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Online LGBT asylum resource launches in SF

by Heather Cassell

It will soon be easier for LGBT asylum seekers across the United States to find the resources they need from legal assistance to social services through the online platform AsylumConnect.

It is expanding its reach from its first catalogs established in Philadelphia in 2015 and in Seattle in 2016 to New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. with the help of tech nonprofit One Degree. The organization launched its new website November 29.

"The primary goal of the catalog is to really instill a sense of safety," said Katie Sgarro, 24, president of AsylumConnect.

"The AsylumConnect catalog's purpose is to reach LGBTQ asylum seekers and relevant providers almost immediately when they arrived in the United States," said Sgarro, who is a lesbian.

Her goal is to eliminate the uncertainty and pain that her friend and co-founder of AsylumConnect - Sayid "Sy" Abdullaev, 24, a gay man who fled from Kyrgyzstan - went through when he first arrived in the U.S. and sought asylum, she said. Abdullaev was granted asylum in 2015.

AsylumConnect is the first free online database for LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. The virtual all-volunteer grassroots organization catalogs vetted service providers for LGBT asylum seekers based on their LGBT- and immigrant-friendliness and the quality of the services provided. Once approved, service providers are added to the catalog for asylees and service providers to access.

AsylumConnect is fiscally sponsored by the Social Good Fund and is run by 21 volunteers, along with seven board members and four advisory council members, said Sgarro.

Since its founding the organization has raised $25,000 for operational expenses, she said. The organization raised an additional $1,800 toward its $9,000 goal with its fundraising campaign to create the national database.

"These are critical life-saving services that a lot of asylum seekers are looking for," said Rey Faustino, a 35-year-old gay man who is the CEO of One Degree, a San Francisco-based technology-driven nonprofit founded in 2012 that helps low-income families access resources to achieve social and economic mobility.

Faustino's organization is always looking for ways to serve underrepresented and marginalized communities, he said, in this case LGBT asylum seekers.

"It's a partnership that makes sense and it's a partnership that we're thrilled to be working on," said Faustino.

By partnering with One Degree, AsylumConnect can create a national database of LGBT- and immigrant-friendly services for LGBT asylum seekers faster.

Sgarro said that One Degree was a good match for AsylumConnect because it is technology-based. Additionally, it was already assisting LGBT and immigrant communities.

Helping LGBT asylum seekers
AsylumConnect's database includes information about housing, legal aid, food programs, medical services, mental health, social support, employment assistance, and education offerings.

The screened services are easily accessible online and on mobile devices, empowering LGBT asylum seekers to quickly connect with reliable services for integration into the U.S.

"We tried to take a very holistic view, thinking about what are all the different types of needs that LGBTQ asylum seekers will have," said Sgarro. "I think over time all these categories will inevitably grow."

The site has received 2,000 users per week since March 2016, said Sgarro.

The actual number of LGBT asylum seekers and refugees in the U.S. is unknown since the government doesn't track persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, in 2015, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, in partnership with the LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network and the National LGBTQ Task Force, estimated that 5 percent of asylum claims were based on persecution due to sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a report, "Stronger Together: A Guide to Supporting LGBT Asylum Seekers," published by the organizations.

"I think another important point, which Immigration Equality pointed out, is that the number of LGBT asylum claims have actually increased over time," said Sgarro. "Things [are] actually getting worse abroad."

AsylumConnect helped Hans How, 24, a gay man from Malaysia, a country where homosexuality and "cross-dressing" are illegal.

How, who currently lives in San Francisco and is the vice president of AsylumConnect, received a scholarship to attend college in Connecticut several years ago. During his senior year, he came out and decided he wanted to stay in the U.S., he told the Bay Area Reporter.

"It was really hard to find relevant information in one place," said How, until he found AsylumConnect. He used the database and contacted Sgarro to find legal and health services, even though the resources weren't available through AsylumConnect in Connecticut.

It was particularly important that the resources were centralized in a one-stop-shop and free, he said.

"It's important for us to keep it free because the population that we are targeting has to have access," How said, noting asylum seekers aren't legally allowed to work for a long period of time when they first arrive in the U.S.

Newly arrived asylum seekers need more than legal assistance, they often need help integrating into American society, such as learning how to speak English and seeking housing.

Jacque Larrainzar, a 38-year-old lesbian from Mexico who now lives in Seattle, called AsylumConnect "priceless."

"If this had existed when I was applying for asylum it would had made my life much easier," Larrainzar, who is a member of AsylumConnect's advisory committee, wrote in an email.

"Their work truly safes lives," Larrainzar said. "I was homeless for about three years because I could not find services for undocumented lesbians, work, or anyone who could explain to me how the immigration process work[ed] and what my options were."

Larrainzar fled Mexico due to being persecuted for being a lesbian and advocating for LGBT rights. Larrainzar was the first Mexican to win asylum in the U.S. based on sexual orientation in 1997.

"There is an immense need for these types of services," wrote Larrainzar, noting the amount of hatred and misinformation that can be hurtful and misleading. "A site that can offer you a safe place to start is like a glass of water in the desert."

Asylum seekers and service providers who access AsylumConnect for Philadelphia and Seattle will notice an improved user experience with new functionality added to the site, said Sgarro in the release.

Asylum seekers, allies, and service providers will be able to add their cities to the database faster through its new submission tools.

To donate to AsylumConnect, visit http://www.asylumconnect.org/donate.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or oitwnews@gmail.com .

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