Fleeing persecution and finding hope: LGBTI refugees in South Africa

‘We’re sending a message of hope’

Junior Mayema was explaining to me why he’d taken the bold step of appearing in From the Same Soil, a new film that beautifully documents the experiences of three refugees in Cape Town. All three fled from different African countries to South Africa to escape persecution due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I was at the film’s official launch in Cape Town on Wednesday. The screening was at the Scalabrini Centre, an organization for refugees and asylum-seekers that had commissioned the film with support from Amnesty South Africa.

All three people featured in the film were at the screening and saw for themselves how the documentary triggered gasps of shock, as well as tears and enthusiastic applause.

She told me, ‘You’re a demon’

Junior had fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after his family found out he was gay. They beat him and were apparently planning to kill him by injecting him with petrol.

He explained that his mother, a Christian pastor, said she should have aborted him. “She told me, ‘You are a demon, not a human being’.”

Transgender Flavina left Burundi so she could live as a woman.

Mussa fled to the DRC in 1994 to escape the genocide in Rwanda. He returned home after his sister and young brother were killed in spill-over fighting in the DRC. With tears in his eyes, he recounted how both he and his family then came under attack when his sexual orientation became known.

Those gasps of shock during the screening came when the film showed refugee clients of the Scalabrini Centre in a workshop on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights.

“I wish one day I will be President,” said one woman, a refugee. “I will make a new constitution… to kill all the gays in the world… because we must respect what the Bible says.”

We were watching the screening in the very room in which these hateful views had been expressed.

Sergio Carciotto, from Scalabrini and the film’s producer, said in the post-screening discussion that the workshop further convinced the Centre “to make sure we will always address this issue in our work with refugees and asylum-seekers.”

We also heard moving contributions from Flavina, Mussa and Junior.

“People should understand that if you run away from your country, it’s not for fun,” said Mussa.

Flavina explained why she had agreed to be in the film, even though the prospect scared her. “It was to show the people that I’m for gay people, but that I’m not gay. I’m a woman. I feel inside that I am a woman but I have a man’s body.”

Bridging the gap between activism for refugee and LGBTI communities

Before the screening, in the same room, we had the first showing in Cape Town of Amnesty’s exhibition: ‘Equality, Pride and Human Rights: Photos against Homophobia and Transphobia’. Previously shown late last year in Johannesburg, it was inspiring to see people engage with the photos that show the lived realities of LGBTI activists in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Cameroon.

For Flavina, Junior, Mussa and many others, homophobia and transphobia have threatened their very survival.
It says a lot about South Africa and its Constitution that we could hold this screening in safety, and in the company of many people from Cape Town’s LGBTI community.

But that doesn’t mean bigotry and violence against LGBTI people isn’t alive here. Far from it, as the film reflects.
In South Africa as elsewhere in the world there has been a gap in human rights activism between those doing excellent work on the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, and those doing equally excellent work on the rights of LGBTI people.

This film bridges that gap, and I’m proud to be associated with it. 

Tracy Doig is Amnesty's campaigner on Southern Africa, in Cape Town.

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