His siblings accepted him, but his aunt kicked him out of her house after his uncle overheard them talking about his sexual orientation. Relatives shunned Ndikumana, who was 22 at the time, and even tried to take away his last name.
“The family said that I was a curse on the family,” Ndikumana told the Washington Blade during an Aug. 9 interview at Human Rights First’s offices near McPherson Square in downtown Washington.
Ndikumana fled Burundi on July 31, 2013. He received asylum in Belgium and now lives in the province of Luxembourg where he works for Maison Arc-en-Ciel, a local LGBT advocacy group whose name translates into Rainbow House in English.
“I knew Belgium was a democratic country and I figured that I would be able to live my life pretty well there,” Ndikumana told the Blade in French as then-Human Rights First fellow Rebecca Sheff interpreted. “I have been able to live comfortably there.”
Ndikumana arrived in the U.S. on July 29 and left on Aug. 22.
He met with LGBT and refugee advocates; lawmakers and officials with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor while in D.C. Ndikumana traveled to Portland, Maine, on Aug. 12 to meet with a group of African LGBT asylum seekers who had reached out to him.
Ndikumana also visited three of his siblings who live in New York and Connecticut.
He told the Blade that two of his sisters who live in the U.S. initially rejected him because he is gay. Ndikumana said they have been “working hard to” reestablish a relationship.
“We were able to all be together and to do a really good coming out process,” he said, speaking about his visit with them. “I think it went really well. They were able to ask me lots of questions. I was able to respond to them, so I’m very grateful to my family.”
Ndikumana seeks U.S. support for Burundian activists
Burundi is a small, impoverished Central African country that borders Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lake Tanganyika.
A protracted civil war in the former Belgian colony from 1993-2006 left an estimated 300,000 people dead. Fighting resumed last year after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a third term in office.
Nkurunziza in 2009 signed a law that criminalized homosexuality in Burundi. Those who are convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual relations face up to three years in prison and a fine of between $30-$60.
“In Africa it’s a lot of money,” said Ndikumana.
Ndikumana told the Blade that he experienced discrimination because of his sexual orientation since childhood.
He said a primary school teacher hit him when he found him “messing around” with a boy. Ndikumana told the Blade that people also called him a “pedophile” and his classmates threw stones at him on the street.
“Even though I hadn’t done my coming out process, I presented as feminine,” he said.
Ndikumana told the Blade that he decided to “stand up for my own rights” once he entered secondary school.
He began to advocate on behalf of LGBT issues in Burundi in 2008.
Ndikumana was a peer educator and worked for a number of advocacy groups in the country. He and four other activists later formed an organization that sought to expand advocacy efforts that traditionally took place around the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“We said we can’t just work on health-related issues,” said Ndikumana. “We need to be working on our human rights because many countries, including Burundi, have criminalized same-sex activity and it means that the LGBT community isn’t able to access health services in the way it should be.”
Ndikumana told the Blade the Belgian Embassy in Bujumbura has provided support to Burundian activists. He said he would like the U.S. government to do the same.
“The reason I had to leave and seek asylum in Belgium is because I wasn’t sufficiently protected in my own work to be able to stay and work without concern,” said Ndikumana.
He added he would also like to counter the narrative that homosexuality is a Western import.
“We know that that’s not the case,” he said. “We know that homosexuality isn’t a choice. It’s something you’re born with. It’s something that’s innate.”
Activist discusses terrorism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump
Ndikumana’s trip coincided with increased anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and in the U.S.
“People who are coming to Europe or to the U.S., but specifically to Belgium . . . [are] not coming because they really want to be in that country,” he said. “They’re coming because they had to leave because it was very hard for them. They have had to abandon their countries, their cultures.”
“They are coming to a place where they have to start all over again and adapt and learn new ways of being in society,” added Ndikumana.
Two suicide bombers killed 16 people at the Brussels Airport on March 22. Another 16 people died on the same day when a bomb exploded in the city’s subway system.
The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks. Belgian police say the men who carried out the Brussels bombings were also involved in the series of terrorist attacks in Paris last November that left more than 100 people dead.
Ndikumana told the Blade that authorities detained him for an hour at Brussels Airport before he flew to the U.S. because they said they couldn’t verify his visa. He said the U.S. Embassy confirmed it had issued it to him.
“I feel like it was racism or homophobia against refugees to say that as a refugee I wouldn’t have the right to travel back and forth,” Ndikumana told the Blade, noting he was traveling with a passport that noted his refugee status. “Even if we live in a democratic country or one that accepts homosexuality we still experience discrimination and there’s still these things that happen.”
Ndikumana also expressed concern over a potential Donald Trump presidency, noting LGBT Belgians and Africans frequently discuss him.
“I don’t know what would happen, but maybe I wouldn’t be coming back to the U.S.,” he said. “I am against him.”