SAN DIEGO — Hiding in plain sight on one of San Diego’s busiest streets is a tiny restaurant called Flavors of East Africa. It is here that the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle and I met with musician and chef Joseph Bukombe who, like the restaurant in which he works, is quiet and unassuming.
Bukombe was released just in time for Christmas from his two-year imprisonment at the Otay Mesa Federal Detention Facility and still faces deportation to his home country of Uganda, where his life could be put in danger. He has the next couple of months to work on a case for asylum, which would allow him to remain in the United States legally.
When asked about his dreams for the future and the life he wishes for himself in San Diego, Bukombe describes his commitment to working hard and staying focused on his job as a chef at the restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park.
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“I’ve always had a dream of owning my own hotel back home in Uganda and I pray that, maybe as situations get better where gay people can live freely, [that could be a possibility]. I would love to open a restaurant back home and hope people back home would come,” Bukombe said.
Hearing him talk about the future in such a positive way, it is difficult to truly comprehend what Bukombe has been through these past two years and the challenges he still faces.
Recounting his time at Otay Mesa, he explains, “Every day you live in fear; you don’t know what’s happening tomorrow. You see people being deported … almost for nothing, you know. So, it was crazy.”
Bukombe’s words are slow and deliberate, as if recounting these events involves delving back into part of his memory bank he has purposefully left behind. This becomes clearer as he recalls what life behind bars was like.
While he was able to resist deportation by refusing to sign the travel documents necessary to send him back to Uganda, Bukombe said his time in detention was marked by depression and anxiety, both of which required psychiatric help. He talked about the darkest period of his detention, and his answer is telling. When he first arrived at Otay Mesa he was told he must sign deportation papers.
“I refused because I knew what I was going to face. It was like signing a death warrant. … And I remember the guy told me, ‘If you don’t sign I’ll charge you with a criminal … charge and then send you to federal prison for four to nine years.’ So I told him, ‘You know what, it’s better. It’s better to spend nine years – I’m already doing two years here.’”
Ordeal worsens after detainees learn that he is gay
Bukombe’s feelings of isolation were exacerbated when his case became well-known among his fellow inmates. He recalls losing a lot of friends, being picked on, and getting into confrontations, an ordeal he says was never-ending.
“You know, [detainees] live there two or three months and then they got deported and then new people come. So you have to go through the same things, like, you’re coming out, coming out; every day, you’re experiencing that,” he said.
Prohibited from using a computer and only granted access to visitors on the weekends, Bukombe admits that his time in detention was extremely lonely but also forced him to be strong. He had friends who hadn’t abandoned him when they discovered he was gay and he says that they created a small family of sorts and that those relationships gave him the strength to go on.
Living among hate was nothing new to Bukombe, though. He grew up listening to his preachers condemning homosexuality in the Pentecostal Church in Kampala, Uganda, which left him with many unanswered questions.
“You know, I was … living with shame. There were a couple of times where I really hated myself for that. I tried to commit suicide, like, three times because I was [so] confused,” he said.
Learning to love himself and a God who doesn’t hate
With the help of pastor Rich McCullen and other pastors at Missiongathering Christian Church in North Park, Bukombe said he began to develop a different, more personal and loving relationship with God.
“I grew up listening to people … condemning and preaching a message of hate to spread the hate,” he said. “You know, it’s like putting a bunch of people in a group and teaching them to go out and hate other people. But Jesus never did that. Jesus preached love and Grace. So I’ve really come to know God in a different way; in a personal way and as a God of love, who loves everybody.”
There is an ease in which Bukombe speaks about his relationship with God and it is clear that this is the main source of his strength and convictions. He has had a long struggle with accepting himself and being comfortable exposing his true identity to the world.