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.