Community members and providers gather to address LGBTQ refugee needs in Central VA
Folks like Beni Dedieu Luzau have seen some terrible atrocities committed against the LGBTQ community. In his home country of Democratic Republic of Congo, Luzau was a journalist, activist and professor, and his concern with and work around the local LGBTQ community forced him to leave his home country for safety concerns. It took some time, but he finally landed in America as a refugee, a humanitarian status granted to people fleeing persecution.
And his arrival in the US hasn’t slowed his pursuit of justice, and that passion was brought before a diverse crowd of Richmond activists and community workers this week with the hopes of making things easier for some of the world’s most stigmatized individuals.
He’s since helped with a group called Refugee Congress, a program established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2011 to bring a voice to refugees as they come here in the US and give them a chance to speak for themselves.
“How can we bring the LGBT discriminated against overseas here, and connect them to LGBT resources here in the US,” said Luzau about the purpose of the event held Tuesday at Diversity Richmond. “[We have] to try and connect the two communities – refugee organizations and the LGBT community. They have to work in partnership for the sake of integrating LGBT refugees.”
As you can imagine, no part of this process is easy. The bureaucracy is in the details.
A refugee is forced to flee their home county and seek a safe place escaping persecution in their home land. Once in the foreign country they can register as a refugee, and if they are lucky, they’ll become one of the 1% of the 20 million displaced thats actually invited to permanently resettle in a third country such at the US.
They can seek refugee status for a number of reasons like race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. LGBTQ usually falls under political belief or social group membership.
When a refugee enters the US, government services like housing, food and income assistance become available as well as the assistance of refugee resettlement agency.
Another group of people, those who are already in the US through other pathways but still seek the protection of the staying the US do to likelihood of persecution in their home country, are called asylum seekers. They are not eligible for any government or refugee resettlement services until their application is approved.
“The government has arranged for refugees resettled to have good conditions,” said Luzau. ”But asylum seekers have a lot of challenges… Someone from Africa, they have nothing in their pocket, and they have issues with [their] papers. And immigration will take 2-3 years and you don’t know where you’re going to sleep until then.”
Luzau said those basic needs can impact how they manage the rest of their lives - ”When you’ve got lots of papers to bring to them – immigration, HIV health services, whatever – they will put that aside cause their stomachs are empty, their head is full of stress and they are tired. But food, sleep, those are the capital needs. When you fill those needs, then they can work and listen cause their minds are set. Without those basic needs, it is very difficult.”
The hope from Tuesday’s meeting was to develop networks locally to help alleviate some of those needs as they arise here in Central VA.
Harriet Kuhr is the Executive Director of the the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Charlottesville. Her group helps to support refugees after they arrive in the US.
She said the US took in about 70,000 refugees last year, and as on track to admit another 85,000 this year, and about 100,000 the following year. Here in Virginia, the state took in about 2,500 refugees in 2015.
IRC works with a wide range of refugees from all over the world, and while Kuhr said their work goes mostly under the radar, international crises in places like Syria over the last year have spurred unwanted media attention.
“It’s been an interesting time for us,” she said. “We were a feature story… now we’ve found ourselves as breaking news.”
Despite the blowback from politicians and the public with concerns around refugee entering the states, Kuhr and friends continue to provide services best they can, and that means working with local community groups to help them find housing, work, and other basic needs.
Part of that acclimation process usually involves settling refugees in neighborhoods along with their cultural heritage.
“If we’re working with Iraqis, we’d put refugees near families also from Iraq so they could have a community,” she said. “If it’s a single person, we’d find an apartment where we’d have a few other single guys and that would be their housing.”
But when it comes to LGBTQ refugees, things can get complicated if their home country is not accepting, and it only gets more complicated because asking about sexual orientation is not part of the normal refugee process and requires the individual to volunteer that information on their own.
“[If they’re LGBTQ] that maybe isn’t going to work and we have to find special housing arrangements… a lot of times we don’t know,” Kuhr said. “Sometimes they identify to us after a while… it’s an area where we are looking to connect people to LGBT resources in the community more quickly then we normally would.”
Self identification can be rare, and Kuhr believes those who do self identify during the process are more likely to end up in resettlement programs that already have resources available within the community. This might reduce the number of known LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers here in the area, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t present.
The conversation around LGBTQ refugees didn’t really pop into the refugee system until a few years ago when the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) wanted to “increase capacity” around LGBTQ issues. The program, known as the Rainbow Welcome initiative, stared in 2012 after a memorandum was sent down by the Obama administration.
“The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights,” said Obama in a release back in late 2011. “I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world whether it is passing laws that criminalize LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT pride celebrations, or killing men, women, and children for their perceived sexual orientation.”
From there, in addition to working to advance LGBTQ rights around they world, federal agencies like the ORR began offering training services and information specifically dealing with LGBTQ refugees. Now, annual conferences often include information and training around LGBTQ awareness and preparation.
While she hasn’t seen many refugees with LGBTQ related concerns here in Central VA, she believes, when the government agencies get that kind of information, they might get send an individual to cities with more resources around sexual minorities and immigration – Miami, San Diego, Oakland. “They send them to an office that has those connections, where there is well established partner organizations in the community,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean someone won’t come to us after they’re here.”
And these programs and training are still only available to those who have reached refugee status, leaving a hole for asylees to fall though.
And that’s where Tuesday’s meeting hopes to come in handy. While most of the time was spent better understanding the problem at hand, the event ended with the promise of future discussions, and developing an online network for communication between groups as needed.
“I was very please with the turn out and the interest from the community, and not only from LGBT groups, but the community as a whole. It’s a great first step,” said Bill Harrison, Executive Director and President of Diversity Richmond. He called the struggle for immigrant rights a new challenge for Diversity, but he was excited to put the group at the forefront. “It’s something that we at Diversity Richmond haven’t had any experience in for the most part, but its critical that we provide this service.”
GayRVA will continue to follow this story, and if you know and LGBTQ refugee or asylee seeking assistance, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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