Rainbow Railroad All Aboard USA Committee member Bruce Koff welcomed a packed house to a panel discussion, "If Not US, Who?: The Struggle of LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum-Seekers," Aug. 16 at Center on Halsted (The Center).
Rainbow Railroad, founded in Canada, is the only organization dedicated to rescuing LGBTQI+ individuals facing persecution in their home countries and bringing them to safety. According to Koff, the need is urgent; situations for refugees and asylum seekers are worsening in many places around the world.
Ahead of the panel discussion, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) spoke about putting things into a wider context of what is happening politically in this country. He said that there is a battle for the soul of the U.S. and the only way to change things for the better is by Democrats gaining control of Congress in November
Community Activism Law Alliance Founder and Executive Director Lam Ho moderated a panel that included Rainbow Railroad U.S. Development Officer Eduardo Hernandez; American Immigration Lawyers Association Board of Governors member and immigration attorney Mike Jarecki; The Center's Racial Equity and Inclusion Director Dr. Joanna Thompson; and trans asylum grantee Gabrielle, who prefers not to use her last name.
Hernandez likened Rainbow Railroad's mission to that of the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. The organization provides resources, information, safe transit and supportive networks to people around the world.
Jarecki spoke about the issues refugees and asylum seekers face when entering the U.S. and the complicated steps they have to take to potentially gain legal status. He said that more than 70 countries criminalize homosexuality, and many LGBTQI+ people are fleeing from those places. Jarecki explained that, instead of rolling out the red carpet, U.S. Department of Homeland Security treats refugees and asylum seekers like criminals by putting them in detention centers. He said that, as of March 2018, the Chicago asylum office has 21,947 applications pending.
Thompson said the Center is the "red carpet" for those seeking a safe space to get free behavioral health and counseling assistance as well as information, and participate in fun activities with other LGBTQI+ people.
Gabrielle recalled that, when she arrived in Chicago, it was hard for her to trust people due to the rejection and violence she faced in her home country. She said that the process was very complicated and that took five nerve-racking years to gain asylum, which was approved in June 2018.
When Ho queried the panel on ways to help, Jarecki said people who speak other languages or who can provide temporary housing can make a big difference. Gabrielle added that providing the necessary information so people like her can be successful in navigating the immigration process is very important.
During the Q&A session, a gay man from Nigeria who is in the asylum seeking process spoke about his journey to Chicago as well as the horrific things that happened to him in his home country. He said that in Nigeria anyone who is accused of being LGBTQI+ is imprisoned for 14 years and family members and friends who do not tell the authorities are also put in prison for 10 years.
Among the event sponsors were The Center, Rainbow Railroad, American Immigration Lawyers Association Chicago Chapter, Heartland Alliance Human Care and Windy City Times.
See www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Trans-woman-from-Ecuador-speaks-about-asylum-life-in-Chicago/63696.html for more on Gabrielle's story .