As hundreds of thousands of migrants flee the Middle East and make their way through Europe, a San Francisco organization is focusing on aiding LGBT people escaping persecution.
In the past three years, the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration has trained 1,200 professionals who deal with refugees and also provides legal assistance to refugees and asylum applicants across the world.
ORAM’s unique focus on LGBT refugees brought the organization back to San Francisco this summer following a brief move to Geneva, Switzerland.
“We found that there’s a dearth of knowledge in the field, both on behalf of refugee professionals who don’t know how to help the refugees, and on the part of refugees who don’t know what to do,” says ORAM’s founder and executive director, Neil Grungras.
One of the leaders of ORAM’s new San Francisco office is a gay Syrian refugee, Subhi Nahas, who runs the organization’s information systems and is the liaison to Arabic-speaking communities.
From Escaping ISIS to Addressing the United Nations
Nahas says the moment he knew he had to flee his native Syria was not when the al-Nusra Front (Syria’s al-Qaeda branch) moved into his hometown, but rather after an event closer to home: A fight with his father resulted in a beating that left Nahas hospitalized.
“I just said, ‘The militia did not harm me yet, so my father will do so maybe next and soon,’ ” remembers Nahas. “So I just had to escape and I had to just take my life back again.”
He escaped first to Lebanon and then to Turkey, where he made contact with ORAM and lived for two years while he waited for a decision on his refugee status. Just as he was awaiting news on his final resettlement, Nahas was targeted by a new threat: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Men that Nahas knew in Syria had joined ISIS and threatened to track him down in Turkey.
Nahas’ daunting journey to the United States earned him an invitation to speak at the United Nations Security Council’s first-ever meeting on LGBT rights on Aug. 24.
“It was really nerve-wracking, because this is the first really public speech that I experienced,” says Nahas. “Telling people at the U.N. and the ambassadors about Syria and asking them to help, it was really empowering.”
Nahas says there are hundreds of LGBT refugees who have escaped Syria but still need help leaving Turkey, a country he says has become increasingly unfriendly to gay refugees.
New Tools for LGBT Refugees
With ORAM, Nahas is aiding in the rollout of new tools specifically tailored to LGBT refugees and the workers who help them make the move.
That includes what ORAM executive director Grungras says is the first-ever five-language LGBT glossary of terms for refugee professionals. His hope is that the glossary helps refugee professionals and aid workers better identify and communicate with members of the LGBT community.
“So when refugee professionals interview someone who is gay, they don’t call him a male prostitute instead of calling him a gay person, which is very, very common,” Grungras says. “A lot of refugee professionals only know insulting terms for LGBT people around the world.”
ORAM hopes to capitalize on its return to the region by getting Bay Area residents involved in assisting newly arrived refugees. The organization places refugees into “guardian groups” made up of volunteers who can help with housing and employment connections.
The hope is that, like Nahas, refugees will quickly settle into their new home.
“It’s a completely different environment from where I came,” Nahas says. “And it’s a very welcome difference.”