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Bay Area Families Open Doors to Refugees As Crisis Escalates

Teresa Cotsirilos
Judy and Hillel Salomon at their home in Berkeley. In 2019, the Salomons opened their doors to Michael and Charlie, two Ugandan refugees. Michael and Charlie asked that KALW not take their picture to preserve their anonymity.

In 2019, the UN’s Refugee Agency reported that an unprecedented number of people had been forced to flee their home countries. Over 70 million people are currently displaced worldwide, and the global refugee population is expected to increase in 2020.

When local governments fail to resettle refugees, individual citizens are opening their doors. In the Bay Area, dozens of volunteers have invited refugees and asylum seekers to live with them.

Judy Salomon and her husband, Hillel, live in a brown stucco house in the Berkeley flats. For the past year, Michael and Charlie have been living with them too.

“I call them pappa and mamma, even if they don't accept it,” Charlie says, laughing. He and Michael are drinking tea at the Salomons’ dining room table. They both asked KALW to use pseudonyms to protect their identities. The Ugandan refugee community is small, and they’re concerned their families back home could identify them.

Living ‘Under Fear And Threat’

Charlie and Michael both identify as gay, and their home country, Uganda, has some of the strictest laws against homosexuality in the world. Government officials have linked gay people to an alleged terrorist group and accused them of recruiting schoolchildren. Homosexual acts can be punishable by life in prison.

“We lived under fear and threat,” says Charlie. “[If] your son, your daughter is lesbian, or your son is gay? Get rid of him. Because the law will penalize you.”

Charlie says he was evicted several times, because his landlords were afraid they would be penalized for sheltering him. “And if you couldn’t be arrested and you were caught, there was a lot of mob justice,” he says. “We lost several of our friends through that kind of death.”

In October 2019, Ugandan ministers announced plans to re-introduce legislation in Parliament known colloquially as the “Kill the Gays” Bill. If passed, homosexual acts would be punishable by death. The law was heavily influenced by a group of American evangelical pastors, who have played a key role in funding anti-gay groups in Uganda. The government denied it was reconsidering the law after international aid organizations indirectly threatened to pull their funding.

Charlie fled Uganda in 2015. He knew it was time to leave after several of his friends were murdered because of their sexual orientation. Michael left Uganda for good when his mother caught him at home with his boyfriend.

“Her reaction was very bad,” he says. “She started slapping me. My boyfriend had run out of the house — I told him, ‘leave the house, I have to talk to my mom.’”

His mother threatened to have him arrested, or take him to a rehabilitation center that offered conversion therapy. “At that moment, I decided to run away from my house,” says Michael. He threw a few things into a backpack and left. He was seventeen years old.

‘You Can’t Go Back’

Michael fled to Nairobi, Kenya, where he met Charlie. They both achieved refugee status, and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) eventually resettled them both in the United States.

That’s where Jewish Family and Community Services comes in. Over the past eight years, the non-profit’s East Bay branch has connected over 60 Bay Area families with refugees in need of housing.

Judy and Hillel Salomon were inspired to work with the non-profit in response to the Trump Administration’s restrictive immigration policies. Hillel is the son of Holocaust survivors, and an immigrant himself. He remembers arriving in Miami as a small child and “seeing all these tiny little cars on highways” from the plane window, then hearing a language he didn’t understand. This is work is personal for them.

“It gives you an appreciation that other people wouldn't have for the difficulties and the struggles of being a refugee,” Hillel says. “You’re leaving, and you can't go back.”

Michael remembers when Jewish Family and Community Services volunteers met him at the airport. “Somebody hugged me like for five minutes and was like, welcome!” he says.

He and Charlie placed with other families before moving in with the Salomons. Charlie says the whole process made him nervous at first. He didn’t know how a straight family would respond to an LGBTQ refugee. “‘How are they seeing me?’” he remembers thinking. “‘How did they judge me? How did they think of me?’”

“I was still in shock,” he says. “I kept in my room all the time.”

“He had a lot of questions for us,” says Judy.

It took awhile for the Solomons and their guests to get to know each other. Michael and Charlie met the Salomons’ grandchildren. With the help of Jewish Family and Community Services, they also found work and learned to navigate public transit. They both say BART was a particular challenge.

“It was very embarrassing!” says Charlie, laughing. “I was always laughing at my foolery. I was like, ‘am I stupid? I’m going to Walnut Creek, and I find myself in San Francisco!’”

At one point when he was lost on BART, Charlie turned to an older White woman to ask for directions. “I walked closer to her, to ask her, you know, ‘where’s the bus that heads to Walnut Creek?’” The woman promptly backed away from him and started screaming for help.

Charlie laughs ruefully about her reaction now. “I just said [to myself], ‘okay. She could be one of these people we hear about,’” he says. “‘They call themselves supremacists.’”

‘Family Is Not Just By Birth’

While Charlie and Michael say they feel much safer in the United States than they ever did Uganda, racial profiling is an issue they’re still reckoning with. Judy and Hillel Salomon have navigated some of those experiences with them.

“I will say this,” says Judy. “There had been a situation in another house where two young men moved in and took a walk in the neighborhood, and someone called the cops. Not because they were LGBTQ, because they were Black. So that was something that we had to think about.”

Before Charlie and Michael moved in, they went door to door in their neighborhood. “We said to the neighbors, ‘listen, there are these two young men and they're going to be living with us. You know, basically don't call the police when you see them coming into my house at night.’” Judy and Hillel say their neighbors took it in stride.

“Unfortunately, it’s a reality in America,” says Judy. “Even Berkeley, which thinks it's so above all this. It's not.” 

Eventually, the Salomons, Charlie and Michael settled into a rhythm. Michael says he might be feeling ready to date again. Charlie recently moved out of the Salomon’s house, though he made a point to find an apartment nearby.

“Family is not just by birth,” he says. “This is my family.” He visits all the time.

Teresa Cotsirilos is a reporter at KALW, where she covers labor rights and public health in the Bay Area’s immigrant communities. A recipient of the IWMF Adelante Fellowship and the Center for Health Journalism's National Fellowship, she is currently investigating California wildfire cleanups and their impact on immigrant workers’ health and safety.