I wrote this article for the More Light Presbyterians blog after interviewing Max Niedzwieci and Siobhán McGuirk, co-founders of the LGBT Faith and Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN), and Dennis Ojiyoma, an asylum-seeker from Nigeria.
Seeking Safety in the United States
Tony Hebblethwaite, More Light Presbyterians, Jan. 29, 2014
At least 4,000 people seek asylum in the United States each year because of persecution against LGBTQ people in their home countries says Max Niedzwiecki, coordinator of the LGBT Faith and Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN). LGBT-FAN is a national network dedicated to helping people who are seeking safety in the U.S. because of persecution of their sexual orientation or gender identity in their home countries. Around the world, LGBTQ people face abuse, arbitrary arrest, extortion, violence, severe discrimination and lack of official protection. It is illegal to be LGBTQ in 80 countries and the death penalty is imposed in seven. Recently, India reinstated a 153-year-old law criminalizing homosexuality, Nigeria’s president signed one of the harshest anti-gay laws in the world and Russia passed an anti-propaganda bill.
When LGBTQ asylum-seekers arrive in the United States, there are very few resources available for their survival during the first six months before they can legally work. “For at least six months after they have made their asylum application,” says Niedzwiecki, “asylum-seekers are not legally allowed to work or make use of most social service programs supported by government money.” Unless they arrive in the United States with sufficient resources to live for at least six months, asylum-seekers can be forced into homelessness while their claim is processed. “Some have to live on the streets or do things they would rather not do to survive. Some end up in immigrant detention facilities and are subject to a lot of abuse.”
LGBT-FAN seeks to bridge this gap by assisting local groups reaching out to asylum-seekers in their first six months and by setting up a fund to make grants to these groups to meet basic needs (rent, food, clothing, medical expenses, etc.). LGBT-FAN is the only network of its kind seeking to address the needs of LGBTQ asylum-seekers from a holistic perspective and to bring together a wide diversity of organizations to work on their behalf. The network also seeks to educate LGBTQ and faith communities often unaware of the tremendous needs of asylum-seekers.
Dennis Ojiyoma is an asylum-seeker from Nigeria living in Chicago. “One of the greatest challenges I had was finding housing because I did not know anybody in the United States and finding a place to stay was very difficult. For the first five or six months, I was not eligible to work or do anything until I was verified for asylum. Asylum-seekers become very vulnerable. Most of us feel very depressed because we are moving from one problem to another. Many people come without any guidance and are not even aware that you only have one year to apply for asylum. They don’t know where to go to get themselves established. Language barriers can add to the challenge for some.”
“Most immigrants to this country come with their family,” adds Niedzwiecki, “but LGBT asylum-seekers normally come alone. Often they don’t have communities from their home countries to support them as much and you find prejudice in communities in the United States just as you find that prejudice overseas. Community support is a big problem for a lot of people.”
“In many cases, asylum-seekers had to give up everything,” says Siobhán McGuirk, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at American University and co-founder of LGBT-FAN. “Not just material goods, but their social status, family ties and friendship networks. When they arrive in the United States, they have to get themselves through an incredibly difficult system.”
Differences in the cultural understanding of what it means to be LGBTQ also present challenges for asylum-seekers. “Judges considering asylum applications may have certain expectations about what activities make you LGBT, “ says McGuirk. “Having children for a woman and being a mother would not necessarily fit with a judge’s idea of what a lesbian looks like in an asylum case.”
To assist communities and individuals interested in helping LGBTQ asylum-seekers, LGBT-FAN published “Stronger Together: A Guide to Supporting LGBT Asylum Seekers.”Stronger_Together_FINAL
Additional resources are available on their website.
How Can You Help
There are many ways that More Light churches and individuals can assist LGBT-FAN. The network provides an opportunity to be part of a larger community. You can participate in monthly phone calls with LGBT-FAN and learn about the work going on to assist asylum-seekers in the United States. If you decide to take the next step to assist asylum-seekers, LGBT-FAN has excellent resources on their website. Also, they will connect you with local work already going on in your area and with mentors to answer any questions you have.
Taking even a small action could make a huge difference in someone’s life. Here’s what you can do right now:
- Learn more by going to www.lgbt-fan.org.
- Sign the LGBT-FAN petition which calls on government leaders to acknowledge the basic human rights of LGBTQ and other asylum-seekers: www.lgbt-fan.org/petition.
- Donate any amount to the newly launched LGBT-FAN Fund, which is dedicated to supporting LGBTQ asylum-seekers basic living expenses such as rent and food: www.lgbt-fan.org/donate.