What About LGBT Refugees in the United States?

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A line in a recent Christian Science Monitor article asks, “Are children fleeing Central American violence refugees who need asylum or illegal gold-diggers who need to go home?”

Politicians, talking heads, policymakers, and those of us interested in immigration have been transfixed by the surge of unaccompanied minors at our southern border. Whether these children are refugees worthy of asylum will eventually be determined by immigration courts, if and when their cases finally get there.

Another group fleeing violence but not getting as much press — if any at all — are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) refugees. In a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the Heartland Alliance estimates that around 3,500 LGBT refugees arrive in the country annually. Another 1,250 are granted asylum every year.

Arriving in small numbers, they tend to fly under the public’s radar. Some also choose to remain in the shadows, due in part to the conservatism of their own ethnic communities. LGBT refugees might enjoy more freedoms here, but they often live among fellow immigrants, who tend to be more socially and religiously conservative than native-born Americans.

Queer women and men flee their homelands because of the oppression they suffer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. They are routinely subject to human rights abuses, including sexual assault and corrective rape, physical violence, torture, imprisonment, and murder. In Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, people can be put to death for same-sex conduct. In an additional 76 countries, LGBTs can be imprisoned for living openly. While gay and transgender people are still subject to discrimination in some parts of the United States, their rights are generally and increasingly protected.

In a post for Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog, I discussed the crucial role immigrant organizations play in the lives of immigrants. These community-based nonprofits are community centers, social service providers, advocates, and network builders. They prop up the immigrant safety net. However, there are not enough to serve the needs of immigrant communities.

There are far fewer organizations for refugees. In 2012, over 58,179 refugees were admitted into the country and 29,484 individuals were granted asylum. A quick search on the National Center for Charitable Statistics database reveals a mere 128 community-based organizations dedicated to refugee relief.

Aside from limited capacities, these organizations are rarely equipped to deal with the housing, employment, medical, mental health, safety, and legal needs of LGBT refugees. While gay and transgender refugees avail of the same services as other refugees, they benefit from a sensitivity resulting from an awareness of queer concerns and realities. In 2011, ORR Director Eskinder Negash expressed concern for the lack of resource materials tailored for LGBT refugees, which are critical to their successful resettlement and integration: “The current resettlement network has limited understanding of the LGBT community.”

A lot of work is left to be done, from advancing international and domestic policies protecting queer refugees to increasing the number and capacities of refugee relief and resettlement organizations. But it all begins with education and storytelling. A trickle of LGBT refugees, however, simply isn’t as compelling as a tsunami of undocumented child migrants.

Originally posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog and the Huffington Post.

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Many NGOs Neglect Queer Refugees

LGBT immigrants

A new guide provides guidance on integrating LGBT refugees. (Photo: Claudia A. De La Garza/flickr)

In Honduras there is a lot of violence against homosexuals,” A.T. told a social worker from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM). “The fear of coming out of the closet is like a terror. I had an experience with a friend that was openly gay, from school—we went to primary school together, and I saw the violence against him.”

This traumatic childhood experience forced A.T. to lead a closeted, depressed and fearful life in his native country. (His full name is not being provided for his protection).

“The biggest impact that it had was the fear, the fear of being openly gay in front of friends,” he said. “Everything had the effect of making me depressed, where I would leave the house and not return, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even laugh because of being, um pretending to be what I wasn’t. So, the moment came when I had to decide, well, I can’t remain living as a heterosexual in Honduras.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from all over the world flee their home countries out of fear for their lives. A.T. is one of the more fortunate ones.

He fled to the United States, leaving everything behind. Luckily he had friends and family who helped him settle in Houston where he was embraced by the LGBT community. He applied and was approved for asylum and now lives openly as a gay man in San Francisco.

“This was my salvation, coming here, because I am safe to decide what I want to do with my life.  In my country, I couldn’t be the person that I am now, the person that can talk to other human beings and feel good about my sexuality,” he said.

ORAM, an agency which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) refugees worldwide, knows that not everyone is as fortunate as A.T. Many queer refugees find themselves without any friends and family to turn to, having been cast aside as a result of their gender orientation or identity. Worse, they often get no support from organizations that are supposed to help refugees.

A survey conducted by ORAM and Indiana University found that while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide provide crucial protection for refugees, these very groups often fail to adequately protect LGBTI refugees. Many of these NGOs ignore the refugees’ unique plight or are ill-equipped to work with queer people. Those gaps were identified across the globe but were starkest in countries where protection is most needed.

“Refugees fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity face further harm from the culture of silence in the international refugee protection system. They are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy,” said Neil Grungras, Executive Director of ORAM, in a statement. “Among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world, LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm.”

“There appears to be a vicious cycle,” said Indiana University sociologist Oren Pizmony-Levy. “Many NGOs do not welcome LGBTI refugees and the asylum seekers don’t approach them.  NGOs think that persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not serious and NGOs tend to overlook the problem.”

Not all queer refugees are able to flee to countries like the United States where there are communities and organizations willing and able to take them in and help them settle into their new lives of freedom. Many refugees only get as far as nearby territories which share the same homophobia and transphobia prevalent in the countries they are escaping. We can help by encouraging NGOs to be more sensitive and supportive of the needs of all refugees, including LGBTIs.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, July 12, 2012.

Welcoming LGBT Migrants Fleeing Persecution

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Rainbow Bridges provides guidance on integrating LGBT refugees. (Photo: Claudia A. De La Garza/flickr)

In this day and age, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals continue to be treated like second class citizens in the U.S. Yet LGBT people from overseas still come in droves since they have it much worse in their home countries.

