Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

ORAM reopens
San Francisco office


ORAM managing consultant Ali Khoie, left, sat with Executive Director Neil Grungras and systems administrator Subhi Nahas during a recent interview in San Francisco. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
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The Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration, or ORAM, has opened a temporary office in San Francisco as the organization returns its headquarters to the "gay mecca."

In 2014, ORAM moved its office to Geneva, where the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is located, to work on a global level for LGBT refugees.

However, Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM, quickly realized that while much work needs to be done on the global level, the agency's base needed to be with the LGBT community in San Francisco. This is where the organization was founded and it is a testing ground for its critical programs, he told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview.

He also noted that San Francisco was where the U.N. charter was signed – the 70th anniversary of that was commemorated here in June – and that the Bay Area has always been at the forefront of international activism and politics.

"If you want to look at where cutting edge issues are talked about and worked out and where the most forward thinking is taking place, where the community is strongest and feels and understands its strength, it's here," said Grungras. "It just feels very natural to be coming home."

ORAM's return to San Francisco doesn't mean that its work helping LGBT individuals escape countries where their lives are in danger is over. Grungras will continue that work along with advocating for and educating non-governmental organizations working with refugees to be culturally sensitive to LGBT refugees.

Geneva remains a "very important international city in terms of international rights," said Grungras. However, "being there doesn't necessarily rival being near the community [and] close to the people that we are representing."

The organization's flagship resettlement project, called the Guardian program, works closely with faith communities replicating the immigrant model for newly arrived LGBT refugees by providing housing and assimilation assistance. It works with other Bay Area LGBT and ally refugee resettlement programs.

"It's really crucial that we be here and continue to do that because assisting refugees doesn't really do very much if you don't actually make sure that they succeed when they get to where they are getting to," said Grungras, noting that the program has been successful since its launch several years ago. "We see our role as a trailblazer and find new models to innovate the way refugee resettlement has been happening so that we can make it work for LGBT people the way it does for other refugees."


Coming home

Grungras marked the organization's renewed presence in the Bay Area by conducting an intensive two-day training workshop in the East Bay for resettlement agency professionals on how to identify LGBT refugees, understand the issues LGBT refugees face, appropriate language to use, and work with them.

He also introduced ORAM's new San Francisco team being led by Ali Khoie, managing consultant, and Subhi Nahas, systems administrator and designer.

The two gay Middle Eastern men – Khoie is from Iran and Nahas is from Syria – will head up the office while Grungras will continue working to affect change on a global scale.

Khoie, 36, and Nahas, 27, who both recently arrived in the Bay Area, worked with ORAM while they temporarily lived in Turkey.

Turkey remains a temporary home for LGBT refugees, in spite of a recent anti-LGBT uprising and an increasingly hostile environment. In June, police attacked Istanbul Pride. The attack was followed by a campaign calling for LGBTs to be "killed on sight" in Ankara and Istanbul and a gay community leader being raped in his home in July, according to media reports.

Furthermore, the escape route to Turkey from other Middle Eastern countries has been nearly completely cut off unless someone has enough money to bribe border guards. The border to Turkey is "controlled by extremists," said Nahas.

"So, what we are trying to do is set up a system to get them out and give them a safe passage to Turkey and then to set up a system in Turkey to host them while they are there to resettle, either here or somewhere else," said Nahas.

LGBT refugees face other problems escaping their native lands. Many countries have shut their doors to refugees due to a surge, but LGBT refugees still have a chance, said Grungras.

"We are blessed because the programs that are taking LGBT refugees are still continuing to do it," said Grungras. "Actually, whoever can manage to get out of their country and into the refugee system still have a pretty good chance of actually getting out and getting settled down.

"But we have to constantly keep our fingers on the pulse because it could change at any minute," he added, noting that there are few countries that are open and safe for LGBT refugees.


Needing to leave

Khoie and Nahas will help ORAM work in dual capacities. In the U.S. they will raise people's awareness and sensitivity to the plight of LGBT refugees, while also continuing to expand the relocation and resettlement program. They will also continue working on ORAM's LGBT cultural sensitivity training for professionals working with refugees, and supporting ORAM's efforts in hotspot countries.

Leaders of LGBT organizations "know that LGBT people have issues" but "they may not be aware of the severity of the situation and the need for this transition, this transfer from where they are to where they should be," said Khoie, who left Iran because he simply couldn't live openly and honestly.

Iran's gay underground and the constant threat of being arrested and effectively having his life being over wasn't living for him.

"I don't call that life," said Khoie, telling the B.A.R. that many of Iran's human rights activists "are always attacked and targeted by the government" and spend almost half their lives in prison.

Nahas' situation and that of other LGBT Syrians is much more dire. Life was bad before civil war broke out in 2011, but the war made the situation worse with the "systematic execution for LGBT people," within the first year, he said.

"That is one of the reasons that I left because we witnessed one of our friends being arrested by one of the groups and he was tortured for a few months," said Nahas, explaining that there is no underground gay community in Syria. The government constantly conducts raids on community gatherings suspected to be LGBT. Everyone lives deep in the closet and is terrified and lives in isolation, he said.

"The community was not well connected because of the systematic persecution by the government itself. If they gave you free time so you could gather up then they would raid you," said Nahas. "We all knew that and most of us didn't want to participate because we were so scared.

"If you are arrested by the government ... some people we never heard from them again so it is very, very scary," he continued.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, took terror to a whole new level, but by then Nahas had already escaped to Turkey, where there is a group of about 400 LGBT Syrians waiting to be resettled in a host country.

However, he and others have attempted to confirm reports of ISIS execution of gay men, but it's difficult, even for them, he said.

The difficulty of Syrian refugees' situations in general is compounded by the fact that Syria has been locked out of the U.N., therefore Syrian refugees have very limited options.


A friendly hand

ORAM has helped reduce the anxiety and fears tremendously, explained Nahas

"ORAM provided me with that community. I mean they built up a whole system so when I came here I was surrounded by people and when I was in Turkey I was surrounded by people who really, really genuinely [are] caring," he said. "I felt like I was really cared for and for the first time I felt really loved."

The three men said there is more that can be done.

"There are many, many things that people can do here," said Grungras. From donors to influencers to volunteers, people can help at any stage of the process, from supporting getting people to safety to helping with housing and acclimating people to their new homes in host countries.

For more information or to donate, visit


Nepal begins to issue passports to 'third sex'

Nepal's Department of Passports issued its first transgender passport, the department announced August 6.

Monica Shahi, formerly Manoj Shahi, was the first applicant to receive her passport where she was allowed to select "other" for her gender. She had already undergone gender-affirming surgery, reported the Himalaya Times.

In January, the government extended the policy to apply to passports. An individual must have a citizenship certification declaring their gender as "other" in order to apply for the passport.

Nepal has been on the road to legally recognizing transgender and intersex individuals since 2011, when the government first provided an option for people to select "other" on the country's census and citizenship card.

India, Australia and New Zealand also issue passports identifying a so-called third sex or similar terminology to recognize transgender and intersex individuals.


Out & Around documentary premieres on Logo

San Francisco couple Jenni Chang and Lisa Dazols got a crash course in international LGBT rights when they took to the road in 2011.

The couple traveled through Asia, Africa, and South America, visiting 11 countries and interviewing individuals they dubbed "supergays" – LGBT community leaders from activists to elected officials, blogging and filming their experience along the way.

Their adventure is now a documentary, Out & Around , which will premiere Monday, August 17 on Logo. Check local listings for times.


For a sneak peak, check out the trailer:




Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or


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