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.