This year the theme of International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Embracing that theme and choosing to challenge prejudice and perceptions around refugees, Stylist – as part of the Deborah Frances-White x Choose Love takeover – spoke to one young refugee woman about her life before she fled Uganda and the new life she’s started here. It’s a tale of struggle and survival, but most of all hope.
In 2019, Flavia, 30, who identifies as a lesbian, was targeted by the police in her home country of Uganda because of her sexuality. One autumn night, she and her partner of two years were enjoying time alone in a hotel room when the police stormed in and took them to the police station in Kampala, where she says they were separately interrogated, beaten, sexually abused, denied food, and had their money confiscated by officers.
As Flavia later discovered, a secret camera had been hidden in a lamp in their room, and her family had conspired with the police to help her get arrested because of her sexuality.
It’s a crime to be gay in Uganda, and those convicted of homosexual acts could be jailed for life. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are forced to hide their true identities and live under the radar or risk discrimination, violence and even potential death because of their sexual identity. Others, like Flavia, leave their home country and seek asylum abroad where it’s not a crime to be who they are.
This month marks one year since Flavia arrived in the UK, and she is now a trainee ambassador at Say It Loud Club, a charity supporting LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers. Founded by LGBTQ+ Ugandan refugee Aloysius Ssali, who now acts as Flavia’s mentor, Say It Loud Club has been supporting LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers in the UK since 2010, helping hundreds to gain the right to live freely in the country.
Here, Flavia shares her story.
Uganda is a corrupt country and people with my identity aren’t easily able to live. My parents were forcing me to get married and get pregnant for a long time. I wasn’t ready for that, and as time went by, it was tormenting me. I was having to conceal my sexuality from my family and community.
Everything changed for me when the police burst into the hotel room where my partner and I were staying in 2019. I realised my life was in danger, so after we left police custody, we went into hiding. One day my partner got so tired of it that she wanted to go out. I told her not to, but she did and the police arrested her. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.
I was out of options – I knew my life was in danger and I had to leave Uganda. I didn’t want to leave just because of my identity, but I had to because of the situation I was in. I wasn’t from a bad family, but my family was against me because of my identity. They were working with the police to get me arrested.
I searched the internet to work out what to do and got in touch with a charity that eventually brought me to the UK. I knew my life would be different because it’s an open country that welcomes everyone. When I landed at the airport, I said “Thank you, God”. I knew I’d be looked after and that I’d eventually be able to be open about my identity. There are so many people struggling to come here that I felt blessed.
I arrived here a year ago, and at first, I wasn’t completely comfortable in the UK because I was so lonely. I was having sleepless nights and wasn’t yet open about my identity. But people were so welcoming and I quickly got involved with Say It Loud Club. I feel much better now. I’ve made friends and have a trusted mentor and good friend in Aloysius [a fellow refugee and founder of Say It Loud Club]. He helps me to be strong, and through therapy over Zoom I’ve learned to open up.
I now mentor others – I help to give them strength, try to make them appreciate where they are, and help them to accept who they are. It makes me happy, because they’re just like the old me. Once you’ve conquered a difficult situation yourself, you can help others do the same.
I haven’t really been able to explore the UK yet because of lockdown, and it’s been stressful spending so much time in my own head. I’ve been living with a friend and we’ve spent the last year watching a lot of TV, having fun with her kids and going to the park when we’ve been allowed to.
At first, the UK’s weather was a big challenge. I’d never experienced anything like it – it was freezing. And the food, oh my god, it’s totally different but I’m learning to cope. There are so many fresh vegetables – I’ve started eating lots of leaves and carrots, which is good, but I do miss Ugandan food, especially chapatis and matoke.
I have lots of hopes for the future. Say It Loud Club has helped me get to where I am now and I believe it’s going to help me become a strong woman and a mentor to others. I’d like to stay in the UK because I wouldn’t be safe in Uganda. I’d love to help free people who are being tortured in the same way I was.
No one would want to leave their home country in the way I did, but I needed to feel free, loved and comfortable. My partner is still there but I don’t know where she is or what she’s doing. I’d love for her to come to the UK eventually as well. I’m not sure if I want to reconnect with my family. I didn’t tell them I was leaving Uganda and right now I just want to feel at peace. Once they accept me, then I’ll try to contact them.
I want people in the UK to know that refugees are loving people who have gone through a lot. They need help, someone to lift them up and make them strong. We’re all human and should be treated equally. Refugees hope and believe their problems are going to be solved in the country. People should help them so that they can be helpful to the country in the long run.
Say It Loud Club is a partner of Choose Love (formerly known as Help Refugees). Together, these organisations support refugees and asylum seekers navigating the asylum system. If you would like to make a donation to help fund the work they do you can do so on Choose Love’s website.
Images: Anan Izar/EyeEm and VladOrlov, both from Getty