NEWTON – What makes a Jewish community rally together to save a woman fleeing for her life for fighting for LGBTQ rights in her native Uganda? It was almost with one voice, one outstretched hand that members of Newton’s Temple Emanuel reached out to a stranger the rabbis met in a jail cell in the Suffolk County House of Corrections in 2018.
Senior Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz and Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger went to the jail on March 19, 2018 to speak to a detainee who might benefit from a clerical visit. As they waited in the visiting room, a guard went to the cold, tiny cell that housed Qwin Mbabazi to tell her she had visitors. Knowing nobody in the country, she assumed the worst: That she was being deported.
If sent home, Mbabazi would be hunted down by mobs for her leading role as an LGBTQ activist in Uganda, where homosexuality is punishable by death. She had given an interview to a gay magazine and ended up on the cover as a lesbian advocate. She had been eager to give “our side of the story” since that was never told.
“I have a relationship with my partner since 2012. I wanted us to be visible so other young couples could be inspired. I was not flaunting it,” she said. And yet, she became a top target of homophobic hatred.
The mainstream media “twisted the story,” said Mbabazi, to make it seem as though her aim was to spread lesbianism in the country. She and her partner had to go underground, couldn’t take public transportation, and had to move in with friends. “It was almost like mob justice, triggering people to be homophobic,” said Mbabazi.
With the urgent plea of family members who feared for her life, Mbabazi boarded a plane in Kampala, arriving in Boston in March 2018. The moment she declared to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers that she wanted to apply for asylum, she was detained, put in ankle and wrist chains, and transported from Logan Airport to the Suffolk County Jail (South Bay), where she was placed in a holding area with 18 other immigrant women. Many of them had just been separated from their children, and the sobbing was nonstop.
When the visitors arrived, Mbabazi was wary, but also relieved to get out of her cell.
“I went into that room and met Wes and Aliza,” she recalled. “When they told me they were rabbis, I didn’t know what a rabbi was. They asked me to tell them my story and then they told me they’d visit me every week. I didn’t believe them,” said Mbabazi as tears flowed from her eyes. “They visited me every week. I didn’t think they’d be back. I can’t pray. I was in such a bad point in my faith. I couldn’t even find the will to pray.
“We talked about God. I was a broken woman. The year before, I’d lost my sister. I had run for my life out of Uganda. I was grieving the loss of my sister, my home. Wes told me I should have faith and I said, ‘How, when I’m locked up in a cell?’
“I was an empty vessel when they met me. They were breathing life into me … these strangers.”
When they came the second week, Gardenswartz and Berger told Mbabazi they had lawyers for her asylum case. A Temple Emanuel member who is a partner in the Boston law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky, and Popeo put the rabbis in touch with the firm’s robust pro-bono department, and a team of lawyers dove into her case as time was of the essence.
Alexander Roan worked with senior associates to draft the asylum application.
“It’s hundreds and hundreds of pages,” Roan said. “Qwin [pronounced Queen] had to relive the hardest days of her life in helping us prepare her asylum application. It has to be hashed and rehashed and put before immigration court to show the basis of her fear of persecution in her home country.
“She had to go on the stand for examination and cross-examination by the attorney for the government who tried to undermine her story.
“This is someone who was fighting for the good in the world. To see her in the [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] jumpsuit and handcuffs was personally maddening. It gave us ammunition to keep fighting every day.”
Ultimately, the team succeeded, and Mbabazi was granted asylum and released from jail on June 6, 2018. “That was a great day,” said Roan. A couple of days later, she marched in Boston’s Pride Parade, and continued her fight for LGBTQ human rights. “It blew me away,” said Roan.
While the attorneys were working on her asylum case, Temple Emanuel members were creating a spreadsheet with all the things Mbabazi would need when she got out of jail. Temple members lined up volunteers to take on tasks. Of the seven families who offered her into their homes until she got on her feet, Mbabazi chose Rick Bankhead, 67, and his partner, Kemper Thompson, 50, who lived near the temple.
People gave her rides, picked her up, paid for a phone, invited her to lunch and museums, and to speak at events.
“I have been very homesick, but I have my Jewish kingdom here,” said Mbabazi. Gardenswartz gave her a fob to the temple so she could walk in any time “like it was my mother’s home,” she said.
A Newton home goods pantry called Welcome Home, founded and comprised of Jewish board members, brought Mbabazi into their facility where she chose linens, dishes, clothing, appliances – everything she would need for a home when she would strike out on her own.
“We got her an apartment. We filled it with everything and really made her house a home,” said board member Jordana Alford.
With the help of temple members, she gravitated to Boston-based GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders), where she is now the community engagement manager.Temple Emanuel, with 1,400 members, showed that it is a welcoming, diverse synagogue.
“We’ve supported two immigrants since Qwin came,” said Berger. “We worked with an immigrant from Rwanda who lived with one of our families, a 17-year-old immigrant stayed with temple members and, before Qwin arrived, a temple family hosted Syrian immigrants.
“Helping people is more than just an obligation. It’s not just for the other person. Giving is deeply meaningful for us. It makes us stronger. Looking back at history, we are only here because others have done this for us.”