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ACTION ALERT: Help San Diego musician from Uganda seeking asylum get out of detention for Christmas

SAN DIEGO – Joseph Bukombe, a professional musician who has been living in San Diego for several years, has been in federal detention in Otay Mesa for two years fighting deportation to Uganda, where his return could endanger his life. His attorney is unable to prove to the government that Bukombe is gay, which could help Bukombe’s request for asylum.

Next week, San Diegans are invited to a fundraiser for Bukombe in an attempt to raise $10,000 for his bail and to give him a fair trial. They hope to have Bukombe home for the holidays.

“If we can find 400 people to each give $25, we can give one gay man, a fellow San Diegan, the gift of freedom,” said the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, who is co-chair of the fundraiser from 5 to 7:30 pm Thursday, Dec. 15, at LifeHOUSE, 2828 Meadowlark Drive in San Diego.

At the event, Ugandan crafts and a silent auction will also help raise money for other LGBT Ugandans. The Ugandan Parliament continues to consider the passage of a draconian “Kill The Gays” bill that would criminalize homosexuality.

Tax-deductible tickets or donations (if you cannot attend) can be purchased HERE through St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation.

“This money will really help both Ugandans to find a place where they no longer live in constant fear and stress,” Ogle said.

“I can think of no greater gift that we could give to anyone this season than to give someone the gift of freedom. Joseph’s haunting story makes that biblical passage from Isaiah, also used by Jesus in his first public sermon so relevant to this season of Advent: that we are to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to captives and to let the oppressed go free,” Ogle said.

Joseph Bukombe’s story

Joseph Bukombe was living in San Diego after his cultural exchange visa expired, and says he did not return to his homeland because he feared for his safety because he is gay.

Two years ago, he was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, his first and only misdemeanor in the U.S. Bukombe was subsequently placed in a federal detention center in Otay Mesa, where the government has been trying to deport him to Uganda.

The arrest and detention cost Bukombe dearly. He lost his job and his home. On April 7, 2011, San Diego Gay & Lesbian News reported on Bukombe’s plight and the Change.org petition effort by his friend Hector Martinez. More than 25,000 people signed that petition, which was sent to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who got involved in the case.

Bukombe’s story caught the attention of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), a non-profit organization that advocates for refugees fleeing sexual-based violence; Immigration Equality; Casa Cornelia; and Ogle’s St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, a San Diego-based organization that aims to encourage communities to develop reconciliation projects.

After a San Diego television station aired Bukombe’s story, the young man told his supporters that the publicity triggered threats from other detainees. One detainee threatened to tie him in a sack and beat him to death, he said. Fearing for his life, Bukombe became unable to sleep and about three months after the incident he was admitted into the detention center’s clinic apparently suffering from a mental breakdown. Bukombe is still on medication and remains one of the longest-serving detainees in his section of the facility.

“The most difficult thing is having to tell new inmates that I am gay ... over and over again. They ask why I am in detention for, so coming out is a never-ending story,” Bukombe said.

Luckily, Bukombe’s new cellmate is OK about his situation, which has helped ease his fears.

Bukombe has been trying to persuade the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to see if he can be granted asylum, based on the high level of violence against LGBT people in Uganda in recent years. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama issues a groundbreaking presidential memo establishing a global LGBT rights stategy, which includes a section titled "Protecting Vulnerable LGBT Refugees and Asylum Seekers." It is not know if Bukombe's case will be impacted by the new U.S. policy.

Meanwhile, Bukombe has consistently refused to sign voluntary deportation papers, so the court is his only hope of regaining the freedom he once cherished to live a normal life again with his friends in San Diego. He has had a tough life. He was orphaned as a child, and his sister in Kampala, Uganda, is the only other immediate member of his family.

Life at the Otay Mesa detention center, which backs up against the border with Mexico, is rather bleak and lonely. Detainees can see visitors from 8 am to 4 pm only on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays. Bukombe has no access to Internet and limited use of public telephones.

“There are many cases [in Uganda] where people go missing or are harassed by the police, so Joseph’s fears about returning to his homeland are well-founded. Our asylum system is very broken and in need of a major overhaul,” Ogle said, who noted that Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato was murdered last year in Kampala.

“Joseph is just one reminder of what thousands of refugees are facing all over the world, victims of discrimination and criminalization in 76 countries. A recent study estimated there have been 10,000 LGBT asylum seekers in Europe in recent years. We do not keep these statistics in the USA.”

Bukombe's former boss has promised to offer him his job back if he gains asylum. And his supporters have vowed to help resettle him back into our community.