On July 19, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates hosted Neil Grungras, Founder and Executive Director of Organization for Asylum, Refuge & Migration (ORAM) and Rachel Levitan, Director of Advocacy at ORAM, for an International Town Call on LGBTI refugees. ORAM is the leading agency advocating on behalf of refugees fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Below are highlights from the webinar, which can be viewed here.
Out & Equal: What inspired you to found an organization dedicated to LGBTI refugees?
Neil Grungras: Several years ago, I was working with refugees in Turkey, where there are many thousands of refugees, mostly from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. Realizing I was family, one client came out to me. He had fled Afghanistan because his life was threatened for being gay. He was utterly isolated– without community and unable to be himself with other Afghanis or with the local community. As a refugee, he was barred from legal employment, so he sold sex to survive. During his asylum process, he had concealed he was gay from the authorities, out of fear they would deny his claim. He ended up being denied anyway, and he had no options for survival. There are tens of thousands like him around the world. ORAM is here to make sure they have a future.
What forces LGBTI refugees to flee, how many refugees are there, and how many actually get resettled?
NG: LGBTI people are harassed, arrested, interrogated, tortured and beaten – by their own families, the wider community or government agents like the police. Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex can cost you your life in many countries. Seven nations apply the death penalty for consensual same-sex conduct. One of the seven – Iran – has executed an estimated 4,000 LGBTI individuals since 1978. Seventy-five nations criminalize same-sex relations in some way. In many other countries, LGBTI people are violated by private individuals or groups and are denied protection by their governments.
Of the tens of thousands of LGBTI people who flee persecution in their homelands, only a very small percentage actually make it to a country of transit, and a tiny number are resettled in a safe country.
Imagine if you are in the Arabian Peninsula, you have no options if you are LGBTI. You are surrounded by countries where LGBTI people are persecuted. For those who flee, conditions in countries of transit are harsh. Many LGBTI refugees are fleeing abuse from their own family members and arrive alone. They cannot get support or solace from other refugees from their country, and the local communities in host countries are hostile to sexual minorities.
What impact has the Arab Spring had on LGBTI refugees?
NG: The signs for now call for caution. Some uprisings actually showed signs of hostility toward LGBTI people. Tunisia is being hailed as a success story because its transition has been relatively peaceful. But in Tunisia, the governing coalition includes ultra-religious conservative groups hostile toward LGBTI people, so the LGBTI community has cause for concern. LGBTI rights are often portrayed as both a morality issue and a sign of Western decadence or influence. Together, with the hope for change, the uprisings have created much uncertainty for LBGTI persons and for LGBTI refugees in particular. An important example is Syria, where many Iraqis and Iranians have fled. Now, they are in a very vulnerable condition in a country that could become as dangerous for them as those they fled.
During the webinar, you talked about ORAM’s work to resettle LGBTI refugees. What challenges and opportunities do LGBTI refugees face during resettlement?
NG: For LGBTI refugees, the most important element is English. They don’t have family to rely on, or people who speak their language that they can rely on. Ability to communicate is key to their survival.
A resettlement community must be LGBTI friendly. We cannot resettle LGBTI persons to places in the U.S. where they’ll live in discomfort or fear. We have chosen the San Francisco Bay Area for our pilot resettlement program because it’s one of the most LGBTI-welcoming places in the country.
In some cases, a refugee’s partner must be included in resettlement. Some refugees have left everything behind along with their partner. They receive refugee status only to learn that the international system does not recognize them as a family unit entitled to joint resettlement. We cannot allow this to happen.
We must also take into account whether the refugee has family in a resettlement community. For some LGBTI refugees, family can provide a positive support system. But most LGBTI refugees actually request to be resettled where they have no blood ties, because they are also fleeing mistreatment by their family.
Finally, we need to make sure the refugee will have access to basic services like health care. Many LGBTI refugees have side effects from being mentally and physically abused, especially as survivors of child sexual abuse, and this can result in health problems. It’s important to make sure the resettlement site has a strong LGBTI community with people who will be engaged in the refugee’s healing process. Some of these refugees have not come to terms with their identity or what they have survived. They need a community that can accept them and partner with them to rebuild their lives. We need supportive professional communities, a site where a refugee can find employment, a safe home and a community where they can find specialized support sensitive to their history.
How can Out & Equal members get involved with ORAM’s work?
NG: There are four things you can do to support ORAM and improve the lives of LGBTI refugees:
1. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can directly participate in our resettlement program by helping us form a Guardian Group to integrate an individual LGBTI refugee. [link to http://www.oraminternational.org/images/stories/PDFs/oram-sf-refugee-resettlement-overview.pdf%5D
2. You can volunteer with ORAM. We are always looking for professionals to help us out. Some of the skills needed are law, translation, finance, accounting, communications, computer programming and marketing.
3. You can give to ORAM as part of our Protect-A-Refugee program, which pairs you up with an individual LGBTI refugee awaiting resettlement.
4. You can donate to grow ORAM as an organization and support all our work, or you can provide an in-kind gift of goods that LGBTI refugees need to start a new life.