Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program (CLASP) had its inaugural press conference March 6 at Broadway United Methodist Church.
At the end of January, a coalition of faith leaders and advocates launched CLASP. The organization works to provide a network of support for people who have left their home countries and found their way to Chicago and are applying for asylum.
Due to anti-LGBT laws in countries including Africa, Russia and India, the lives and well-being of LGBT people are threatened. They are forced to escape their home countries, CLASP said. In more than 80 countries, there are laws against being LGBT and in more than 75 countries, a person could be imprisoned, while in seven of those countries, the punishment for being LGBT is the death penalty.
"We have to, as American citizens, be focusing on the problems that we have more control over, what our own administrations are doing whether they're Democratic or Republicanand that's to stop aid to these brutal regimes and open up the borders to asylum seekers rather than closing them down," said Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.
Rev. Lois McCullen Parr of Broadway United Methodist Church hosted the press conference. The panel of speakers sharing their own stories and views also included Thayer, Dennis Ojiyoma Akpona, an asylum seeker from Nigeria and co-founder of the Center for Courageous Living and CLASP; John Ademola Adewoye, a permanent resident through asylum/ Asylee Service provider and co-founder of the Center for Courageous Living and CLASP; Victor Aweke, an international HIV and human rights advocate who recently moved from Nigeria and is seeking asylum in the U.S.; and Rachelle Brown from the Metropolitan Community Church movement
"I think the most significant thing is to hear the stories of John, Dennis and Victor and also to know that every story is unique," said Parr. She said it was good to hear "the through-line of three gay guys from Nigeria whose way of getting here was different, whose experience is their own and the experience of those they know and love in Nigeria. I like the way John said 'finding the freedom to be who they are here in the land that's known as the land of the free.' I like it that he said the land of the free and the home of the brave because from my perspective, the courage, the bravery of these people is really humbling and moving to me."
"It's really the courage of these guys [John, Victor and Dennis] and the stories of the heartbreak it is to leave your homeland because you need to be safe," said Parr. "Those are the stories that I think people in the us are going to hear and say 'I'd like to be part of the solution.'"
Coming to the U.S. in 1999, Adewoye said his life as a gay man in Nigeria was dark. Up on the stage, he shared his personal experience living in Nigeria, realizing he was gay at a young age and feeling the need to escape to receive the help he needed. Largely drawing from his own account, he welcomed asylum-seekers into his own home and currently lives with four of them. Housing is an urgent need CLASP is requesting as they plan to bring in more asylum seekers in the coming weeks.
"It's not just a matter of keeping people in my house," said Adewoye. "Giving them some comfort and relief from the experiences they had that lead them to leave home, is very important. I have supported people with my salary. When the number becomes bigger I believe we need more hands on deck and clasp is coming in at a good time to do that. It's just to make sure when they come here they have access to whatever they want, whatever services are available, they have home over their head and we can get more support and do a better job through CLASP. For these people I think no sacrifice is too big to offer. At the same time I want them to be comfortable."
CLASP is in partnership with The Center for Integration and Courageous Living. With the motto to "courageously integrate and bravely bloom (in the land of the free and the home of the brave), the mission is to provide LGBTI asylees and migrants from varying cultures a welcoming home in the United States, particularly in Illinois. The group, as Adewoye said, is not simply looking to feed and house people.
"[Let] them know they are in the land of freedom and the home of the brave and let them know here we have homophobic people too, but the love here affirms them," said Adewoye. "That is why we're here and that is why we need your support and that is what we hope we are going to achieve. So that people who come here will surely and truly feel their freedom and get more confidence, be brave enough to fly."
The group was developed out of the national coalition LGBT Faith and Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN), which is dedicated to assisting people seeking safety in the U.S. because of persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity in their home countries.
Because of the persecution in their home countries, they must flee to find safetybut they are often forced to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity. CLASP also said U.S. embassies are not helpful. Asylum seekers on their way to the U.S. may be locked in detention immediately and if placed in detention, they need legal help to get out and will be subject to abuse until they are free.
"Wherever a person is, in Africa or in America, a gay man, or a lesbian, or a transgender person, or intersex person is just who he or she is," said Adewoye to WCT. "Such a person does not have to be persecuted psychologically or physically. I don't want anything that will stop me from rendering the support I need to render to people."
Clergy members from various denominations showed their support of LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. Standing on stage in support of the new group were Rev. Liala Beukema of Lakeview Lutheran Church; Rev. Wesley Door of United Church of Rogers Park UMC; Rev. Randall Doubet-King of Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ; Rev. Carol Hill of Epworth United Methodist Church; Rev. John Hobbs of Church of the Three Crosses (UCC/UMC); Rev. Fran Holliday of All Saints' Episcopal Churchl Cathy Knight of Church Within A Church Movement; Rev. Catiana McKay of United Church of Rogers Park UMC; Rev. Andy Oliver of Reconciling Methodist Network; Rev. Katherine Thomas Paisley of Irving Park UMC; Rev. Larry Pickens of Southlawn United Methodist Church; John Volkening of Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ/Christian Peacemaker Team; Rev. Sara Wohlleb of United Church of Christ; and Rev. Barbara Zeman of Dignity/Chicago.
For video coverage of the press conference, visit: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/CLASP-group-forms-for-LGBT-asylum-seekers/46523.html .
See videos below by Tracy Baim:
Windy City Times: Chicago CLASP group forms for LGBT asylum seekers, part 1 of 2 at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .
Windy City Times: Chicago CLASP group forms for LGBT asylum seekers, part 2 of 2 at the link: www.youtube.com/watch