'They can make it:' LGBTQ refugees share stories in photo exhibit
Student photographer Olivia Barrett photographs subject Dennis Wamala for the upcoming "Am I Wrong to Love" exhibit in Toronto on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin)
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, May 10, 2019 12:32PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 10, 2019 12:33PM EDT
TORONTO -- Fearing for his life, Dennis Wamala fled Uganda with little more than the clothes on his back.
Now in Toronto awaiting a refugee hearing, he recounts being stalked, beaten, and tormented for his attraction to men as well as women.
He pauses when asked about the work he left behind as an activist supporting others in the LGBTQ community, a decision he considers "the most depressing thing in my life."
"The only way I can manage it is to not think about it. I try to block it out of my mind," says the 34-year-old, whose home country considers homosexuality a crime.
It's easy for Wamala to wallow in dark thoughts and despair, but an upcoming photo exhibit will portray him bathed in light, smiling and looking upwards. That's really who he is, Wamala says, even though he admits he expected the photographer to produce a more sombre, brooding image.
"I'm a forward-looking person," Wamala says.
"When you're an activist like me, the only reason you continue doing what you're doing is because you believe that it can get better. You look ahead and know there's something above there that you can change. I think it portrays exactly who I am."
Wamala's hopeful image is among 20 portraits of LGBTQ refugees that will be featured in the exhibit, titled "Am I Wrong to Love?," that's meant to shed light on human rights abuses facing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming people around the world.
The images were shot by 17 underserved youth who graduated from a photography program run by the social justice charity Jayu in Toronto and Mississauga, Ont. The program hosts workshops under the guidance of professional photographers, held during eight-week sessions that run throughout the year.
Jayu founder and executive director Gilad Cohen says the program mentored 140 budding photographers between its launch in April 2018 and the end of last year. This year it's on track to mentor 250 youth.
Graduates who return to serve as mentors are eligible to join a social justice exhibition, which this year focuses on LGBTQ refugees from 10 countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and the Ivory Coast. Photographers are again paired with seasoned pros to help them capture the portraits, with Graeme Roy, director of news photography for The Canadian Press, among those involved.
Sixteen-year-old photographer Olivia Barrett says she was inspired by meeting with the LGBTQ refugees and found a way to connect their stories of perseverance to her own life.
"I've definitely faced a lot of prejudice when it comes being a girl, being black, it's definitely very hard sometimes," says Barrett. "If I can do something to make sure no one else has to go through that, I definitely want to do that."
Barrett says she was intent on capturing Wamala in a candid moment, in black-and-white. She was not interested in focusing on his pain.
"They did go through a lot, obviously that's an important part, but they are more than just their story, they are more than just what they've been through."
Wamala considers himself lucky, knowing that many refugees don't have the support he does, which include friends in the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Pride Toronto, and other groups he's met through advocacy work in Uganda.
Since he arrived in January, he's been volunteering with groups including Africans In Partnership Against AIDS and Dignity Network, while continuing to work remotely as vice chair of Sexual Minorities Uganda. He also does what he can to help fellow refugees in Canada.
"They feel depressed, they feel alone," he says. "But when you share stories and tell them that you have been through worse situations, they get to understand that ... they can make it."
Formerly the director of programs for Icebreakers Uganda, Wamala says he's been attacked several times over the years. Six months before he left, he started to notice strange cars following him, making him believe "the clock was ticking for me."
"I don't know what their motive was but I'm 100 per cent sure they were trailing me for a long time, I have no doubt about that. I was getting anonymous calls threatening me, telling me how my life was about to come to an end, stuff like that."
He stopped working the month before he left, finding the ordeal "extremely terrifying."
"I couldn't get out of the house, I was hiding with a friend outside of the city," says Wamala, who is from Kampala. "I was not eating anymore, I'd lost so much weight, I was so depressed, I was so stressed."
Thankfully, Wamala had a Canadian visa because of advocacy work that had brought him to Canada four times over the past five years.
He wrote to the Canadian charity Rainbow Railroad, which bought him a plane ticket to Toronto and paid for two weeks at a hostel. Since then, he's been staying with a friend.
Wamala says he's no longer looking over his back, and he hopes to continue pushing for change internationally.
"I won't stop. I'm an activist born-and-bred and that's not something I can run away from."
And that means always looking forward, he adds.
"It's the only way to look."
The exhibit "Am I Wrong to Love?" runs May 10 to July 31 in Toronto.