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How a gay Ugandan activist eluded persecution and asylum woes

A prominent gay Ugandan activist was recently approved for political asylum in short order. Thousands of others aren't so lucky.

Banding together charities, civil rights attorneys, and one social-minded disc jockey, a prominent Ugandan activist has gone from a country whose anti-gay persecution echoes the murderous reign of Idi Amin to living in the first American state where same-sex couples could legally wed.

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Last week, John “Longjones” Abdallah Wambere was approved for asylum pending a routine background check by the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) announced this week. The 41-year-old Wambere, who had fought for the rights of LGBT Ugandans for nearly two decades, had been in Massachusetts for seven months -- a relatively short time period for an asylum seeker to find success and safety.

Initially, Wambere had no intention of permanently leaving Uganda, where he’s parent to both a daughter and an LGBT health services organization, Spectrum Uganda Initiatives. But returning home became impossible when, days after his arrival in the U.S., Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which made so-called “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life imprisonment.

The measure was recently overturned on procedural grounds, but lawmakers have vowed to reintroduce it. And even if they fail, the climate for LGBT Ugandans has already grown considerably worse in recent years.

PHOTO ESSAY: For gays in Uganda, a growing struggle

According to GLAD, Wambere had been outed as a “homo” in Ugandan papers, harassed, threatened, arrested, evicted, and beaten up just for being gay. His friend and fellow gay rights leader, David Kato, who appeared alongside Wambere in the award-winning documentary “Call Me Kuchu,” was beaten to death with a hammer in 2011.

After learning of Wambere’s advocacy, Nathanael Bluhm, a Boston-based DJ, reached out on Facebook and invited him to the states. Bluhm raised money for Wambere’s airfare through $10 cover-charges at a charity event he spinned for, and through a GoFundMe page. While Wambere accepted the offer to stay for a few weeks and speak at some events, Bluhm secretly had other plans.

“As far as he knew, he was coming over for a short time to speak and raise awareness about the issue here in Boston,” said Bluhm to msnbc. “But I was always under the assumption in the back of my mind that we were getting him out of there.”

The two ended up sharing a room for four months, trading off between a futon and the bed. Bluhm’s roommate had friends at GLAD, who along with the law office of Hema Sarang-Sieminski put together Wambere’s asylum application in May. Occasionally, local church groups and organizations would help out with the groceries.

“It was relatively easy,” said Bluhm of the time between Wambere’s arrival in the states and his asylum approval. For thousands of others, however, it’s anything but.

“John’s case is an example of how the process should work,” said Janson Wu, GLAD Senior staff attorney, to msnbc. “It was efficient, they came to the right result, and we’re very excited about that. But I think it’s unfortunately more often the case that asylum seekers have little to no support.”

According to the Williams Institute, there are roughly 267,000 LGBT individuals within the United States' adult undocumented immigrant population. Many come from the approximately 80 countries with anti-homosexuality laws, or from countries that turn a blind eye toward anti-LGBT violence.

Though people fleeing this kind of persecution would likely qualify for political asylum in the U.S., too often they’re either unaware of or unable to meet certain procedural requirements, and are left languishing without resources or holed up in a detention center. The most common problem asylum seekers run into, immigration advocates say, is the deadline requiring them to submit an application within one year of arriving in the country.

“Lack of access to legal services, social services, medical services… it’s a severe issue,” said Aaron Morris, legal director at Immigration Equality, to msnbc. “It often takes people a long time to be in a place to even start thinking about legal status.”

Long enough, in many cases, to miss the deadline.

Another big obstacle, Morris said, is physically getting into the U.S. Because Wambere was already in Massachusetts when he applied for asylum, he was able to access what’s known as the “affirmative” asylum process -- a course that allows immigrants to live in the country while their application is pending, almost always without being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If the system receives 100 applications a week from affirmative asylum seekers, roughly 80 will randomly be selected for a non-adversarial (or courtroom-like) interview to determine whether their case is approved.

In contrast, individuals who try to enter the U.S. by making an asylum claim are automatically detained and thrown into the “defensive” asylum process, in which they have to make their case in court opposite an ICE attorney arguing for deportation. Once detained, asylum seekers are supposed to see an immigration officer within two weeks to determine whether they’re escaping a “credible fear,” but Morris has seen clients wait months.

What’s worse, he said, Immigration Equality has started to see a trend in the last year of detention facilities charging up to $15,000 for parole. These bonds are usually issued after an asylum seeker has passed the credible fear interview and is waiting to see a judge. Immigration Equality hasn’t been able to get clear explanation for the increased number of bonds, other than that it’s a discretionary determination made by officers at the facility.

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“Access to the system itself is a big problem,” said Morris. “If you can’t get your client to see a judge or they have to rot in detention while they wait, it’s not a good situation to be in and a lot of people give up.”

“In some ways,” he said, Wambere “just got lucky.”

Now that he’s been approved for asylum, Wambere plans on enrolling in community college and continuing his activism on behalf of the Ugandan community, Wu said. Bluhm recently gave him an extra winter coat and the bed they once traded to take to his new apartment, opting instead to sleep on the futon.

In a statement, Wambere said he was “overwhelmed by the great work that so many have done,” and urged them to continue the fight for LGBT people around the world. He also called for “total support of asylum seekers.”

“[T]here are many out there in this country who are waiting for a decision and who don’t know if they will be able to eat or sleep since they are not allowed to work,” said Wambere. “I must say that I am blessed, but there are so many other stories out there.”