By Rebecca Sokolow, immigration legal services intern
Even at a young age, Sharifah knew that feeling attracted to other girls set her apart from her classmates. Growing up in Uganda where homosexual attraction has never been portrayed in the media or recognized as a legitimate way of life, Sharifah did not know how to articulate this feeling and did not even know that these feelings had a name.
It wasn’t until Sharifah left home at 17 years of age and met other gay people that she realized she wasn’t alone. She connected with members of Uganda’s LGBTQ community and gradually began to feel more comfortable identifying as a lesbian, volunteering with the community and helping other gay Ugandans navigate life in an increasingly homophobic country.
LGBTQ Ugandans have long faced legal, social and professional discrimination. In 2006 a local tabloid published the names, addresses and occupations of gay men and women, putting them at risk for retribution by their employers, family and neighbors. Sharifah was publically named and went into hiding. Despite threats to her life, she continued to be an active member of the gay community, fighting for LGBTQ rights and recognition.
In 2013 the Ugandan parliament passed a bill criminalizing homosexuality and authorizing the government to take children away from LGBTQ parents. Sharifah realized that it was too dangerous for her to remain in her homeland and she fled to neighboring Kenya with only a backpack.
Even in exile, Sharifah dreamed of returning to her home country to start an organization to support HIV positive women. However, her Ugandan friends warned that her life would be in danger if she returned. Sharifah then applied for refugee status and after two years of interviews, background checks and waiting, she was approved to be resettled by the U.S. government by the IRC in Baltimore.
Life in the U.S. was not easy, but Sharifah worked closely with her IRC caseworker, employment specialist, and other staff to adapt in this new country. With time, she was promoted at her job, earned a driver’s license and bought a car. During the 2020 election she volunteered in Arizona and Georgia; she’s currently working with the IRC immigration legal services program to apply for U.S. citizenship.
But Sharifah has many more goals she hopes to achieve. She is connected to the LGBTQ community in Baltimore and hopes to become a counselor and work with LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness or come from conservative religious communities. Sharifah is determined to help people who have faced challenges similar to her own. “So many people suffer for who they are,” she says. “But if you talk with people, you can change their lives.”
Sharifah looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen and continuing to build her life. “I left a lot of things back home,” she says. “But that’s history now. I’m not sad about it. This is how my life is meant to be and I want to be myself and never turn back.”