Olympia Quakers support LGBT refugees from Uganda

Roughly half a year ago, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni passed an Anti-Homosexuality Act. In a country with longstanding hostility toward LGBTQA people, the new act did nothing but fan the fire. Since then, Ugandan courts have deemed the law invalid, yet threats and violence appear to be increasing. Sophomore Yves Dusenge, a Quaker and former Uganda resident, wrote on the issue earlier this year. “Most Africans are sensitive about how their culture is portrayed and they can go a long way to protect the culture even if it means to use power or force,” said Dusenge in his paper “War on Sexuality in Uganda.” Homphobia and transphobia are still forcefully present throughout the country — so much so that many LBGTQA people are now choosing to flee. That is where the Friends New Underground Railroad comes in. FNUR is a project started by Olympia Monthly Meeting, a Quaker group based in Olympia, Wash. The intent of the project is to aid LGBTQA Ugandans who are interested in fleeing home for reasons including expulsion from school, firing from a job or even threats to one’s life. The full project came to fruition this past May, but the aid began even before that, driven by a man who goes by the pseudonym Levi Coffin II for security purposes. Coffin has connections to the Olympia group, as well as with international groups, making him a viable resource for such an undertaking. He and Gabi Clayton, FNUR manager and co-clerk of Olymipia’s Peace and Social Justice Committee began to make connections with Ugandans who were available to assist refugees. As interest grew, Clayton proposed the idea of FNUR to Olympia Monthly Meeting, who quickly jumped on board. In the mere three months since the project commenced they have raised almost $45,000. The bulk of FNUR’s budget is achieved through donations. Funds are then given to “conductors” located throughout Uganda. The role of the conductors is to discreetly transport refugees to a safe space where they will ideally be free from such harsh discrimination. Typical safe spots have thus far been in South Africa and Europe, with exact locations undisclosed for the safety of those transporting and being transported. Of course, this factor is apt to raise some criticism. With little information available, the possibility of FNUR scamming or being scammed is a concern. The topic has even made its way onto the site’s FAQ. Clayton provided a more in-depth response in a phone interview. Some conductors are old friends and some are newer connections, but she assures that every single one of them are known and trusted by herself and Coffin. “We do have to protect the identity of the people we are working with,” said Clayton.  “We’re as transparent as we can be.” One other obvious question that has been raised on the subject is whether the Olympia Friends are in over their heads or if it is even their place to try and help. “The challenges are great — theologically, practically, and culturally,” said Max Carter, director of the Friends Center and campus ministry coordinator. “Friends have a history of ‘speaking truth to power,’ and those involved in the initiative will move forward guided by the example of others who have gone before and with the confidence that it is the right thing to do.” FNUR seems to agree, having themselves been influenced by the Quakers working with the original Underground Railroad. Their website claims directly that they feel as though the project is helping them to “reclaim an important part of our Quaker history”. Dusenge reaffirmed this element of Quaker practice in an email interview. “As a Quaker, I believe in every person with a leading, big or small as the challenge might be, if living in the spirit that takes away all occasions of war,” said Dusenge. Unfortunately, Clayton believes that there will no shortage of Ugandans who need help in the near future. She encourages anyone interested in the cause to reach out in any way that they can, as there are still many in need.