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LGBTQ refugees feel at home in B.C. after fleeing violence and oppression

Ugandan couple grateful for the welcome they’ve received on Vancouver Island

For an LGBTQ couple fleeing brutal assault and hate in Africa, the support they’ve received from a Vancouver Island organization has been nothing short of life-saving.

Paul Canary Kanyamu, 26, and his partner Meddie Ssentongo, 22, originally met in Uganda and arrived in Nanaimo at the beginning of April from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where they lived for three and a half years.

A Vancouver Island volunteer organization known as Reaching Out Assisting Refugees, which sponsors “sexual and gender-diverse” refugees from around the world who have fled persecution in their home countries, sponsored the couple while at Kakuma, with their move to Canada, and will provide financial, social and emotional support for their first year in Nanaimo.

James Chamberlain, a secretary for ROAR and a sponsor for Kanyamu and Ssentongo, said the organization was able to provide the couple with money for food, medical treatment and cellphones for secure communication.

Ssentongo said that some of the services at the camp, like medication, schooling and law enforcement, were denied to LGBTQ people.

“As queer refugees in the camp, we often experienced a lot of persecution and discrimination,” Kanyamu said.

He recounted the numerous physical assaults at the camp, including one instance in which most of his leg was broken.

“At one time we lost some LGBTQ friends. They were burned to death at night … a transgender woman … her injuries were so bad, as a result, she breathed her last,” he said.

Although same-sex relations were already illegal in Uganda, a harsher anti-LGBTQ law was enacted this spring that, in some cases, includes the death penalty.

“When you have any rainbow stuff on you, it’s a crime,” Kanyamu said. “Even as a journalist, you’re not supposed to interview anyone who is gay [or] your company would be closed or fined … it’s very challenging right now.”

In stark contrast to their old lives, Kanyamu said he was finally able to participate in a Pride event without fear. On June 11, during the Nanaimo Pride Society’s Pride Parade downtown, Kanyamu walked with the Reach ‘Out’ for LGBTQ and Allies initiative with Brechin United Church.

He said the parade was “very marvelous,” and something he didn’t think he could ever get to do.

“Our lives in Nanaimo here, first of all, we are free as LGBTQ,” he said.

Ssentongo added that Pride events last month “felt like home” and that they happily participated “without any fear.”

READ MORE: Nanaimo Pride Society brings celebrations back with downtown parade and festival

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Paul Canary Kanyamu, left, Horst Backe, Meddie Ssentongo and Mark Rabnett stand at a ROAR information booth during Nanaimo’s Pride festival at Maffeo Sutton Park on June 11. (Submitted photo)
Paul Canary Kanyamu marches with Reaching ‘Out’ for LGBTQ and Allies of Brechin United Church, during Nanaimo’s Pride Parade on June 11. (Mandy Moraes/News Bulletin)

Mandy Moraes

About the Author: Mandy Moraes

I joined Black Press Media in 2020 as a multimedia reporter for the Parksville Qualicum Beach News, and transferred to the News Bulletin in 2022
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