Friends New Underground Railroad (www.friendsnewundergroundrailroad.org) was created informally on April 3rd, 2014, when an unnamed individual (now known as Conductor #1) in a rural area of Uganda contacted a small group of Quaker contacts in Olympia, Washington about the need for help to move nine gay men who were being hunted and were in hiding out of the country as quickly as possible.
Escape was achieved for all nine to another African country, and with the help of a support team there that provides housing, medical care, legal support, and visa help, all nine have now been resettled in Sweden.
To date (June 7, 2014), Friends New Underground Railroad (named after the fact that Friends were the backbone of the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War) has assisted 78 individuals escape, and has 90 people waiting for assistance.
There are currently three “conductors” in three different parts of Uganda. Their identities are kept confidential to protect them in this dangerous work they have been led to do, aiding LGBTQ Ugandan people which puts their own lives at risk.
Of the 78 who have escaped, 43 are men, 26 are women, and nine are transgender.
Of the 90 waiting, 45 are men and 45 are women. Some may be transgender, but we don’t know at this point.
Friends New Underground Railroad does not encourage LGBT individuals to leave Uganda, but only responds to those who seek assistance to leave. We do not engage in any political activity or other human rights endeavors inside Uganda, though we hope all such efforts will be effective in changing the climate in Uganda and elsewhere.
Support – housing, food medical, legal, and visa – are provided by other organizations in the interim African countries. On occasion, Friends New Underground Railroad has assisted with visa support or identification documents. We don’t currently support the purchase of plane tickets.
Friends New Underground Railroad became a project of Olympia Friends Meeting, a 501(c)(3) Quaker religious organization on April 12th. They provide a tax-exempt conduit, a treasurer, and significant outreach support to Friends communities around the world. (Note: there are Quakers in Uganda, and there are more Quakers in western Kenya than in the entire United States.)
In late April, three Catholic universities expelled 109 lesbian women. Of these, 16 from Uganda Martyr’s University were publicly exposed, with the university calling on their parents to denounce their daughters, and turn them over to the police. The 16 immediately went into hiding (which was difficult, as they came from smaller towns.) Their names were read repeatedly over the radio (Impact Radio), and one of the women’s fathers, an Anglican pastor, went on the radio publicly calling for his community to find his daughter, and have her thrown in prison. The radio station publicly called for the imprisonment, sterilization and castration of all gay/lesbian people in Uganda.
The very next morning, Friends New Underground Railroad arranged for the daughter – named Rachael – to flee the country, with two companions. Of the 16, three escaped without our assistance, we assisted 12 of them to escape. One disappeared – it is believed she was picked up by the police. The 12 are currently receiving assistance in preparing visa applications.
On April 20th, Easter Sunday, the Bishop of Jinja Diocese – the Rt. Reverend Fr. Charles Wamika – preached a sermon in the Jinja Cathedral. Applauding the new law, he directed Catholic hospitals not to serve LGBT clients, and called for the expulsion of all known and suspected LGBT students from all Catholic schools and college and universities. On that very day, the Dean of Students of Uganda Martyr’s Seminary submitted a final report to the Seminary Disciplinary Council on the 22 seminarians “involved in unnatural sexual activities”. Four days later, the 22 seminarians were kicked out, with the Bishop calling on the parents of the seminarians to denounce them. He also forwarded a copy of the final report to the chief of police, who replied that he was launching an “investigation”.
The seminarians went into hiding, and, after some delay, all 22 were assisted by Friends New Underground Railroad conductors and are now in Nairobi.
In May, Safe Passage Fund became a partner, collaborating with the efforts of the Friends New Underground Railroad. Safe Passage Fund was created to provide travel funds and support to LGBTQ individuals and allies who face immediate threats of arrest, attacks, violence and persecution in countries where harsh laws have fostered a climate of extreme homophobia.