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  WINDY CITY TIMES

New Chicago group helps asylum-seekers
by Melissa Wasserman
2014-03-05

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The recently launched Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program ( CLASP ) stands as a source of support and safety for LGBT people escaping a life of persecution in their home countries and arriving in the United States for a new life.

Established toward the end of January, CLASP comes from a partnership between the national coalition LGBT Faith & Asylum Network ( LGBT-FAN ) and Broadway United Methodist Church located in Chicago. Currently, Broadway United Methodist Church is acting as a hub and fiscal agent through which people can make donations.

"I think we understand the thru line of God's word is the word of love," said Rev. Lois McCullen Parr, pastor at the Broadway United Methodist Church and CLASP Co-Founder. "I think we have a responsibility to speak loudly and clearly that what we believe about God and God's people is true and that love is greater than fear—that God's intention is for people to love and live together and not to do harm."

LGBT-FAN's overall mission is to help people seeking safety in the United States because of persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity in their home countries. CLASP reflects that mission as it aims to provide direct living support and welcoming environments to asylum-seekers.

"We're certainly not reinventing the wheel for things we don't have the capacity to do," said Parr. "We're congregations; we're not lawyers, but what we can do is to kind of support what is tangible and physical for asylum-seekers who arrive here with nothing. We're trying to use our network of welcoming churches to do that."

The group's founding members include Parr; LGBT-FAN Coordinator Max Niedzwiecki; National LGBTQ and Faith Communities Consultant Ann Craig; Daniel Weyl of Heartland Alliance; John Ademola, a Nigerian refugee; and Dennis Ojiyoma, a Nigerian asylum-seeker.

"I just feel a huge responsibility as a global citizen and for me personally, as a Christian pastor," Parr said. "I feel a huge responsibility to be part of what's life-giving and to be part of a community of faith that's faithfully listening to God's leading in saying 'This is our goal as people of faith, to help people who are in danger.' That's what God would want us to do. So I feel humbled and honored to be invited into the launching of this network and I feel like it's urgent."

CLASP also builds on models previously implemented in Worcester, Mass., and Toronto, while currently seeking to connect with local human service providers, develop fund-raising and service supply strategies and to share resources.

"We've just been moving quickly to try to make connections with those in the Chicagoland area who are already doing a lot of work with asylum and immigration, particularly targeted to supporting LGBTQ persons," said Parr. "We're trying to use congregational support to get housing and some resources for folks who don't have anything."

Partnership extends further as CLASP networks with organizations such as Chicago LGBTQ Immigration Rights Coalition, Heartland Alliance and its National Immigrant Justice Center, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants, as well as individual out-reach between people who have already achieved asylum and people looking to achieve asylum.

The group has existed through conference calls in the past few weeks and a press conference set for March 6 at 10 a.m. at Broadway United Methodist Church will be held to announce its launch in Chicago. As Parr described, "The wheels are on the road, but there is not a lot of velocity."

With people coming from Uganda and Nigeria and arriving in Chicago's polar vortex, the group collected winter coats. Then, using some networking through congregational support, they obtained additional clothes, inflatable mattresses, sheets and towels and pillows and some basic supplies.

According to CLASP's preliminary flier, the organization calls an urgent need for:

—Social support and fellowship to help LGBT asylum seekers feel welcome and learn about living in Chicago;

—Volunteer and mentorship opportunities for LGBT asylum seekers;

—One or more furnished bedrooms in a home, apartment, or church property for at least six months; and

—Donations to support housing, food, local transportation and other basic necessities.

"It's not adequate, but at least they're safe and they're inside," said Parr. "Most urgently we're asking for housing because right now. For example, there are five guys from Nigeria who are crammed into one apartment with one bedroom and one bathroom. So, we're hopeful people of faith will say 'I've got a room, I've got a basement' and then we can get some housing for folks immediately."

Ojiyoma is one of these five Nigerians. In coordinating the organization, Ojiyoma largely draws on his own experience as an asylum-seeker. Arriving in the United States in September 2013, one of his main concerns, he recalls, was where he was going to stay.

"It's been a really challenging experience," said Ojiyoma. "One major challenge I had was integration—integrating into the community here. The lifestyle here is entirely different from the lifestyle back home in Nigeria. I knew the language and food were a very challenging thing for me."

Most of the asylum-seekers, Ojiyoma explained, become very vulnerable when they enter because they do not have access to services like housing as most of them may not know anybody in the United States and therefore may not have anywhere to stay, making them homeless.

"For me it's a great joy to be co-founder of this group because this group provides safety and provides comfort for every asylum-seeker that comes here," said Ojiyoma. "The way we welcome people, we let them know that we understand what you're going through. We also have people who have seeked asylum in the past, so let them share their experiences and let them understand that they're not alone and that we are here to guide them through the process because a lot of people don't know what to expect when they get here because they are not familiar with the system here."

According to the issued flier, it is illegal to be gay in nearly 80 countries around the world and the death penalty is implemented in seven of them. While hundreds of asylum-seekers reach Chicago, they come to realize it is illegal for them to be employed for at least six months, after they file for their asylum applications and they are prohibited from most government-supported programs.

"We are learning how people in Uganda and Nigeria and other areas where they're in danger are finding ways to get here," said Parr. "I don't know the answer to what the future will bring in terms of CLASP's function, if we will end up trying to assist people in actually getting here or not. For now we're just trying to provide the support most people get here. I would say that through international communication, people who are already here, who have already achieved asylum, are in communication with people from where they came from."

For more information, to make a donation, or to contact Parr, visit: www.broadwaychurchchicago.com or www.lgbt-fan.org/community-support .


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