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A New Beginning for LGBT Refugees

August 1, 2017

 

A day in the life of a lesbian woman living in a refugee camp in East Africa is unfortunately comprised of very few stages: wake up in your United Nations-issue hut, pick up the UN-issue package of maize and sorghum that will feed you and your children for the week, wait for the sun to go down, and repeat.

 

The stigma these women face because of their identities prevents them from creating any sort of meaningful life in the camp; refugee life, already laden with hardship, is even more bleak for a refugees that identify as LGBT. Like the other inhabitants of the camp, these women come from Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and other East African nations, having fled famine, drought, terrorism and war. But unlike the camp’s other residents, the women’s identities as lesbians have compounded the struggles they fled from and forced them to carry these hardships into their lives in the camp.

 

Often when their identities are discovered by members of the community, these women are subject to what is tragically referred to as “corrective rape,” a barbaric practice that has left many of these women with children who, as they grow up, face discrimination and bigotry because of who their mothers are.

 

The camp’s physical borders do little to keep out the impacts of intolerance, which follow the women like a brand even after they’ve escaped violence and other hardship. The women are ostracized, and their children are ridiculed and shunned in school until they are forced to drop out. Unable to work or form relationships with others in the camp, these women and their children spend each day waiting for time to pass, dependent on UN aid for food and housing, without access to education or economic resources.

 

Brian Okollan (name changed), an individual working on LGBT issues in the area, has seen firsthand the desolate lives these women lead as refugees. “You could read something in their faces,” he said of the women. “Suffering, a loss of hope. Just waiting for something to come into their lives.”

 

“This is somebody who was on a paid salary, living in a better house, and now when you come to the refugee camp your life just stops, everything stops, you have nothing to do, you just sit there,” he explained. Depending on donors and aid while living in the camps is not a sustainable way of life. “What is sustainable,” Brian added, “is business.” Business that is built for the context it inhabits, that is both community driven and sustained.

 

Brian identified seven women within the camp who would benefit most from an economically-driven solution. He then asked, “What is it that [these women] can do that is both relevant to [their] strengths and can be done within the camp?” What business, he wanted to know, could these women engage in without putting them at risk because of who they are?

 

The solution he and the women came up with was a poultry farm, a small area of land within the camp in which the women could raise chickens to sell, eat, and breed. The project plays off of the women’s backgrounds in farming, and provides not only economic means, but improved livelihood and access to better nutrition.

 

Brian laid out the project’s biggest appeal: “Being very vigorous and intensive, this project will keep them busy and break the boredom they experience in the camp. It is going to help them rebuild their lives. [They can say,] ‘Despite being a refugee in a refugee camp, I can do something. I can rear this chicken, and this chicken can make an impact on my life.’ These people have totally lost hope in life. If somebody is given the opportunity to rear this chicken and it can give them income and something to do, then you see that, ‘I can have an impact.’”

 

The biggest initial concern for the project was, of course, viability. Given the amount of discrimination these women already face, how did they know their farm would be patronized by other residents of the camp? But Brian isn’t worried. He has experience with LGBT-driven business models. His first project is an LGBT-run cyber cafe, which provides computer and internet access to those in a region where there is little other access to these kinds of resources.The cyber cafe allows refugees and immigrants the opportunity to get their papers in order, and provides educational opportunities as well.

 

“Some people are trained with skills that they can do outside the cyber cafe,” Brian adds. “Creating websites, graphic design, etc.” The demand for the service the cafe provides outweighs any concerns about the identities of those who run it. Brian’s confidence in the viability of the poultry farm stems from the success of this cyber cafe.

 

“This business is highly sought after,” he explained. “One of our driving points that helps us engage in some of these projects is that we involve the community. The community does market analysis to see if projects are viable, safe, and sought by people.” The more sought after an enterprise is, the lower the risk.

 

Such is the case for the poultry farm, which will provide a much-desired nutritional alternative to the sparse grain packages issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Without the farm, residents of the camp don’t have access to fresh meat or produce, and so the eggs and meat that the poultry provide will be a valuable source of both protein and income for the women.

 

“We wanted to build our members to be able to build this work in their own capacity. People needed to believe in them.” Brian said. That means that the women are involved in the project from the ground up, including creating a budget. Brian sat down with the women to outline needs for farm, including chickens (at a subsidized fee), space, and a fence for security. Together the team came up with a budget of $15,000.

 

“We are at the stage where we are asking people who believe in what we’re doing for support,” Brian says of the project. Much of the funding for the poultry farm project will come from Mossier’s supporters and donors right here in Minnesota. The project’s relatively small financial plan will go a long way toward rebuilding the livelihoods of LGBT women.

 

Brian’s faith in the project is spurred by his ultimate belief that LGBT people can and should have the ability to create a better life for themselves no matter where they live. “Being who we are in this context, the community is suffering, and it becomes even more difficult to survive in these conditions. But being who we are should not stop people from living, exploring, and dreaming big.”

 

To support LGBT women in East Africa and sponsor the poultry farm project, click here.

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