are always very careful. Each individual transgender is always jointly responsible for the safety of all.
How long did the safe house in Uganda exist?
In 2015 I founded "Let's Walk Uganda" and one year later I started the Safe House project. We started with a 1-room apartment with space for up to six teenagers. Later we moved to a small, fenced house with space for more than 20 people. But at the beginning of 2018 our organization could no longer pay for the house and we were attacked by homophobic neighbours. So, we had to stop the project.
Who were the opponents of the project?
The policemen who earn a bounty for the arrest of queer teenagers were at the top of the list. Even if a search of a house without a court order is illegal, many policemen accept that for the profit they make.
Another great opponent was the general public. Many see homosexuality as something "contagious" and are afraid for their children. Because religion sees homosexuality as a disease and is clearly opposed to queer living. At the very end came the attack on our Safe House, but it started much earlier with insults in public.
That sounds like constant headwind and permanent conflict.
Many journalists write without in-depth research and cast an extremely bad light on the Safe Housing projects. They portray the houses as if they were for sex and drugs and not for the protection of the oppressed. Also, queer people in Uganda can sometimes be their own worst enemy. Some deliberately do not keep a low profile and want to attract public attention as drag queens, for example and that doesn't just put them put everyone else in danger, too.
Did the project have any supporters at all outside the inner circle?
We have a large list of friends and supporters, but hardly from Uganda itself. We were internationally networked with NGOs, queer organizations and volunteer lawyers. Of course, we also had some volunteers at "Let's Walk Uganda" and in the Safe House directly from Uganda, but the project depended on international support.
What sources of funding did you use to finance the project?
We only had two big donors, friends from Berlin and London. With their support we could already make a real difference and could at least pay the rent, for mattresses and for food.
What did the Safe House mean for your own safety?
My life became much more unsafe. Once I started the project, I was more and more in danger. For the police and the public, I was the enemy. I got threatening calls and used a fake name as a precaution. In the end, I was wanted for the alleged spreading of homosexuality.
You are now living in Munich. What opportunities do you or external persons generally have today?
In Uganda there is currently not a single Safe Housing project left. Each project took young people off the streets and ensured their survival without being reduced to sex work. Every euro and every small donation would help. With five euros we could feed someone for three weeks, with ten euros we could buy a mattress. It doesn't take countless donors, but just a few to rebuild a safe house.
Text: Jan Batzner
Photos: Francesco Giordano