By Matthew S. Bajko
A little known agency founded two years ago in San Francisco is helping to shine a spotlight on the plight of LGBT refugees around the globe who are fleeing persecution in their home countries.
The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, called ORAM for short, is the brainchild of Neil Grungras, an openly gay lawyer who specializes in immigration and refuge law whose career has included stints with the State Department and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Since founding ORAM in 2008, Grungras has devoted himself full time to growing the nonprofit. He oversees its program in Turkey for LGBT Iranians seeking to immigrate to Western countries and lobbies United Nations officials in Geneva about the needs of LGBT asylum seekers and refugees from around the globe.
"No one had touched on the issues of LGBT refugees, period, from a legal perspective. No one had confronted the reason why the international system does not protect LGBT refugees," said Grungras when asked why he started ORAM in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter .
Unlike more established groups that advocate on behalf of LGBT people within their home countries, such at Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, ORAM is focused on what happens once an LGBT person crosses the border to a foreign country.
"People constantly ask us to comment about the situation of gays in various countries but that is not what we do. We help people who have actually left the places where they have been persecuted and help them get refugee status and some legal protection and get settled in a new country," said Grungras. "We don't make it our business to focus on persecution in the country of origin. We are a humanitarian organization who helps people who have left their country. Of course we know what is going on, but our mission is to help our brothers and sisters reach safety."
What ORAM does not do is help LGBT people escape their home country or cross borders illegally, stressed Grungras.
"We decided that the best way to spend our resources is to give people legal representation so they can get out of there and get somewhere safe and rebuild their lives," said Grungras.
A five-person board, whose president is business consultant Jon Huggett, oversees the agency. Huggett, a gay man who was president of the Stop AIDS Project's board in the 1990s, was the first CEO of PlanetOut when the online LGBT media company launched in 1995.
Born in the United Kingdom, Huggett first met Grungras 20 years ago and then hired him to be his immigration lawyer when he applied for U.S. citizenship 14 years ago. Over the years the two would discuss the need for an agency like ORAM.
As more LGBT people come out in countries with homophobic policies, and anti-gay forces react violently to oppress them, immigration and asylum issues will be more pronounced, said Huggett.
"We think, sadly, we have a growing role to play. We are the only organization focusing on this worldwide," said Huggett. "The bigger organizations are doing good work but they need help understanding the issues our people face."
So far one of ORAM's biggest challenges has been finding funding in a severe global recession, said Huggett. The board has set a goal of raising $2 million but could easily use $10 million due to the unmet needs of LGBT asylum seekers and refugees.
"It is sad to say but the issue will get a lot worse before it gets better. We will be dealing with this long after we get marriage in the western world," said Huggett. "Our biggest challenge is getting the word out there and building the organization."
During its first year ORAM operated with a budget of just $196,000, mostly from an anonymous donor. As executive director, Grungras said he was paid $15,000.
This year ORAM has a budget of $650,000. As of June it had a caseload of 35 active clients, five of whom are now living in the United States. Two are in Texas, two in Arizona, and one is living in Florida.
It has three lawyers, including Grungras, working full-time on cases, and a handful of other staffers helping to process and coordinate its caseload.
This summer ORAM opened an office in downtown San Francisco and received $150,000 from the Arcus Foundation to survey numerous non-governmental organizations about their attitudes toward LGBT refugees and what services they offer such clients.
The agency has also launched an "Adopt-a-Refugee" program where it matches donors with one of its clients. Participants must donate $500 in order to be matched with a refugee, and ORAM will provide updates on the person's immigration case.
The money donated is transferred directly to the adoptee, who can also opt to be in contact with their "adopter" and communicate directly via e-mail or social networking sites such as Facebook.
"We are forming relationships," explained Grungras. "These are adults, not children. They are real people with real aspirations. We want to foster the relationship and make it grow."
Since many LGBT immigrants lack the support of family, the program is a way to help them create new support networks.
"LGBTs are often running away from their family, so to know there is an individual out there who cares enough to open their wallets and give a person money, that is really empowering to them," said Grungras.
San Francisco architect Jack Busby and his partner, Aurelio Font, have adopted two of ORAM's clients: one gay man from Kazakhstan and another from Iran. He has written to the Iranian, who is living in a provincial Turkish town, through Facebook.
"I feel privileged to be able to help people," said Busby, who contacted Grungras after hearing him be interviewed on the local LGBT radio program Out In the Bay that airs weekly on KALW 91.7 FM. "I found it compelling. Were it not by an accident of God, I might be there."
The couple decided to become adopters after learning about what little support LGBT refugees receive, whether it be in their country of transit awaiting a decision about their immigration status or when they are granted asylum or refugee status and relocate.
"They have little or no family support here or abroad," noted Busby.
Assisting LGBT Iranians in Turkey
Seeing a growing need to provide legal help and other assistance to LGBT Iranians who had fled to Turkey and then found themselves caught up in the complicated and cumbersome international refugee system, ORAM has focused much of its early attention to working with clients in the Islamic democracy. It teamed up with the Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Turkey Refugee Advocacy and Support Program to provide services in Ankara, Turkey.
"Who ORAM works with is the 95 percent of LGBTs who haven't been able to get anywhere. They have crossed the border to get out with their lives and that is where they are. But they are not looking to stay in those places," said Grungras. "When they come to our hands, they are just beginning a very long road to find safe haven. Sometimes they won't have it for a few years."
In June 2009 ORAM and the Helsinki group published a joint report about the plight of LGBT asylum seekers and refugees in Turkey to shine light on the needs of this growing population. It was based on interviews with 49 LGBT people living in Turkey seeking asylum or were refugees.
Their circumstances in Turkey are often little better than the lives they left behind in Iran, said Grungras. Forbidden to live in major cities, they are shunted to small towns in the Turkish countryside where they have no support systems, are denied work, and continue to fear they will be attacked due to their sexual orientation.
"In most of the towns the people are very conservative, very religious. Officials are hostile toward gay people," said Grungras.
Having escaped death threats in Iran and harassment in Turkey for being gay, many of the refugees find it difficult to then have to tell immigration officials about their sexual orientation. ORAM will help guide them through the process and advise them to be as truthful as possible.
"One of the main reasons we started ORAM is refugees are often too afraid to admit they are LGBT," said Grungras. "Very often they would be so intimidated, they would lie and make up other claims and they would be denied. Our core function is to provide a safe environment and caring, open hands so the refugees know it is okay to be gay and they can tell us the real reason for applying for refugee status."
To learn more about ORAM and its work, visit http://www.oraminternational.org.