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Gay Ugandan Activist Is Granted U.S. Asylum

John Abdallah Wambere sits in his Cambridge apartment. (Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
John Abdallah Wambere sits in his Cambridge apartment. (Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

An influential gay rights activist from Uganda has been granted asylum by U.S. immigration officials, according to a statement released Tuesday by the Boston-based legal group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).

John Abdallah Wambere, an openly gay man living in the Boston area since February, feared repercussions from his native country for his LGBT activism and sexual orientation.

"I am overwhelmed,” Wambere said in the statement, of asylum. “I must say that I am blessed, but there are many stories out there. I call upon everyone who helped me to continue to support LGBTI people around the world and all asylum seekers in the U.S. And my thoughts are with Uganda; I have sleepless nights while I worry about my community there."

Officials from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a letter dated Sept. 11 recommending Wambere be approved for asylum after a mandatory background check. He's been able to apply for employment authorization immediately upon that recommendation.

On Aug. 1, the Constitutional Court of Uganda struck down the nation's "Anti-Homosexuality Act," citing the Ugandan Parliament's failure to reach quorum during its passage last year. As the bill was overturned on a legislative technicality, gay activists are concerned the bill, which was signed into law on Feb. 24 by President Yoweri Museveni, could be passed again. The law promised to punish those found guilty of gay actions with a life prison sentence.

“We are thrilled that John will be able to continue his important work on behalf of the Ugandan LGBTI community from the United States, where he will be free from arrests and incarceration because of his sexual orientation and bold activism,” Allison Wright, a GLAD attorney, said in the statement.

According to GLAD, Wambere is a co-founder of Spectrum Uganda Initiatives and has been in the U.S. since February, filing for asylum on May 6.

"Many people supported me through this process spiritually, mentally and financially while I was struggling to come to terms with trauma, with the reality of seeking asylum"

John Abdallah Wambere

In March, Wambere spoke with WBUR in his Cambridge apartment about the "Anti-Homosexuality Act." He said the law had turned gay people into criminals.

Wambere told WBUR that as stories of the arrest of friends and colleagues surfaced before the law even passed, he felt his safety was in jeopardy in Uganda.

"I would sit and imagine someone coming and stands at my house door and points a finger and says, ‘That’s him,'" he told WBUR. "I was, like, getting these illusions. And I couldn’t stop crying most of the time. And I felt my head was getting hot each other time. I just got tired and sick of everything. It was so traumatizing."

In an additional statement released Tuesday, Wambere said he is continuing to recover from the monthslong ordeal.

"Many people supported me through this process spiritually, mentally and financially while I was struggling to come to terms with trauma, with the reality of seeking asylum, and with the fact that I have been unable to work," he said. "I must say that it's still going on until I can integrate myself into this new journey in life."

Janson Wu, a GLAD attorney, said, “Asylum is a life-saving system that protects vulnerable members of the LGBTI community forced to flee places like Uganda, Russia, and Jamaica, where it is fundamentally unsafe to be out."

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