A football referee from Zimbabwe who was outed as gay in his homeland while officiating at a tournament in London has been granted asylum in the UK.
Raymond Mashamba was being blackmailed over his sexuality by a former friend in Bulawayo before and during the CONIFA World Football Cup, an international tournament for teams not affiliated to FIFA at which Mashamba officiated in May and June.
Details of the 30-year-old's relationship with his then boyfriend were disclosed to members of their local community - including Mashamba's mother - before a national newspaper in Zimbabwe published an article identifying the referee as the subject of a "gay storm".
After the London tournament, Mashamba made a claim for asylum in Britain on the grounds that it would be unsafe for him to return home. Violence and discrimination against LGBT people is common in Zimbabwe, where even public displays of affection between people of the same sex are illegal.
The football referee has now been granted an initial five years asylum by the Home Office, and will have the opportunity to apply for settlement in 2023.
During his time so far in the UK, Mashamba has had substantial support from both CONIFA and London Titans FC, one of several LGBT-friendly football clubs based in the capital. Through this connection, he has refereed matches in the London Unity League (LUL), which is affiliated to the Amateur FA, and in the GFSN National League.
"I have to thank everyone for being there for me," Mashamba told Sky Sports. "The Titans, CONIFA and AFC Muswell Hill in particular have been so supportive.
"I now want to continue with my studies and also with my refereeing. I also want to continue to fight for LGBT rights for people in Zimbabwe."
Representatives from both the Titans and CONIFA wrote letters of support for Mashamba's case, detailing how the referee had made significant contributions to both organisations.
Reacting to the news, Titans secretary Stuart Forward said: "It's heartening to hear of this positive outcome, particularly when taken against a political backdrop that has not always been accommodating of issues around LGBT asylum. All of us at London Titans FC are delighted that Raymond now has the stability to plan his future.
"Supporting him throughout his asylum bid has highlighted the universal importance of community, especially in the face of prejudice and discrimination. The Titans exists to provide a safe and engaging space for players of all sexualities and gender identities to enjoy their football free from fear of isolation or persecution."
Forward says the Titans will now look to build upon the positivity generated by Mashamba's case and establish more ways to help those in similar situations.
"Working with Raymond throughout this time has shown how important a platform like ours can be in supporting individuals from across the LGBT community, and how much more can be done to provide a place for all to flourish as their authentic selves," he added.
"With this in mind, London Titans FC are looking into establishing a fund to assist LGBT refugees and asylum seekers in accessing football and also the belonging that comes through being part of an active sporting community."
CONIFA board member Paul Watson, the tournament director of the World Football Cup in London, says his organisation will also continue to offer Mashamba its full support.
"We're really delighted Raymond's going to have a chance to be safe and to be able to build a life here in the UK," said Watson. "We hope the decision opens doors for him to do what he loves, which is refereeing.
"It's a cliché that football is a family but the way in which both the CONIFA and LGBT football communities have rallied around Raymond - a person who had no initial support at all when he arrived here - shows a genuine bond. You need family most when you're in a desperate situation.
"He's going to continue to need help, but he's also got those important support networks in place."
Mashamba's solicitor, Kaweh Beheshtizadeh of Fadiga & Co, believes the case demonstrates how sports clubs and governing bodies that make a visible commitment to inclusion can assist migrants who are LGBT.
"It seems common now for us to see people in sport who come out as LGBT receive support, but it entirely depends on where those people come from," explains Beheshtizadeh.
"In countries like Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Jamaica, for example, these people are often persecuted and treated badly. So for someone like Raymond to have sports communities coming together to offer support and speak up about the problems in such countries is significantly helpful.
"Each case comes down to its own factors. Raymond was blackmailed and threatened, and subsequent events occurred which meant many more people have found about his story through the media.
"My advice to anyone in a sports club, community or governing body who has the chance to help an LGBT asylum seeker is to contact that person's solicitor and talk through the whole story. Solicitors will advise on the best ways to assist the individual and raise awareness."
While Mashamba has won his case, the overall success rate for claims of asylum in the UK on the grounds of sexual orientation remains very low. A PinkNews report in January 2018 found that, for the year-long period between October 2015 and September 2016, only 289 of 1,436 such applications were granted. Cases involving people from Zimbabwe were among those most unlikely to succeed.
Much of the difficulty for these migrants rests in attempts to 'prove' their status as LGBT people. A 2016 report published by Stonewall in conjunction with the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group outlined how LGBT+ asylum seekers were being required to collect detailed evidence relating to their sexual orientation and gender identity, even though such evidence was rarely at hand, or the individuals had little opportunity to access the documentation or digital resources necessary to retrieve it.
Seb Aguirre is a member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM), a direct action and solidarity group for all refugees and migrants, as well as being the Director of Actors for Human Rights at Ice & Fire, a human rights-focused theatre company and registered charity. He says societies such as sports groups provide important opportunities for LGBT migrants to not only build friendships in a new country but to also establish their identities.
