"At the airport, refugees have to wear their paperwork around their neck. There’s a contraption they have to wear that holds it all."
It’s a casual but telling aside, offered by a member of a "very, very informal" group loosely organized to take in and unofficially sponsor newly arrived LGBT refugees. His household is currently hosting Igor Chudak, a 22-year-old Russian refugee.
Their brand of help is desperately needed right now. Nearly 70,000 refugees were admitted to the United States in 2013, the most recent year for which records are available. If their origins are any indication, their needs must be incredibly diverse.
Amy Weiss is Director of Refugee and Immigration Services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, one of 15 affiliates of HIAS, the oldest refugee resettlement agency in the United States. Most of the legal and social services they offer are funded by the government for just 90 days. For certain groups of the most vulnerable refugees, services are paid for up to a year. Beyond that, her organization relies on grant and donor money to continue services.
The group’s Facebook page shares the stories of some of their clients. The most recent is a barber from Mosul, who was captured and shot in the jaw, shoulder and torso, "because he served the enemies of ISIS."
One Wednesday afternoon, Weiss tells me about two of her most memorable clients.
The first is a mother of three from Afghanistan. Her family was given special immigration visas because her husband had worked for the United States as a translator. Three days before they were due to depart for the US, he was killed by a suicide bomber. Her contact in America was a friend of her father-in-law, who had promised her husband’s father that he would help. An older man with a special needs child of his own, he lacked the means to help a woman with three children, no other family, no other friends and no means of supporting herself start a new life.
The second is a boy that she, as a representative of JFCS, picked up at the airport. "He was the same age as my daughter," she recalls. The two became close. "He asked me if I would be his mama, because his own mother sent him to his death, basically, when she found out he was gay. And this is not uncommon, actually, for gay men in Africa."
"Very, very few LGBT refugees have US ties." And, Weiss adds later, "Most of them have had trauma."
The nature of that trauma can further complicate the already difficult process of resettlement. "Most refugees navigate toward family or other nationals," Igor’s housemate observed. "LGBT ones tend to venture away."
He offers, as an example, a man from Iraq. Back home, he had been tortured. His lover had been murdered by his family in an honor killing. "He wanted nothing to do with Iraqis."
In these so-called "free cases" with no real US ties, housing is usually the most difficult challenge faced by organizations like JFCS. "We would ideally like to have a building for transitional housing," Weiss explains, "but we don’t really have the money for that right now." Instead, they rely on locals who are willing to offer spare rooms, apartments and in-law units.
A few days after talking to his unofficial sponsor, I sat down with Igor. He arrived as what Weiss would call a free case, but thanks to his hosts and other friends, has a place to live and social support system.
"I lived in Russia my whole life," he tells me. "And I felt like my life was in danger. I pretty much escaped from there."
Two years ago, a pair of men confronted Igor at a party about his sexuality. A month later, they found him leaving a gay bar. "They recognized me, they started calling me names again, and they beat me up." Igor wound up in the hospital, where he stayed for weeks.
I ask if he could have reported the incident to police. His tone borders on alarm: "That’s Russia and the Russian police."
"It happened in front of the gay club. I would have to tell them where it happened and why it happened."
Two years after the assault, Igor says that he stands at "almost five-nine" and weighs 133 lbs. I question these numbers and a self-conscious smile slides across his face. He looks smaller. Either way, he makes a very easy mark in Russia’s current atmosphere.
For Igor, the attack was the last straw. He visited a friend in Iowa, found it far more tolerant than Moscow, then made his way to San Francisco — one of two places he had been told that he could seek asylum in the US.
The incident was, after all, not his first exposure to anti-gay violence.
He recounts, for example, a teargas attack on a local gay bar, which he and others blame on its landlord. He wasn’t there that night, but his friend, who has also sought asylum in the US, was performing at the time. Prior to that, he explains, "They cut the water, they put a big sign on the outside saying, ‘This is a gay club,’ with an arrow on it, they put a bunch of guys with bats in front of the club…" Later, I discover that just nights before the gas attack, people had even opened fire on the entrance.
Gay meeting places aren’t popular tenants in Russia, and all of this was, evidently, easier for the landlords than a legal eviction. "You’re not supposed to kick out people," he notes, "because they have a contract."
