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IMMIGRATION

Ugandans’ gay wedding ‘first’ highlights Sweden asylum lottery

A couple who claim to be the first Ugandan men to be legally married face an uncertain future after recently tying the knot in a Swedish church, with one facing possible deportation that the other fears could result in his husband's death.

Ugandans' gay wedding 'first' highlights Sweden asylum lottery

Last weekend, Lawrence Kaala and Jimmy Sserwadda were all smiles as they exchanged vows in a crowded church in the north Stockholm suburb of Järfälla.

“It feels great,” Sserwadda tells The Local after the wedding, which was attended by more than one hundred guests – including Sweden’s EU Minister Birgitta Ohlsson.

“We had been separated in such a hostile environment; we didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again.”

The ceremony was supposed to be a fairy-tale ending to an improbable story for the two men who found themselves reunited in Sweden years after their relationship had been cut short due to persecution in their native Uganda.

“Uganda is about the worst place in the world to live as someone who is openly gay,” Sserwadda explains.

But while Sserwadda’s asylum application has been approved, Kaala learned just days before the ceremony that his application had been denied, meaning he will have to leave Sweden in two weeks if he doesn’t file an appeal.

“If they put him on a plane to Uganda now, they will be sentencing him to death,” says Sserwadda.

The two men had been in a long-term relationship in Uganda until one day in 2008 when Sserwadda suddenly fled the country shortly after being arrested and beaten for “promoting homosexuality”.

“I didn’t tell Lawrence. I know he would have insisted on coming with and that would have put our lives at risk. So I left him behind,” he recalls.

Sserwadda ended up in Sweden and was granted asylum on account of the risks he faced as a gay man if he were to return to Uganda. He became active in the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (Riksförbundet för homosexuellas, bisexuellas och transpersoners rättigheter – RFSL), helping other LBGT asylum seekers with their cases.

In the summer of 2011, Sserwadda’s story was featured in Kom Ut, a magazine published by RFSL, as part of a piece which compared LBGT asylum cases to a lottery due to inconsistencies and a lack of knowledge on the part of officials at the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket).

Unbeknownst to Sserwadda, a copy of the magazine landed in the hands of Kaala, who had also fled the increasingly threatening atmosphere in Uganda.

Through chance, Kaala also ended up in Sweden and was dumbfounded to see his former lover’s picture plastered on a magazine cover three years after Sserwadda fled.

Kaala phoned Sserwadda who was equally surprised to hear from the man he assumed he’d never see again.

“I was shocked. I thought it was a joke,” Sserwadda recalls.

“When we finally met in person, Lawrence said, ‘Yes, darling it’s me!’ As we hugged he then asked me why I had left.”

Sserwadda explained why he kept his plans to flee Uganda a secret and was soon forgiven for leaving his lover in the lurch. The two rekindled their former relationship, and began talking about having a wedding.

“If we could have gotten married in Uganda if we would have and when we found each other again here in Sweden it felt natural to go ahead with it,” he says.

Despite learning that Kaala’s asylum application had been rejected just days before the two were to walk down the aisle, they refused to allow the setback to dampen their spirits.

“We decided to focus on the wedding and worry about the possible deportation later,” Sserwadda explains.

He adds he’s frustrated that despite both he and Kaala being gay men from Uganda, where same-sex relationships are illegal and could be punishable by death under a proposed bill currently up for debate, their asylum cases have been treated differently by migration authorities in Sweden.

“They don’t believe his story,” he explains, despite Kaala having scars on his body that both claim came as a result of beatings suffered by Kaala because he is a homosexual.

According to RFSL chairwoman Ulrika Westerlund, the Migration Board has a long way to go in how it handles asylum applications from people claiming persecution on account of their sexual preferences.

“They haven’t succeeded in ensuring that everyone who works on asylum cases involving LGBT applicants has the right knowledge and competence,” she tells The Local.

While no official statistics exist on LGBT asylum cases in Sweden, RFSL provides assistance in around 60 to 70 cases a year, which the Migration Board estimates represents roughly one-third of the total, according to Westerlund.

“A lot of the rejections are strange. It’s as if they have no concept of what LGBT asylum seekers face back home,” she says, explaining that the success or failure of LGBT asylum cases often depends on the case worker assigned to review the application.

Officials at the migration agency claim they are playing close attention to the situation in Uganda and that the agency continues to work on a strategy for increasing workers’ competence on gender and LGBT issues.

Westerlund adds that the wedding of Sserwadda and Kaala constitutes “new circumstances” which will be grounds for a planned appeal of the deportation order.

“News of the wedding has spread around the world, including to Uganda so it’s much more dangerous there now,” she explains.

While Kaala could now re-file his application to receive a Swedish residence permit on the basis of being married to Sserwadda, who is due to receive Swedish citizenship later this year, doing so would require to return to Uganda to file the required paperwork.

“He can’t go back there. He’d be arrested immediately,” says Sserwadda.

The couple now has until February 11th to file an appeal with the Migration Board.

“We haven’t had time for a honeymoon. We’ve been working around the clock since the wedding to get things in order,” he adds.

David Landes

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IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.
 

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
 
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
 
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.” 

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