Close to 90 nations have laws against homosexuality. In 72 countries, a person can be imprisoned for simply being who they are—LGBT. In seven countries, a person can be put to death for being born LGBT. In some countries, “corrective rape” is acceptable and sometimes committed by government officials.

An increasing number of LGBT people flee discrimination, intimidation, and violence in their homelands and seek a better life in the United States.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM) estimates that we receive about 2,000 refugees a year who are fleeing persecution based on their gender orientation or identity, representing six percent of all refugees in America. Unlike other displaced migrants, those who are LGBT often undergo the integration process alone, shunned by religious and immigrant communities that form the safety net for most newly arrived immigrants, especially refugees and asylees.

Thankfully, there are communities that have stepped forward to welcome and embrace LGBT refugees. The Hawden Park Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, for instance, has formed a group of volunteers dedicated to supporting and empowering LGBT asylees.

ORAM has just released the first-ever guide to welcoming LGBT migrants for groups like church volunteers and others who are willing to aid these displaced individuals.

Rainbow Bridges, a 48-page guide developed in a pilot project to resettle LGBT refugees in San Francisco, offers practical, step-by-step guidance on welcoming these new refugees, ensuring their mental and physical well-being, and helping them find support in their new country. It includes sample forms, a suggested code of conduct and outlines avenues for refugees to receive housing, employment, and federal assistance.

“There are immediate ways those of us in the U.S. can support members of our LGBT community facing persecution overseas,” said Neil Grungras, Executive Director of ORAM. “Uniting in support of queer asylum seekers and refugees is a powerful way of building community and reversing homophobia.”

Rainbow Bridges can help communities welcome and support these vulnerable individuals as they build new lives in the United States.

“LGBT refugees need a different reception for our differences and culture. If I were not gay, I would have easily been accepted into the African-American community and offered the services I needed; instead I faced further discrimination and restricted resources,” said Buchi Miles-Tuck, a gay asylee from Nigeria who said he fled two days before he was going to be killed. Fortunately, he found an LGBT group that welcomed him.

LGBT immigrants in the U.S. may have a long way to go before they have equal rights and treatment, but for many, life is far better here. As Miles-Tuck said, with the support he received, “you can get off the plane and experience how to be free in your own skin.”

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, April 30, 2012.

Advocacy Group Releases First-Ever Guide to Welcoming LGBTI Refugees to the U.S.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM) has just released the first-ever guide to welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people fleeing persecution in their home countries. As increasing numbers of these refugees flee to the United States, ORAM produced the guide for the American LGBT community and other groups willing to aid displaced LGBTI individuals. ORAM is the only organization focused exclusively on helping vulnerable LGBTI refugees worldwide find safety and rebuild their lives in welcoming communities.

Rainbow Bridges, a 48-page guide developed in a pilot project to resettle LGBT refugees in San Francisco, offers practical, step-by-step guidance on welcoming new refugees, ensuring their mental and physical well-being, and helping them find support in their new home country. It includes sample forms and a suggested code of conduct and outlines avenues for refugees to receive housing, employment, and federal assistance.

“There are immediate ways those of us in the U.S. can support members of our LGBT community facing persecution overseas,” said Neil Grungras, Executive Director of ORAM. “Uniting in support of queer asylum seekers and refugees is a powerful way of building community and reversing homophobia.”

ORAM estimates that the U.S. receives about 2,000 refugees a year who are fleeing persecution based on their gender orientation or identity, representing 6 percent of all refugees in America. Unlike other displaced migrants, those who are LGBT or intersex often undergo the integration process alone, shunned by religious and immigrant communities that form the safety net for most newly arrived immigrants, especially refugees and asylees. Rainbow Bridges can help LGBT, faith-based, and other communities welcome and support these individuals as they build new lives in the United States.

“LGBT refugees need a different reception for our differences and culture. If I were not gay, I would have easily been accepted into the African-American community and offered the services I needed; instead I faced further discrimination and restricted resources,” said Buchi Miles-Tuck, a gay asylee from Nigeria who fled two days before he was going to be killed. “If you have support from the LGBT community, you can get off the plane and experience how to be free in your own skin.”

Originally posted on the Huffington Post, April 23, 2012.

Local Migrant Relief Agencies Aid Refugees

August 2, 2011; Source: The Modesto Bee |Immigrating by choice is challenging enough, but when you are a refugee—forced to flee your homeland with not much notice and preparation because of political or social persecution—it can be simply overwhelming.

On top of adjusting to a new culture, you have to learn the basics that most natives take for granted. How do you find a place to live? Where do you shop for food? How do you open a bank account? How can you trust law enforcement authorities when you had feared them back home? How do you communicate with your new neighbors?

In 2010, 73,293 persons were admitted to the United States as refugees. These individuals escaped extreme and at times life-threatening conditions in their native countries. They come from nations as varied as Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Cuba.

Among these brave souls are Sally Khorani and her sister Vally, Christians from Kirkuk who now find themselves in Modesto, California. Their father worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq and Sally worked for a company that helped with efforts to rebuild her ravaged country.

Lori Aderholt, director of World Relief’s Modesto office, points out that “things are different here for them. It’s everything, from how to shop for groceries to how to apply for a job.” The international relief agency is helping the Khorani sisters and other refugees worldwide integrate into their host countries.

World Relief is one of the nonprofits that partner with the federal government in getting refugees settled into the United States. Other organizations include the Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

These nonprofits aid refugees by offering a range of educational, social, advocacy and support services to help newcomers become self-sufficient and productive members of our communities.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly Nonprofit Newswire, August 6, 2011.