It was a dreary morning in early March 2018. Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz and Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger arrived at the Suffolk County jail to offer prayers and pastoral support to immigrant detainees. They moved through security and rode the elevator to the visitor’s room.
They were introduced to Qwin Mbabazi, who sat down and began to share her story. She grew up in Uganda. She was persecuted as a child because she was born left-handed in a culture where left-hand dominance is considered the work of the devil. She was persecuted as a teen and as a young adult because she was born gay in a country where being gay was legally a death sentence until 2013. Uganda remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be LGBTQ. And despite this persecution, Qwin had a clear sense of self and a clear sense of purpose from an early age.
In 2010, she became an activist, speaking up at rallies and protests, working to promote feminism, human dignity and equality. She was an important part of Uganda’s courageous LGBTQ movement. She helped to organize Ugandan Pride gatherings, served and volunteered in different capacities in the sexual and gender minority movement, offered consultancy services on both individual and organizational levels to boost the capacity of the LGBTQ movement, and was even brave enough to be featured in a magazine article where she publicly claimed her LGBTQ identity and affirmed that everyone deserves to be able to love and be loved for who they are. For these reasons, she was persecuted and fled for her very life, seeking asylum in Boston.
After that first visit, Rabbi Gardenswartz and Rav Hazzan Berger visited often. They would talk with Qwin about her life back in Uganda, about her dreams for the future, about her hopes for the LGBTQ community in Uganda and in Africa. Every visit was intensely emotional. Every visit was hard. Qwin had narrowly escaped her home with her life, but she was now living out her days incarcerated. She could not call her wife; she could not call her mother. Every night, she would lie awake listening to other immigrant detainees sob themselves to sleep or wake up screaming from nightmares. Every day she worried. What if she were deported? What if she had made the wrong choice? What if Boston was also homophobic and dangerous? How would she survive without a source of income? Without a job?
And while Qwin anxiously counted the days inside the jail, the community of Temple Emanuel rallied around her cause. Rabbi Gardenswartz and Rav Hazzan Berger sent an email to the community asking for help. Instantly, people responded.
A pro bono team of lawyers from Mintz, Levin stepped forward. They knew that the course of her life would be determined by her immigration judge. If her request for asylum was granted, they knew she could build a life here in Boston as a free woman. But if her request was denied, they knew she would be deported back to Uganda to face unspeakable punishment and persecution. This team of lawyers worked countless hours to prepare her case, gather evidence and represent her on her day of judgement.
Community members stepped forward to house her. They knew that if she were granted asylum she would have nowhere to go. Some said she could live with them for a year. Others said she could live with them indefinitely. Within 24 hours, seven families had offered to open their homes to a total stranger.
She had no phone; no way to communicate with her family back home. Someone took her to get a phone and put it on their account indefinitely.
She had no health insurance. Doctors offered to treat her for free until she could support herself and get health insurance.
She had endured trauma, loss, dislocation. Mental health professionals offered to counsel her for free.
She had no job. People offered to help her find a job.
She had no car. People offered to drive her around.
She had no money. People offered to give her resources to get her on her feet.
All for a total stranger.
Rabbi Gardenswartz commented: “The immediacy of the response, the intensity of the response, made me think about a prayer we say in the Amida, that God frees captives, matir asurim. Because it is in the Amida, we say that God frees captives three times a day, every morning, noon and evening. On Shabbat, counting musaf, we say it four times. It is a recurring motif of our daily and Shabbat prayer. Matir asurim. God frees captives. God frees captives. God frees captives. Every day. Forever. We say it. What does it mean? I think it means that when we free those unjustly imprisoned, we are doing God’s work. In a deep sense, our community’s instant and overwhelming generosity channels this core Jewish value.”
The day of her immigration hearing arrived and there was a miracle. After 31 years of abuse, discrimination and struggle in Uganda, after watching LGBTQ friends killed and maimed by homophobic mobs, after harrowing escapes to Nigeria and then to Boston, after 112 days in jail, there was a miracle in June 2018. Qwin Mbabazi Fiona was granted political asylum.
Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, she is free at last.
Qwin was released from the Suffolk County House of Corrections on June 6, 2018. Within 24 hours, she was back in touch with LGBTQ activists in Uganda and Africa. On that Saturday, she marched proudly in Boston’s Pride festival. It was the first time in her life that Qwin saw LGBTQ people marching proudly through the streets without fear. Seeing police officers protecting LGBTQ people brought her to tears. And she knew that she would spend her life working to bring that blessing to her people in Uganda.
Today, Qwin works as GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) community engagement manager. She travels around the country, promoting human rights and teaching about her own experiences and the importance of supporting and protecting the LGBTQ community. Qwin has dedicated her life to GLAD’s mission: to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status and sexual orientation through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy and education.
Outside of her professional activism, Qwin has also become invested in the organizations and communities that supported her on her journey. She has deep friendships with the volunteers who helped her build her life here. She has spoken at various local schools to tell children about what life can be like in other places and to inspire them to make the world a better place. She has spoken at immigration rallies and volunteered to promote immigrant rights. And she continues to invest her time and energy into supporting her LGBTQ activist friends who are still fighting for basic human rights and protections in Uganda and in Africa.
When Qwin is not working as a fierce activist or volunteering her time for an important cause, she loves reading crime and detective books and watching horror movies. And, on the Friday nights when she is not traveling, she also loves coming back to her Temple Emanuel community for Shabbat Alive! Friday night services.
If you want to hear more about Qwin in her own words, tune into Temple Emanuel’s podcast, “From the Bimah: Jewish Lessons for Life” on your favorite podcast streaming app.