Abbey has been a human rights advocate in his home country of Uganda, the UK, the Netherlands and France for fifteen years, and is the founder and Director of Out & Proud African LGBTI (OPAL). He was thrown into police cells, tortured and persecuted for promoting homosexuality among Ugandans, and has dedicated his life to challenging homophobia and discrimination. Since 2013, he has helped 86 LGBTI asylum seekers from all over Africa to secure refugee status in France, 70 in the Netherlands, and over 100 in the UK. He has taken risks in exposing himself to media rather than leading the quiet life he would prefer. Recovery from torture and frequent rejection, despite his hope that the UK might welcome him, testifies to his strength and aspiration to serve as a role model, and an inspiration in saving lives.
We spoke with Abbey after he won The Positive Role Model Award for LGBT at The National Diversity Awards 2018. Here’s what he had to say:
What were your thoughts on the other shortlisted nominees within your category?
All the nominees were great in their categories. The line-up was, and when I saw my name among the seven wonderful people who have done exceedingly well, it was a victory bless itself. Jason John – the work he has done in Trinidad and Tobago is heart-breaking, Virginie Assal, Khakan Qureshi, Sgt Guy Lowe-Barrow, Tracy O’hara, Rebecca Tallon and Shaun Dellenty all those people are great. And I will follow and try to learn from them.
What were your thoughts after winning The Positive Role Model Award for LGBT?
As I mentioned earlier on, the line-up was so strong and fabulous, whose members were a cut above the rest, and whose individuals have made a difference to stand out and be counted. Therefore, finding my name in their midst was nothing but a plus, to say the least.
Despite the fact that I have always admired people who win, it had never clicked into my mind that I would one day be one of them, though, to be honest, I had always considered, in the event of such a thing happening to me, would be a real honour. I often get my satisfaction from changing someone’s life. The people who did not have hope when they hope today is enough for me. However, when my name was called, I was overwhelmed, it all appeared like a dream: it was crazy, incredible and surreal.
What happened to me rekindled and sent my mind burning with the idea that “things I consider to be small mean big things to others; what I have all along been doing for people were services that I considered ordinary and done on humanitarian grounds, yet the recipients perceived them from a different perspective. “My resolve to help the LGBT asylum seekers and refugees was not calculated to win recognitions. To it was like a therapy that relived me from the past suffering. I went through the painful experiences both in my country and in the UK. The experience was so dreadful and scary. This makes me understand what it means to rub shoulders with death, to look direct into the ugly face of death, to suffer: my heart bleeds when I start imaging that other people are going through what I experienced. I wouldn’t like them to experience that kind of suffering, and that is the reason I thought, that even if I don’t have what it takes to effectively help them out, I would still use the limited resources I have to help them.
What reaction have you received from supporters/fellow employees since winning the award?
In my community back home in Uganda, my name has spread like a bush fire in the harmattan, reaching even the remotest part of my country. The people from my community are now aware of the meaning of the acronym “LGBT’.” Of course, they were excited that a Ugandan in the UK had won such a respectable award, and for that matter, they wanted to know the meaning of LGBT, in order to understand the value of the award. However, after knowing exactly what LGBT means, they were very angry.
Nevertheless, despite their unhappiness, their awareness of LGBT in their community may help to provoke some kind of interest to find out why many Ugandans, including people from their local communities are fleeing to the UK and other parts of the world. This may draw their attention to the fact that many are struggling to escape in order to find their way to the UK so as to save their lives from torture, incarceration and possible death because of the draconian laws and mob justice initiated by cultural homophobia. This may help to change their attitude and possibly learn to be tolerant with people who are different from them.
However, the LGBT people and members of OPAL were excited to see one of their members winning such an award. It was cool and surreal.
Now that you have won a National Diversity Award, where are you going to go from here? What are your next steps?
My next step is even to work more. I have just finished my Masters. I am going to do a PhD next year. I am going to use the award as a springboard to push me even further. My interest now is to fight HIV, and Mental Health stigma among LGBT African Community. I will also use it to acquire some funding so that I could even do more. It is an honour and indeed something that can add to my many victories to come.
In your own words, how do you feel the work you are carrying out is making a difference?
I believe the work I do is so important in my community because there are no many Black led charities in London which support LGBT African asylum seekers and refugees. People come to me when they have lost hope. For example, when Lazia Nabbanja came to me, she was on the brink of suicide, within few weeks after knowing her, the Home Office detained her and tried to deport her. While in the detention, she attempted suicide on three occasions. When I went to see her, I promised her that no one would deport her. I visited her at least once a week for the six month she was in detetion. I am happy to say that on 11 October 2018, the Home Office granted her refugee status, she is now thinking of joining college to do nursing and start rebuilding her life.
Why do you think it is important to highlight Diversity, Equality and Inclusion?
It is vitally important for them to be highlighted because people need to know the challenges and struggles minorities face. Additionally, recognising the unsung heroes helps to motivate and revitalise their zeal to work even harder, because they will know that their work is changing lives, being acknowledged and appreciated
Who or What is your inspiration?
My inspiration was my father. My father told me that you could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be as long as I was willing to work hard. That was a very powerful statement that proceeded from my father’s mouth. It was a statement of intent and purpose. It reminded me of the philosophical statement that “you are what you think and speak”
If you think small, you will likewise be a man of small, meaningless achievements. Why? Because when you think, you use your mind. Negative thinking reduces the thinker into a slave – you develop a slave-mentality that binds you and becomes a major barrier to your progress or any form of advancement – it kills your handwork spirit and determination to do anything.
If you speak negative about yourself, you will be a nonentity. Why? because there is power in the word. Whatever you say binds you. If it is negative it becomes a curse against your life. Therefore, I compared this philosophy with my father’s statement and found them in positive concurrence: very powerful. I have tried them and found how powerful they are.
What were your thoughts on The National Diversity Awards Ceremony? Did you enjoy your evening?
I had wishful thoughts, thoughts expressing the real need for continuity, and never ever to think of stopping this kind of function, for various reasons: The first reason concerns fellowship> this occasion provides the opportunity for men and women of valour to meet and fellowship by engaging in sharing of experiences and ideas.
Even more importantly is the fact that novices, those attending and getting recognition for the first time, will find this a remarkably gainful experience as they stand to benefit emotionally, psychologically and intellectually – there will be the feel-good-factor that leads to confidence building, morale boost and upskilling through interpersonal communication.
Last but not least, occasions of this magnitude offer real opportunities for making friends and creating a base of fraternity.