Anti-gay harassment and violence, on the other hand, are generally ignored. A lesbian bar in Moscow suffered a somewhat similar fate as recently as last week.
It’s unusual that a refugee or asylum seeker will open up about his or her experience this publicly. Most still fear for family back home, if not for themselves. I explain to Igor, who strikes me as otherwise quite shy, how difficult it is to get refugees to speak on record. He scoots up in his chair and, with an air of mock machismo beams, "So I’m the brave one?"
He is that. He’s also quite smart. Igor arrived already speaking English, which he taught himself in preparation for the trip. He listened to some audio lessons, but says that he mostly learned, "By watching my favorite TV shows. Friends, to be exact. That’s my biggest helper."
His English, in case you were wondering, is impeccable. Oddly enough, a few days later, I would learn in casual conversation that another Russian ex-patriot had also taught herself a good deal of English by watching the same sitcom. Friends. Who knew?
Igor seems confident about his legal status, which is currently "pending asylum," but Weiss tells me that asylum seekers like him are in a far more vulnerable position than those who have already attained refugee status. People who arrive as refugees are already on a path to citizenship.
The process is also expensive for a boy living on a waiter’s pay. A GoFundMe campaign was started this month to help him cover his legal bills. It has exceeded its goal, but, his host groans, "There are new ones every month." Any money above the amount due will have to be put toward the next.
Though Igor hopes to return to school and eventually become a teacher, those plans are on hold. The cost and uncertainty surrounding his legal status are, at the moment, prohibitive.
Most people hoping to arrive in the US as refugees are put through an entirely different process that is itself no less than harrowing. Before they can get asylum in the US, they must seek refuge in another nation, which refers them to an office of the UN High Commissioner. If they are determined to meet eligibility criteria and the US is deemed a good fit, the refugee’s documented history, fingerprints and even eye scans are scrutinized by the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center and other law enforcement agencies. In all, 18-24 months pass before the average refugee is cleared for travel to the United States.
Those who make the cut are very fortunate. According to the US State Department, "Less than one percent of refugees worldwide are ever resettled in a third country."
Weiss explained that refugee experiences during the vetting process vary greatly. Some live in apartments in urban areas and are even able to work legally. Others are in large camps, where conditions are often troubling. She did note one common denominator, however: "If they’re families, the children are not going to school, most likely," throughout the ordeal.
Igor’s host tells me the story of a man from Uganda who contacted his group, hoping to make it to the US. Like many, he sought asylum in Kenya, where he found himself in a refugee camp–an environment that can be especially hostile to LGBT people. In the end, the group lost track of him.
It would be dishonest not to note that this long and tortuous process is still imperfect. Two refugees living in the United States were arrested on terror-related charges shortly after my conversation with Weiss. One of them was living in Sacramento, where Weiss had mentioned many refugees move to avoid the Bay Area’s high costs.
Still, it seems more effective in terms of public safety than processes in some other western nations. Those men were arrested before they could plan an attack. And refugees bound for the United States are already offered a cultural orientation program similar to those that have been called for in the wake of Cologne’s New Year’s assaults.
That distinction highlights a more general observation that Weiss offers about Europe and the US. While Europe tends to offer refugees and immigrants in general much better financial support, she believes that the US allows for greater assimilation. "In France," she noted, "if you come from Morocco, you’re Moroccan. In the United States, you can become an American."
But, she adds, unlike Moroccan immigrants in France, refugees have been forced to flee their homes. "All refugees want to come home someday. They don’t want to come to the United States… Some, like the LGBT refugees, know they’re never going home."
When I run that quote by Igor, he scoffs. He describes a return to Russia as a nightmare scenario, defined by fear and dominated by a constant, necessary paranoia of being perceived as gay. "It will take maybe a hundred years," he says, "For Russia to be maybe a little bit safer."
In the US, Igor sings in a gay men’s choir. "My whole life has changed, here," he tells me. "I can be free. I can be whatever I want."
Weiss tells me that most refugees she’s worked with have seen their own versions of success. The mother from Afghanistan that her organization helped was eventually able to connect with family in Ohio. She’s moved there and seems to be doing well. She’s still adjusting, though, Weiss says: "She’s never lived in the snow."
"Most [refugees] are very resilient and make it," she explains, with just a hint of pride in her voice. "It’s kind of remarkable how well these people do."
"And," she is quick to add, "They all want to give back."
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