"The experience of LGBT+ people going through the UK asylum process is so isolated from that of the wider LGBT community here," explains Aguirre. "One of the major problems these individuals face is that they're rarely able to afford financially to participate in those groups, whether it's a sports club or some other kind of society. When you're living on up to £36 a week - less than £5 a day - it's clearly very hard to travel and to pay membership fees, buy kit or equipment, and so on.
"A lot of migrants have church groups supporting them but we've seen cases where, for someone who's LGBT, they are not out in that church environment. So for anyone seeking asylum on the grounds of being LGBT, they really need to connect to those local LGBT groups and communities too."
One case that has attracted significant media interest in recent weeks has been that of Ken Macharia, who first arrived in the UK from Kenya on a student visa nearly 10 years ago. A gay man, Macharia is the club photographer and a casual player with Bristol Bisons RFC, an LGBT-inclusive rugby club in the city; his mother also lives in Bristol. Macharia's visas - post-graduate and work - were extended on several occasions until 2016 when he made a new application for asylum, on the grounds that it would be unsafe for him to return to Kenya due to his sexuality.
However, that application was refused and after two years of denied appeals, the Home Office issued a removal notice for Macharia, detaining him in November while plans were made to deport him. The Bisons, led by club captain Murray Jones, quickly rallied to support their friend and team-mate, securing over 100,000 signatures on a petition to the Home Secretary and crowdfunding over £8,000 to pay for the 38-year-old's legal fees. While a judge has since seen fit to grant him bail, the Home Office still opposes Macharia's asylum claim and the Bisons' battle to keep him in the UK continues.
"If it wasn't for the Bisons, I would most probably have been deported by now," says Macharia. "They have helped to secure my freedom."
The mechanical design engineer says he cannot seriously contemplate returning to live in his homeland where, like Zimbabwe, a homophobic culture persists and where any same-sex act between men is an imprisonable offence. "I never had the fortune of having an LGBT+ group in Kenya. I was all by myself and would only chat to people through a separate Facebook account."
He would also lose the sporting camaraderie he cherishes. "Being part of the Bisons has made me feel proud of who I am. It's a unique environment.
"It's fully inclusive, so there are straight people in the club as well. It's somewhere where I've learned to appreciate myself, and it's helped my mental health too. To have those social connections, group chats, friends you meet up with on the weekend... it's just a space where we're each able to celebrate who we are."
Aguirre feels the cases of both Macharia and Mashamba show how powerful sporting connections can be in achieving positive outcomes for LGBT asylum seekers. "The Bisons didn't fully know what they were doing at first, when it came to helping Ken.
"But by raising awareness on social media, attending his tribunal in west London in numbers, and by standing bail for him, they were able to show the judge - who is impartial - that there are people here in the UK who care for him and who believe in him.
"It proves how vital that solidarity from the LGBT community is for an LGBT asylum seeker."
Macharia says there have been many difficult moments along the way. "The long waiting periods left me in a continuous state of anxiety. At one point, immediately after I was arrested, I really lost hope and felt it was all over - but I was surprised how effective the support that the Bisons gave me was.
"Once I saw the reaction to my story, I soon started to become more positive again."
Macharia has also been helping fellow asylum seekers who are LGBT through his work as a member of Bristol Pride Without Borders, a support group that operates as part of a larger charity called Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR). Having been the beneficiary himself of both BRR's guidance and of crowdfunding, he is now looking to give back and provide a boost to the charity's threatened Advice Service.
"BRR run a drop-in centre where lots of assistance is available, including the Advice Service which helps asylum seekers navigate the complicated system and secure their safety, their housing and their future.
"They have a big funding problem at the moment and they are trying to raise enough money to continue with this essential work." At the time of writing, with just five days to go, they have raised over £11,000 towards their overall target of £29,000.
For both Mashamba and Macharia, having sport on their side has been invaluable in their pursuit of asylum. The struggles of everyday LGBT people in Zimbabwe and Kenya are rarely reported in the UK media, and even less so in a sporting context, but the power of football and rugby combined with a strong dose of LGBT community spirit has proved an effective combination.
While last year marked 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, anti-gay laws remain on the statute books of over 70 countries worldwide. "It's important that LGBT people retain a collective and social memory of what it was like to be criminalised, to be scapegoated, to be seen as being a 'bad' type of person," says Aguirre.
"LGBT migrants and refugees who come to this country have genuine fears, from both family and wider society back home. But here, the Home Office won't always believe that a person even is gay.
"Once you're in the appeals process like Ken, it's crucial that you have witnesses, and that there are people who can vouch for you."
As awareness of inclusion grows in UK society, it's often asked why we still need sports clubs and groups that are stated as being inclusive. Yet they continue to serve important functions - physical, mental and social - and for LGBT asylum seekers, they also provide accessible pathways into community life. With the route towards the goal-line of freedom fraught with difficulty, having team-mates around you may be the best tactic.
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