Out in the World: Bay Area fundraiser for LGBTQ refugee group ORAM features gay Ugandan

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday May 10, 2024
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Gay Ugandan refugee Robert Luzinda attended an ORAM fundraiser in Oakland May 2. He resettled in the East Bay city in May 2023. Photo: Heather Cassell<br><br>
Gay Ugandan refugee Robert Luzinda attended an ORAM fundraiser in Oakland May 2. He resettled in the East Bay city in May 2023. Photo: Heather Cassell

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration had a homecoming in the San Francisco Bay Area in an effort to drum up support and talk about its work.

The LGBTQ refugee organization, founded in San Francisco in 2008, hosted its first local fundraiser to help queer refugees and learn about ORAM's current efforts since 2019.

The May 2 event was co-hosted by a lesbian couple who wished to remain anonymous and Frederick Hertz, a lawyer and former ORAM board member, and his husband.

Hertz greeted the estimated 30 guests, telling them, "It's not an organization that seeks a lot of publicity. It's really about getting the work done."

The event's attendees mingled at the Oakland Hills location, learned about ORAM, and listened to guest speaker Robert Luzinda, a gay Ugandan refugee, tell his story about leaving his home country, living in Kenya for years, and finally coming to America.

Luzinda's journey to safety

In May 2023, Luzinda, 39, arrived in Oakland. It was a long journey. He fled Uganda in 2014 when President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the first Anti-Homosexuality Act, the so-called Jail the Gays bill, which sentenced LGBTQ people to 10 years in prison.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted last month, Uganda's Constitutional Court upheld most of the country's latest Anti-Homosexuality Act, enacted last year, which includes the death penalty for LGBTQ people for so-called aggravated homosexuality. LGBTQ Ugandan activists vowed to appeal the court's ruling to the country's Supreme Court. Museveni signed the new Anti-Homosexuality Act into law May 26, 2023.

Already harassed for being an openly gay man in Uganda, Luzinda didn't wait for the East African country's Constitutional Court to strike down the first law in 2014, which it did on technical grounds. There was very little left in his country for him, he said. His mother, who protected him from harassment after he was outed following the publication of a photo essay in 2011, died in 2013.

In 2011, a photographer documenting LGBTQ life in Uganda photographed Luzinda with his then-boyfriend. The photo was used again in 2014 by CNN in an article when Uganda enacted the anti-LGBTQ law.

Luzinda crossed the border into neighboring Kenya and immediately applied as a refugee at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency determined him to be an urban refugee rather than send him to Kakuma Refugee Camp, the largest refugee camp in the world, which the B.A.R. previously reported. Urban refugees do not receive any financial support from the UNHCR.

For the next nine years, Luzinda drifted around the country, he said. He went anywhere for work as he struggled to survive while he waited to be resettled in a new country. Tired, Luzinda said he was finally able to stop moving around when he entered a poultry program with the Nature Network.

The Nature Network is an LGBTQ-led and -run refugee organization that provides micro-entrepreneurial training in catering, cosmetology, jewelry making, poultry farming, and tailoring, in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, with some support provided by ORAM. In 2022, Luzinda received a scholarship from ORAM to attend Nairobi's best cosmetology school, Linton's College, through a new program launched by the organization. The monthlong program was a perfect match for Luzinda, he said. It allowed him to grow into his passion for beauty, wellness, and fashion and, after graduating, earn a living giving manicures and pedicures, doing makeup, and giving massages.

The B.A.R. previously reported on the launch of and success of ORAM's livelihood programs.

ORAM also assisted with stable housing for him with other LGBTQ refugees, Luzinda said.

"You've done a very great job," Luzinda told ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth at the recent event. "I'm praying to help those people who are still there."


Roth told guests that refugees like Luzinda "inspire me."

"These are incredibly brave and inspiring and resilient people," he said. "Their commitment to authenticity, to really be who they are whatever the cost" when "the stakes are so much higher when your life is at stake, to have that commitment that they would leave to another country with an uncertain future and persist to see another day, these are people who inspire me."

According to the UNHCR, an estimated 100 million people were forced to leave their homes as of 2022, including more than 37 million refugees and asylum seekers.

Anita Sarah Jackson, lead user experience (UX) writer at Airbnb.org, was at the Oakland event and said she was also moved by LGBTQ refugees' stories.

The nonprofit arm of vacation rental company Airbnb, Airbnb.org is a $13,130,605 organization, according to its 2022 IRS 990 Form. Last year, it announced specific $2 million in funding to its sponsorship initiative to help welcome refugees and resettle them in the U.S., according to Airbnb.org's June 20, 2023, news release. The organization also announced $1 million to its Refugee Fund to support refugees in the U.S. and Latin America.

