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  • Rajiv Desai

Humbled by What I Saw, Heard, Felt & Learned

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

So much about giving back, helping non-profits, and doing impact work is about social connections with those at the frontline, seeing the actual work and meeting those who directly benefit from the work. Having joined the ORAM board in March 2020, the ongoing pandemic prevented much of this human connection.

Now, in 2021 – with vaccinations curtailing the virus spread, I found my window of opportunity to visit ORAM’s work in Tijuana MX and meet with local non-profit leaders and organizations in Mexico City, MX to explore ways to expand ORAM’s programmatic efforts to help LGBTQ refugees & asylum seekers in Mexico. Before I forget, a huge thanks to ORAM’s executive director, Steve Roth for not only helping make this trip a reality, but also let me accompany him on his travels to Tijuana and Mexico City, last month.

My 24 hours in Tijuana and 36 hours in Mexico City truly opened my eyes.

El Jardin is a shelter in Tijuana, dedicated to LGBTQ asylum seekers from Mexico and other Latin American countries who have made their way to Mexico after fleeing their original country of persecution, hate, violence and bigotry. The current house is a two-storey home with about 5 rooms, living and outdoor spaces. During my visit on July 20, 2021, the shelter accommodated 45 asylum seekers from various countries. While majority of the residents were from Honduras, others represented Jamaica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico and covered various dimensions of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. The shelter is run by Yolanda Rocha and her son, Jaime Marín.

During the day, I got to individually meet each and every resident, shake hands, and hear about their identity, country of origin etc. Jaime gave me an eye-opening tour of the house and I had an in-depth conversation with Yolanda on the roof top – from where I could see the US-Mexico border in the horizon – the irony of seeing the “frontera” not lost on me, from the roof-tip of an asylum-seeker shelter.

During an open forum session, Steve and I introduced ourselves more formally to all the residents and Yolanda and Jaime asked a few of the residents to come forth and share their personal stories.

This moment shook me the most.

With teary eyes and a courageous voice, so many residents shared the most frightening stories back from home and even while they were out and about in the city. For all of them, El Jardin was a place of bit more safety, peace and solitude. I am grateful for all the financial support and programming ORAM provides to continue the good work at El Jardin. (To read more in-depth reporting, check out reporter Michael K. Lavers' post in the Washington Blade here).

Steve and I then traveled to Mexico City to meet with local LGBTQ and/or refugee non-governmental organizations (NGO) to learn more about their work and explore ways to potentially work together. While I won’t go into specifics about each organization (I’ve hyperlinked the organization if you want to learn more), I’ll share five key takeaways from the rich conversations with these organizations.

  • Casa Refugiados: Works closely with UNHCR to provide services, connections, access and information to all refugees and asylum seekers in Mexico City. They have served over 11,500 refugees since 2015 and every year approximately 4% of their beneficiaries identify as LGBTIQ+ (which equates to about 70-90 LGBTIQ+ refugees annually).

  • Casa Frida RefugioLGBT+: Is a newer, yet well-run shelter for the LGBTQ population in Mexico City. While not dedicated to refugees, they do receive migrants from other countries who seek safe space in their shelter, which can accommodate approximately 25-30 residents at a given time.

  • Letra Ese: Has been around for 25 years and primarily focuses on communication and advocacy for the LGBTQ and HIV+ population across Mexico. They also have access to a network of human rights lawyers to help with cases of hate crime and phobia. (I also had the honor of volunteering with Letra Ese for a week, back in 2016).

  • Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias: Seeks to address the problems faced by communities in vulnerable situations, such as sex workers, people living with HIV, people deprived of liberty, and people from the LGBTIQ + community, to protect their rights and achieve social inclusion.

  • Colmena 41: Their purpose is to connect and inspire the LGBT+ community and allies through networking, research projects and collaboration amongst various professional sectors

Five Key Takeaways:

  1. Ever-Increasing Crises: Vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ refugees continue to grow year-over-year. While many organizations are helping with pieces of the broader puzzle, ambivalent national and local governments, corrupt police forces, depleting sources of funding, lack of awareness etc. continue to impede this work and NGOs continue to find creative ways to work in this turbulent environment.

  2. The Most Vulnerable: Speaking with NGOs and shelters across Mexico, one common element was the disproportionate impact on trans women and even more so, trans women of color. From violent attacks back in their home countries to systematic discrimination across all aspects of access to health and human services, trans women continue to face the grossest forms of marginalization, within the LGBTQ family, the immediate geographical community in which they live and at all points of their journey of refuge.

  3. Much-Needed Skill-Building: More and more asylum seekers are spending extended periods of time in transit countries. Even local LGBTQ folks who have escaped their domestic life of discrimination and seek refuge in local shelters seem to be staying longer in the shelters, which they find to be a welcoming and safe space. During this time, there is a huge focus on skill-building, to ready them for the domestic workforce and/or prepare them for a more successful transition if/when they reach their destination country. The areas where we saw the most focus continue to be English language, computer literacy, call-center/customer service training, social etiquette, job readiness (interviewing, resume writing, etc.) and basic life skills (money, cooking, etc.). For example, in 2020, ORAM provided skill-building programs around story-telling, English language and other skills at El Jardin, with plans to do more in 2021.

  4. Mental Health: While only a few organizations explicitly mentioned mental health, many spoke of experiences, symptoms, issues, and incidents that have huge mental health repercussions. We did meet one organization that had 3 psychology and psychiatry professionals to help with their residents. Given that even in developed countries, mental health still a nascent (and let’s face it, a taboo) topic, it might be a while before local NGOs start seeing formal ways to address it. While it is also difficult to quantify the impact of mental health issues, it is critical that the international community focus on it more comprehensively, and with more urgency.

  5. Corporate Engagement: It was interesting to hear that many private sector organizations (local and international) had in recent years, stepped up their corporate engagement efforts to include vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ and refugees. Be it formal mentorship programs or call-center training, and local charitable giving to visibility efforts – many local offices of larger multinationals are stepping up to make an impact, especially with smaller organizations. ORAM is also increasing its corporate partnerships and more information on how to engage can be found here, including our new corporate mentorship guide for LGBTIQ refugees.

I am grateful to be given this opportunity to see the work first-hand and to meet these courageous and inspirational individuals doing such great work to help the most marginalized and vulnerable populations. Be sure to check out ORAM’s 2020 Impact Report.

A lot of work still remains.

Do get in touch if you have ideas or ways in which you’d like to partner with us.

Image: Looking out to the US Border from the roof top of El Jardín de las Mariposas (LGBTQ refugee shelter in Tijuana).

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