Leading up to our NYC event, we’ve been lucky to interview key people from some of the NY LGBT organizations joining us. Katie Sgarro, AsylumConnect Co-Founder and Co-director, is today’s feature. Inspired by her close friend and co-founder’s story, they joined together to create this AsylumConnect to help provide LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. with the necessary resources to survive.
What is the mission of AsylumConnect?
AsylumConnect is a volunteer initiative that will seek to provide LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. with lifesaving online informational resources. We are creating the first website and mobile app to feature an online, centralized database of service providers useful to LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. We are currently piloting the AsylumConnect catalog model in Seattle, Washington.
What inspired you to start AsylumConnect?
When my friend at the University of Pennsylvania, Sayid Abdullaev, told me about his personal experiences as an LGBTQ asylum seeker in the U.S., I was finally moved to action. Sayid was forced to flee his home country as a teenager because of fear of persecution based on his sexual orientation. He left everything behind – his family, friends, and home – in order to seek asylum in the U.S. As a member of the LGBTQ community, I became profoundly aware that I had failed to speak out for more than a decade in a country where I at least had that choice. In July of 2014, Sayid and I co-founded AsylumConnect.
How has the climate around LGBTQ issues changed since gay marriage was legalized in the US?
I think this is a really important question. I actually wrote an article on this very topic for my Huffington Post blog (which I will draw from here):
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage for all 50 states, I think that on one hand it is tempting for the American public to now take demonstrations of pride for granted. But the reality is that many LGBTQ people are still denied their fundamental rights, including the right to marry. According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), over 2.7 billion people live in countries where being gay can lead to prison or death – 7 times as many as live in countries with same-sex marriage. The fight for LGBTQ equality has made drastic improvements but it is far from over.
For me, AsylumConnect acts as a sobering reminder of the work that still needs to be done in the LGBTQ rights movement. As LGBTQ rights progress in our own country, it is crucial to not turn our backs on the marginalized members of the LGBTQ community who continue to need our help, including LGBTQ people living in other countries. Rather, it is my hope that we can utilize every inch of progression to continue to further equality both in our own country and abroad. It is important to note that while achieving marriage equality in the U.S. is a momentous step in the right direction for LGBTQ rights, it is not the destination.
Can you paint a picture of what it’s like to be a LGBTQ asylum seeker coming to the US? What are the unique challenges they face? How do you all help them overcome those challenges?
It is still illegal to be gay in 77 countries. LGBTQ people in these countries are imprisoned and subjected to persecution through “corrective” action, including rape by government officials, public humiliation and in some cases even the death penalty. As a result, the persecuted often flee and seek refuge in the U.S.
But the approximately 300,000 LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. continue to represent a severely marginalized and vulnerable population. If they arrive with no passport, false passport or expired documents, they may be detained at the point of entry, and subjected to abuse in detention centers. If not detained, many still have nowhere to go, no social support, and end up homeless. Asylum seekers cannot legally work in the U.S. nor are they ever entitled to a free government attorney. (It typically takes at least one-year for asylum seekers to obtain a work permit.) A leading refugee serving agency, The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, reports that 44 percent of LGBTQ refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How AsylumConnect Strives to Help:
Through conducting a comprehensive needs assessment, Sayid and I discovered that despite access to technology during the asylum seeking process, LGBTQ asylum seekers still lack adequate information to meet their basic human needs in the U.S. The asylum seekers we spoke with consistently identified their main need to be a user-friendly, centralized database of resources. AsylumConnect works to bridge this gap by providing a one-stop online location designed to enable LGBTQ asylum seekers to easily connect with lifesaving resources in their specific city. The goal of the AsylumConnect catalog is to help persecuted LGBTQ people find basic human needs resources upon their arrival in the U.S.
If you’re open to it, can you share a powerful moment or story of someone who has been helped by AsylumConnect?
As we are quite a young initiative (and we are currently in the process of piloting our catalog), I think one of the most important things that AsylumConnect has done so far is to raise much-needed awareness for global LGBTQ equality and the numerous challenges LGBTQ asylum seekers continue to face in the U.S.
We have received very positive feedback so far from LGBTQ asylum seekers and asylees. This feedback is always powerful and motivating for us. For instance, “Tom” (a 31-year-old LGBTQ asylum seeker from Jamaica) said the following about the AsylumConnect catalog: “Thank you so much; I was trying to gather information such as yours but this is the most comprehensive I have ever read.”
Imagine what a more comprehensive catalog could do. We believe in our catalog’s potential to transform how LGBTQ asylum seekers connect with basic human needs service providers in the U.S.
What are the biggest roadblocks facing LGBTQ organizations like yours?
I think the biggest roadblocks remain a severe lack of funding and a pervasive lack of awareness. As other organizations devoted to our cause have stated in the past: there are too few people doing the work in our sector as well as not nearly enough resources going to this cause.
Even though there are services for asylees (those who have already received asylum), such as legal assistance and support groups, there remains a lack of resources for people in the process of seeking asylum. Currently, only 3 percent of funding for LGBTQ immigrants and asylum seekers is used for direct services. For decades, organizations aiding LGBTQ asylum seekers have failed to capture the attention of the media and the foundation world. (By law, government funding is sometimes restricted and cannot be dedicated to our cause.) As a result, many existing organizations are severely crippled by lack of public sector funding and lack of awareness.
AsylumConnect hopes to not only build a lifesaving resource for LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. but also to help this cause attract the money and attention it deserves.
How has the LGBTQ community in NY impacted you? How would you like to impact it?
The LGBTQ community in New York has been integral to the development of AsylumConnect. We have attended several LGBTQ-related forums in the New York City area. We also count NYC-based organizations among our most significant partners. For example, we have gained valuable insight from Immigration Equality (the biggest LGBTQ organization with a staff of immigration attorneys in the U.S.). Additionally, we plan to work closely with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s United Nations Office (UU-UNO) in the future.
We hope to impact this community by scaling the AsylumConnect catalog to New York City (after we finish piloting our model in Seattle).
What have you learned through starting AsylumConnect?
What I have uncovered during my research for AsylumConnect – what I have heard from existing organizations and LGBTQ asylum seekers – has deeply affected me. It has altered my worldview and rearranged my priorities. Being gay isn’t a choice or a sickness; it is not a punishable offense. Being gay is something you simply are. For the first time in my life, I’m going to be unapologetically me and I’m going to finally fight for others’ basic human right to do the same.
Why are you excited about this event?
We think of AsylumConnect as a social justice tech startup. Technology plays an absolutely crucial role in our initiative. I am really excited about the LGBT Accelerate event because it provides the unique opportunity for AsylumConnect to collaborate directly with experienced tech professionals. Specifically, I am excited to learn more about how to optimally grow our web presence. One of our biggest challenges is getting the word out about the AsylumConnect catalog to both beneficiaries and relevant service providers. I think that this is hopefully something Google and Automattic can help us with at the LGBT Accelerate event.
*Our second website devoted exclusively to the AsylumConnect catalog is now live. This website will serve as the temporary home for our catalog as we work to redesign the AsylumConnect catalog template and add exciting new features (such as translation capacity, a search function, corresponding mobile app, etc.). We are planning the re-launch (AsylumConnect catalog 2.0) for this January.