Lifeline to LGBTQI+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers

This article was originally published on the University of the Witwatersrand website under the same title, along with the featured image, on 14 September 2021.

Our hope is really to inspire other members of the Wits community to say that there are things that we can do to change the lives of those around us.
– Keval Harie (GALA Queer Archive director)

The African LGBTQI+ Migration Research Network (ALMN) and the Gala Queer Archive, both located at Wits, joined forces at the onset of Covid-19 to establish an emergency relief fund to mitigate the adverse effects of the virus on the LGBTQI+ community. For their work, these organisations received nominations as Wits Heroes for going beyond the call of duty.

The organisations partnered with community-based networks to start a GoFundMe campaign to address the plight of LGBTQI+ individuals facing immediate crisis. The campaign, which focused on LGBTQI+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, raised a total of R171 000 and assisted more than 180 individuals originating from 17 African countries.

The campaign provided people with a much-needed safety net, allowing them to buy food, medicine, sanitary items, data and, in some instances, contribute towards paying rent.

“During the lockdown last year, it became evident to us that there were so many members of our constituency that were [facing] such a difficult time that we felt a moral obligation to support this community in ways that we have not historically done before,” says Keval Harie, Director at the Gala Queer Archive

The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequent hard lockdowns severely affected the informal economy, the primary source of income for LGBTQI+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom did not qualify for relief provided by the South African government.

The Fruit Basket, which supports LGBTQI+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers living in South Africa, was one of the campaign’s core partners. The Johannesburg-based organisation helped identify, through its extensive networks, members of the LGBTQI+ community in desperate need of assistance.

Thomars Shamuyarira, founder and director of The Fruit Basket, says beneficiaries received the donations with much gratitude. Furthermore, the initiative saved many lives and served as a reminder of the importance of community.

John Marnell, a PhD fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society (Wits University) and co-coordinator of ALMN, emphasised that academic institutions need to remain connected to the communities they research and within which they operate.

As researchers and academics, we have an ethical obligation to assist the communities with whom we work and which we are often part of. It’s really important to be in touch with people, to listen to them, to recognise their needs and to consider how we might support them, especially in times of crisis. The GoFundMe campaign is an excellent example of how academics and researchers can harness their networks in order to respond to critical social issues. In this case, we were able to bring together researchers, civil society and community networks to raise and distribute urgently needed funds.
– John Marnell (ALMN co-coordinator)

Although the campaign did not address all the horrific challenges endured by vulnerable members of the LGBTQI+ community, it did fulfil its mandate of giving people breathing space, reminding us that heroes do not need to wear capes to have a significant impact.

“Being a hero is all about significance. Just making a difference in people’s lives, touching people’s lives in different ways people will always remember, in ways that make people want to also get up and do more for other people,” Shamuyarira said.

“Our hope is really to inspire other members of the Wits community to say that there are things that we can do to change the lives of those around us. Every small effort goes a long way,” Harie added.

The GoFundMe campaign was a partnership between ALMN, the GALA Queer Archive, Pachedu, The Fruit Basket and the Holy Trinity LGBT Ministry.


About Wits Heroes

The Wits Heroes campaign was initiated by the Senior Executive Team at Wits University. The campaign recognises Witsies who went beyond the call of duty amidst the Covid-19 pandemic – to complete the academic year, to search for vaccines and treatments, to keep healthcare workers safe, to protect employees and students, to create multimedia content, to secure data and devices for students, to keep systems going, and generally to serve society. The Heroes were nominated by staff and students.

About John Marnell

John Marnell is a doctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS). His work uses visual and narrative methodologies to explore the lived experiences of LGBTIQ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Having joined the ACMS after many years working in LGBTIQ activism, John is passionate about working collaboratively with social justice movements and experimenting with different forms of participatory knowledge production.