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Well being, Stress, and the Unexpected Challenges of Seeking Asylum

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On 19 April 2017, LGBT-FAN hosted a public call entitled “Wellbeing, Stress, and the Unexpected Challenges of Seeking Asylum,” led by Jamila Hammami of QDEP, and Dr. S.N. Nyeck of Canterbury Christ Church University. (Scheduled speaker Dr. Yavar Moghimi of Whitman Walker was unfortunately unable to participate at the last minute).

You can listen to a full recording of the call here, and read our key points below.


We apologize for the very occasional gaps in speech.

Overview:

  • The legal process / status is not the only, or necessarily the primary source of stress and anxiety for LGBTQ people seeking asylum, or facing other immigration processes. They face complex and everyday challenges throughout the asylum process, and long after it is over. A holistic approach is necessary to understand and help address these challenges.
  • Encountering racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, financial insecurity, unemployment or underemployment, social isolation, cultural difference, homophobia, transphobia, change in status, etc. are significant causes of emotional distress, in addition to having material impacts.
  • There are significant stigmas attached to mental health challenges, which can make people hesitant to share their experiences. People’s cultural experiences can make this more severe than it might appear to advocates who have grown up in the United States.
  • Asylum seekers are under scrutiny and surveillance throughout the legal process, and have frequently received negative attention from professionals and officials back home, and in the United States. It can therefore be challenging to place trust in medical professionals, and even NGO contacts, as a result.

Social isolation:

  • Migration entails leaving behind social and legal (citizens’ rights) safety nets at home.
  • In the United States, immigrant diaspora communities can be very traditional, and LGBTQ community members may not find support.
  • There is a stigma attached to being an immigrant, and particularly an asylum seeker/ refugee. In the US, LGBTQ spaces can be unwelcoming to people because of their immigration status.
  • Not being eligible for services/work forces people into extremely challenging struggles to obtain shelter, food, employment, and stability.
  • Familiar homophobia and/or distance can cause a lot of pain. Not having trusted, long-term allies can be isolating.

Detention:

  • A lot of advocates and people directly impacted by the asylum process have different experiences of detention. In some cases, people are able to group together for protection. For others, this is not the case—trans women in particular are isolated and subject to harm in detention. This violence can be re-traumatizing.
  • Release can also be very challenging, as people enter “fight or flight” mode and encounter daily struggles to get by.

Storytelling and the decision to share experiences:

  • Asylum seekers/asylees must be able to say “no” when people ask them to tell their stories.

Strategies and actions to help promote well-being, and to reduce stress, anxiety, and isolation:

  • Regular social events and dinners, with travel costs covered and food provided, can be useful spaces for relaxation and community-building.
  • Peer-led support groups put people in conversations with each other, without the sense of imposition, or obligation to talk to a “service provider”. People who have first-hand experience of the system are the best sources of ideas and advice for others in a similar situation.
  • At the same time, it can be empowering for people to hear the personal experiences and perspectives of advocates/ service-providers. This can help break down the hierarchy of the person who is “known” and the person who is “unknown” in NGO spaces. Seeing that others, even those who are in a position of power, struggle with stress can be useful to those who experience stigma. Horizontal organizing is a useful strategy.
  • Confidentiality is paramount. Peer spaces should be confidential.
  • Introduce a policy (and be sure to maintain it!) that asylum seekers and asylees within an organization know that they alone can decide if, when, where, and to whom to tell their story. The QDEP advice is: “do not tell your story unless you feel that it is useful for you to do so.”
  • Advocates and community members must really listen, and hear people as individuals. It can be too easy to presume that peoples’ problems are all the same, and known to service providers. This is not the case. Each person is different.

 

Resources:

  • SAMHSA is an excellent resource, explaining where and how to access local services.
  • Local LGBTQ Community Centers often run support groups on a range of issues, for free.
  • Online communities for survivors of trauma, violence, and other groups are also useful, and can be anonymous in some cases.
  • Faith organizations can provide spiritual support, which is important to many people. Metropolitan Community Church and Unitarian Universalist churches are explicitly welcoming to LGBTQ people.
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