There is no shortage of fighting spirit when it comes to Kenneth Macharia. A gay man from Kenya, he has become accustomed to putting on a brave face in his ongoing battle to be allowed to go on living in the UK.
For the past three years, ever since his work visa expired, Kenneth has tirelessly locked horns with the Home Office after being threatened with deportation to his native country, where homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison – which can be extended to 21 years if there are “aggravating circumstances”.
That grim fate almost became a reality in November last year when the softly spoken mechanical engineer, who has called Bristol his home since moving there to study in 2009, was whisked away to a detention centre near Heathrow airport following a seemingly routine check-in as an asylum seeker.
“There were four immigration officers waiting for me,” Kenneth recalls. “They told me my application for asylum had been turned down and they put me in a cell.
“That was on a Thursday and they said the ‘removal window’ opened on the Monday – from then on, I could be put on a flight.
“One night I was there, I heard they were going into the rooms, picking up people and tossing them on to a plane.”
Feeling shocked and hopeless, Kenneth, 39, turned to his teammates at Bristol Bisons, the gay and inclusive rugby club where he trains.
Club chairman Philip Rogerson says: “I was organising our tour at the time, Ken was ignoring my message and I was getting angrier and angrier.”
After finding out what had happened, the club shared a message on their Facebook account and inadvertently whipped up a media storm as news outlets nationwide queued up to cover the story.
A petition – with more than 100,000 signatures – and a crowd-funding page to help towards legal fees followed as the Bisons worked tirelessly with other groups such as the Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants and the Bristol Pride Without Borders to free their teammate.
Scoring a small victory when Kenneth was granted bail and his flight window temporarily closed, the Bisons realised that the key to cracking the case was column inches because the higher Ken’s profile, the more endangered he would be in Kenya.
Painting a picture of what life is like for an LGBTQ person in Kenya, Kenneth insists survival hinges on secrecy. “I hid it well. I had a secret Facebook page to try to [get a] date. But day-to-day living, it was a complete secret. I only told three close friends.”
The Masters graduate also argues that the Home Office have doubts about the claims he has made about his sexuality. “The first time I applied [for asylum] in 2016, they basically said they didn’t believe I am gay. They had access to the secret Facebook account but refused to believe the account was mine.”
In June, the Home Office — with social media sites temporarily adorned with rainbow flags — sent a letter to Kenneth telling him to prepare to be deported.
The letter claims that while same-sex activity between men is a crime, the Kenyan law is rarely applied and “the objective evidence does not establish that LGBT persons are likely to be subjected to persecution or serious harm. “
The letter continues: “No evidence has been submitted to show that you [Kenneth] will be singled out and persecuted by the authorities in Kenya as a result of your case being reported in the media.”
Living in “limbo”, Kenneth — and the Bisons — aren’t giving up, and his case has been taken on by a human rights lawyer. Win or lose, Kenneth hopes his experience will draw attention to the plight of other LGBTQ people seeking asylum.
“What is happening to me is happening to many people,” he says. “Over and over again.”
Listen to Keneth’s story below: