Between trauma experienced in repressive home states and trust issues in the relocation process, escaping discrimination is harder than you'd think.
Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz
For refugees and asylum seekers, trauma experienced in one's past can make the resettlement process a lonely endeavor. With same-sex relations still a crime in 72 countries, and socially unacceptable in many more, this process can be especially strenuous for LGBTQ refugees, whose histories of trauma may include torture, discrimination, imprisonment, and threats of death.
"Histories of trauma really impact the present—that's especially true for a population that has endured a lot of trauma in their home country," said Léa Tiénou-Gustafson, director of the refugee resettlement program at Heartland Alliance, a Chicago-area nonprofit organization providing a "spectrum of services" to incoming refugees and asylees. Those services include legal and clinical assistance to those relocating to the US, and run the gamut from airport reception to cultural orientation.
In 2016, Heartland handled about 400 resettlement cases, and it expects to handle about 300 in 2017. But for the LGBTQ refugees among them, discrimination faced in their past make it much harder to make that transition a smooth one, and often leaves them uniquely burdened by issues of trust.
"Generally, we want to resettle [refugees] with people from same region. But that's difficult with LGBTQ refugees," Tiénou explained. "For example, [gay] Iraqis don't want to live with other Iraqis because issues come up from the past. It's a challenge for them to be around people from similar communities who are still treating them with discrimination or stigma, even when they are trying to help. They came here to get away from that."
But from the moment that an LGBTQ individual officially begins their claim, they expose themselves to the invasive questions, prejudices, and particular culture or faith-based sensibilities of a battery of institutional workers and decision-makers. This is true whether they are seeking resettlement through the UN's official refugee agency, UNHCR (which has offices in 130 countries), or as a foreign national already on US soil, seeking asylum through the USCIS. Every encounter presents the risk of re-traumatization.
B.S. is a 32-year-old gay Iraqi refugee currently living in Chicago who was given relocation assistance through Heartland; he's requested anonymity because of discrimination he could face from family members and others. He recalled his first interview with a UNHCR officer in Lebanon, where he lived for almost three years after fleeing his home in northern Iraq. The officer was Arab, and he wasn't sure he could trust her. He projected his past experiences dealing with the attitudes of female friends and neighbors onto her, and worried that she would judge him for being gay and ridicule him, he said.
Ultimately, he confided his fears to the officer, who, he says, was understanding. As sexual-orientation-based claims have risen in recent years, the UNHCR has prioritized sensitivity training and disseminating best practices on how to engage with LGBTQ refuge seekers. She explained that whatever he told her was confidential and that, based on the information he shared, "we're going to make a meeting to make a decision for your life."
That was three years and seven months ago. After multiple interviews (which he says required him to recall his traumatic backstory 11 or 12 times), and an extensive security screening process, he was informed that his claim was approved, and that he'd be resettled in the US. He arrived in Chicago on August 1, 2016—two years and four months after his first UNHCR interview. These are dates he remembers with precision, both due to the meticulousness it requires of one to be successfully vetted for resettlement and the heavy weight of time passing for a person in exile.
Once in Chicago, B.S. worked quickly to become self-sufficient. For the first month, he survived on a $200 cash gift from Heartland, and whatever his boyfriend back in Lebanon could send. For his second month, he received cash welfare benefits of $250 cash and $190 in food stamps. Then he got a job.
B.S. visited the Heartland offices every day over those first two months to take English classes and learn about life in America. But he rarely finds cause to visit now, except for a recent trip to inquire about getting a green card. His goal now is to get his green card so that he'll be allowed to leave the country and visit his boyfriend back in Lebanon. That's what motivates him.
Heartland offers trauma counseling services as part of its International Family, Adult, and Child Enhancement Services (FACES) program, but B.S. said he isn't interested.
"It's what happened in my life," he said. "I can't change anything."
That's a fairly typical attitude for LGBTQ refugees, said Amy Dix, who supervises clinical operations for FACES. "Right now, there are few seeking services in this program," she noted. "There's a lot of trust issues."
Dix said that it's the loneliness that's hardest for LGBTQ refugees like B.S. In a country where everything is unfamiliar, Dix said, they rarely feel a sense of belonging.
"Often LGBTQ refugees feel targeted [back home], so they leave their families behind," she said. "That's just the reality." Factor in the alienation they often feel from people who share the same culture, language, ethnicity, or country of origin because of anti-gay stigma, and the reality seems even more brutal. "We encourage people to make connections with other LGBTQ people who are Americans, not necessary refugees or asylees, but the language can be a barrier," Dix added.
But at the same time, LGBTQ refugees are a group characterized by great resilience.
"They've pushed through so many barriers to get there, and it's easy to see them as helpless, but they have a lot of strength," said Dix.
Currently, B.S. lives alone in a one bedroom apartment in Chicago's Roger's Park neighborhood. He has three friends: Two are fellow gay Iraqi refugees, and the third is an American. ("I don't need more than that," he said. "I think more people bring you more problems.") He told me that he's excited about his prospects at work—he's employed at a hotel—and describes his life as a continuing cycle of "work, gym, home."
Sometimes, he said, he wakes up in the middle of the night not knowing where he is. It takes a few minutes to recall that he's in Chicago now, far away from those who love him.
"In the morning, same thing when I wake up," he said. "Sometimes, I go to work so tired. When I come home, I have to go to grocery store, I have to go to shopping, cook food for next day. And I say, 'I can't anymore do it. I need someone to help me.'" And I just say, 'It's OK. I'm doing all of this to see my boyfriend again.'"
Shahirah Majumdar is a writer living in Chicago.