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LGBT Asylum Project opens Castro office

by Sari Staver

LGBT Asylum Project co-founder Brooke Westling, left, joined board members, staff and volunteers Malena Salem, Kenan Arun, Alan Delamora, Juan Herrera, Cip Cipriano, Donna Sachet, Adam Sandel, and co-founder and Executive Director Okan Sengun at the organization's opening for its Castro Street office. Photo: Sari Staver
LGBT Asylum Project co-founder Brooke Westling, left, joined board members, staff and volunteers Malena Salem, Kenan Arun, Alan Delamora, Juan Herrera, Cip Cipriano, Donna Sachet, Adam Sandel, and co-founder and Executive Director Okan Sengun at the organization's opening for its Castro Street office. Photo: Sari Staver  

An organization that offers legal assistance to LGBTs seeking asylum has opened an office in the Castro.

The board of directors of the LGBT Asylum Project — part of the Center for Immigrant Protection — celebrated the opening of the new office at 526 Castro Street at a ribbon cutting and reception Thursday, May 30.

Now in its fourth year of operation, the nonprofit organization provides pro bono legal representation for LGBT immigrants who are fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the United States. According to its website, the LGBT Asylum Project provides support to immigrants in the San Francisco Asylum Office jurisdiction (from Bakersfield, California to Seattle, Washington) who identify as LGBTQ and have been persecuted or have fears of future persecution if they return to their home country.

Since its inception, officials said, the project has provided legal representation in 95 cases, and legal consultation and information about the U.S. asylum process for more than 1,085 LGBTQ individuals.

The new offices will also house the Immigration Defense Project, providing anyone seeking immigration relief with legal services on a sliding scale, as well as the private law practice of Okan Sengun, co-founder and executive director of the LGBT Asylum Project. Before the group moved to the Castro earlier this year, it was operating out of Sengun's downtown office, which has covered the costs of furnishing the new office.

"This feels like a culmination of efforts since founders Okan Sengun and Brooke Westling first brought five of us together," said Adam Sandel, a founding board member and director of fundraising. "I'm very grateful that the community has rallied to support us in this life-saving work, and there's so much more work to do."

Those attending the event included gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and activists Cleve Jones, Donna Sachet, and Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Praising the work of the project, Mandelman said the new office space had decades earlier been occupied by the offices of the KS Foundation, an early HIV group that eventually became the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

"So it is super cool to have (the Asylum Project) in this historic space," he said.

Most recently, the office was occupied by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, which moved to 170 Valencia Street.

The asylum project, said Mandelman, "is a beacon of hope" in recognizing the role this country has played for people around the world.

"They are making good on that best vision of what our country is all about," he said, presenting project officials with certificates of commendation from the Board of Supervisors in appreciation of their work.

Sengun, the founder and executive director, reminded attendees that it's still considered a crime to be LGBT in 75 countries. Earlier in the day, said Sengun, a gay man told staff at the project that he had been beaten by family members because of his sexual orientation. The previous week, a female client told the attorneys that as a high school student she was stoned in public for kissing another girl in the open.

"These walls are going to record horrifying stories," Sengun said, but the work of the asylum project "gives me hope for a better future."

"Our work is within reach of everyone in the LGBT community," he added.

One asylum project client, Hussein Sham, seconded Sengun's sentiment. Sham, a 30-year-old gay man and Indian citizen, moved to the Bay Area from Dubai to attend college at Golden Gate University. After Sham received his degree, he had trouble finding a job and feared he might have to return home. (Last fall, the India Supreme Court struck down a colonial ere sodomy law that made gay sex punishable by up to 10 years in prison.)
In a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Sham said that after meeting attorneys from the asylum project he was able to complete the complicated task of applying for asylum, which was recently approved.

"Going back home was not a viable option," said Sham. "I am so grateful for the help provided to me by the asylum project. They are so humble about the work they do. These are people who are doing this work from their heart. I cannot thank them enough."

For more information, visit www.lgbtasylumproject.org

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