WORCESTER, Mass. — It isn't easy for 25-year-old Sumaya to talk about the life she left behind in Africa. Three years after leaving her home in Uganda, this refugee is still afraid for her family she doesn't want her real name used.
Sumaya fled to the United States in 2019 after people in her hometown found out she was a lesbian. Being openly gay in Uganda is considered a crime and can be punishable by death.
"When I came here, I totally lost my family. They don't want to communicate with me. Back home I had a girlfriend for 10 years, but we had to hide it," she said.
There are not a lot of statistics kept on LGBTQ asylum seekers like Sumaya. Around the world though, being openly gay is illegal in about 70 countries. The latest data from the US government shows that from 2007 to 2017, at least 4,385 people were identified as seeking asylum because of their LGBTQ status.
"I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought I would try and change, but I couldn’t," Sumaya said about her life in Uganda.
For asylum-seekers like Sumaya though, just fleeing persecution is only the beginning of their journey. Once in the United States, many have a hard time finding housing while they wait for work visas to be approved.
Which is where Pastor Judith Hanlon comes in.
Pastor Hanlon is with the Hadwen Park Church United Church of Christ in Worcester, Massachusetts. Over the past decade, the congregation has worked to create a nonprofit which provides housing opportunities to LGBTQ asylum seekers like Sumaya.
"We have all new appliances, granite countertops!" Pastor Hanlon explained as she showed us around the nonprofit's newest and most expensive endeavor.
Before this year, the LGBT Asylum Task Force was housing people in rented apartments around the city of Worcester. Thanks to years of hard work and donations, they were able to raise more than $500,000 to purchase a three-story home and renovate it for asylum seekers to live in until they're able to secure permanent housing.
It's the only housing program in the country tailored specifically to LGBTQ asylum seekers.
"We were paying $43,000 a month to keep people in these apartments and realized a mortgage would cost one of the rents. So, we made a decision and had a three-year campaign to purchase a home, so we purchased this home I’m in right now," Pastor Hanlon said.
In addition to housing, the task force provides a $500 monthly stipend for immigrants until they can receive work authorization—a process that usually takes around two years.