ORAM, a $2 million organization, partnered with Airbnb.org in 2022 at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine when thousands of LGBTQ Ukrainians streamed out of the Eastern European country, along with millions of Ukrainians. The two organizations worked in Germany and Poland, providing temporary housing for 240 people as of April 2024, according to Mattie Zazueta, who is Airbnb.org's senior lead for public policy communications in North America.

Roth told the B.A.R., Airbnb.org's figures did not include the rooms booked by ORAM and in conjunction with Alight directly on the vacation rental platform before the partnership with the nonprofit arm was formalized. ORAM's records show the organization provided temporary housing for over 430 LGBTQ refugees from Ukraine as of April 2024.

Jackson expressed how "meaningful" Airbnb.org's work with ORAM is.

"It's really special for us to be able to partner with an organization that has those relationships on the ground," she said, announcing the expansion of Airbnb.org and ORAM's partnership with Kenya's pilot program. "I'm extremely thrilled to be able to share a story about our pilot program in Kenya."

Jackson told guests about Irene, a Ugandan refugee who's a lesbian mother of twin boys, for whom Airbnb.org helped find temporary housing with ORAM's support in Kenya. Irene, whose last name was not provided, was then able to find more permanent housing and made "real friendships," Jackson explained, with people who are helping her take care of her twin boys while she completes her livelihood training with ORAM's support.

She called the partnership between Airbnb.org and ORAM "special" for its focus on "the human connection, the person to person, empathy, and collaboration of our organizations.

"That makes a real difference in people's lives when they're at their most vulnerable," Jackson said, adding that Airbnb.org looks forward to "many more years" working with ORAM.

The refugees, Airbnb.org, and ORAM's stories inspired event guests Alan Stewart and his husband to donate to ORAM that evening.

Stewart, 62, a gay man, said he usually donates to animal and artistic causes but expressed admiration for LGBTQ refugees' strength to persevere in the face of unrelenting pressures to conform to mainstream society.

"The hopelessness that they must experience," he said after Luzinda spoke. "We have no idea what that's like."

He echoed Roth stating, "Isn't that wonderful that they hold on to who they are, so they can be who they are, wherever they are? Fabulous."

Roger Doughty, a gay man who's president of Horizons Foundation, a nonprofit that provides grants to LGBTQ organizations, also attended the event. LGBTQ refugees have remained his longtime interest through the decades, he told the B.A.R. Doughty started helping LGBTQ refugees at the beginning of his legal career after the late U.S. attorney general Janet Reno declared sexual orientation as a basis for asylum in 1994. Speaking about the importance of ORAM's work, he said through the decades he's watched interest in, and support for, LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers' plight grow from being nonexistent 30 years ago to being a movement.

"There was nothing, and the prominent international human rights organizations didn't do anything with LGBTQI rights," Doughty said. "Fortunately, that has changed.

"ORAM plays an extremely important role in that along with some of the other international LGBTQI organizations," he continued. He pointed to the development of LGBTQ-founded and led organizations, like ORAM, along with LGBTQ programs at international human rights organizations, "that have become much larger and much stronger."

Hertz and Roth told the B.A.R. that 150 people were invited to the event. Donors gave $6,000 before the event, Roth said. Another $2,000 was raised after the event, according to Kyle Kvamme, communications and development coordinator at ORAM, who wrote to the B.A.R. that donations continue to come in along with funding from Airbnb.org.

Helping more LGBTQ refugees

Roth provided a brief history for the guests of the organization's 16 years working in transit countries for refugees.

ORAM was founded in San Francisco in 2008 by gay human rights activist Neil Grungras. The B.A.R. previously reported Grungras stepped down from helming the organization in 2019. That same year, Roth took the lead as the organization's second leader.

At the time there were only three employees and a small budget. Five years later, Roth said ORAM has grown to a team of 15 employees working in the U.S., Central Europe, Kenya, and Mexico.

ORAM joined Minneapolis-based Alight, its parent organization, in 2017. Alight is a humanitarian organization that works with displaced people around the world.

Roth told the B.A.R. he is excited about ORAM's future as it continues to grow, noting the organization's three-year strategic plan launched last year, which will strengthen the nonprofit and its work.

To donate to ORAM, visit its website at oramrefugee.org.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

Updated, 5/22/24: This article has been clarified. A program of ORAM provided the scholarship to Mr. Lusinda to attend cosmetology school. Additionally, there is clarifying info about Airbnb's relationship with the organization.

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