Now in its 20th year, World Refugee Day is an internationally recognized observance designed to call attention to the status of refugees and people seeking asylum across the planet. And as difficult as the process can be for the millions of refugees around the world, the plight of their LGBTQ peers can be even more harrowing. That's why Katie Sgarro co-founded Asylum Connect, a nonprofit that specializes in finding resources across the U.S., Canada and Mexico for LGBTQ people forced to flee their homelands due to persecution. And this year, Asylum Connect is collaborating with various other organizations to host a virtual Pride event called LGBTQ Digital Pride & Migration 2020 at 1 p.m. on June 20.
"We're encouraging people to tune in for free, because it's not just going to focus on World Refugee Day, but focus on that intersection of LGBTQ and World Refugee Day," Sgarro said. "Especially with the current attacks on the U.S. asylum system and refugee system, we know that asylum saves specifically LGBTQ lives, so we're really trying to put that at the forefront of that day."
Creating a Database
Both existing as a web resource and in app format for iOS and Android, Asylum Connect is a database that aggregates LGBTQ-affirming organizations across the U.S. to provide refugees with a sense of the places closest to them that can help them with the asylum-seeking process.
"At Asylum Connect, we definitely believe that all asylum seekers deserve to be welcomed into the U.S., but it's also important to understand that LGBTQ asylum seekers typically have less resettlement options," Sgarro said. "Because if you're an LGBTQ asylum seeker, you don't just need to find somewhere that's welcoming to asylum seekers — that's difficult in itself — you also need to find a country that's LGBTQ-friendly in order to truly be safe."
Sgarro said they were inspired to co-found the organization when they were a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and they befriended an LGBTQ classmate who was seeking asylum at the time.
"He told me about his own personal story coming to America and really struggling to know where it was safe to go for help as a gay immigrant, from everything from pro bono legal representation that could help with his asylum claim, but also for critical LGBTQ-affirming medical, mental health and social services that anyone would need to effectively transition to this country," they said.
It wasn't long before Asylum Connect became a website with a functional catalog that contained organizations and their resources. Still, it was clear that outreach could be improved, so the process of creating its apps began. After two years of working on a finished product, the apps debuted as they are known today.
Fine-Tuning and Expansion
Currently in 25 states — including Michigan — part of Canada and Mexico, Sgarro said that Asylum Connect isn't stopping there. There are plans to perfect its product and expand even further.
"The reason we launched it on mobile apps is because, even when it was just a dynamic web app — meaning that you could pull it up on your computer and you can pull it up on your phone in terms of the Safari web browser — we were still finding that about 1/3 of our user base was on mobile, so we thought that it made more sense to make it more accessible to make that transition to a native iOS, Android mobile app so that it was coming up in the app stores," Sgarro said. "And with that transition, we also hope to add more advanced functionality moving forward, like the ability to have offline access. So if someone is missing an internet connection, but has already downloaded the app, they could still use it, even with offline or no regular access."
And when asked what the vetting process looks like for including an LGBTQ-affirming organization in Asylum Connect's catalog, Sgarro said that that's consistently in development, too. The nonprofit's team goes through three stages: confirming that a potential organization is legitimate, ensuring that it is a reliable point of contact, and for nondiscrimination policies that include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
"What's important as well is that we actually [have a] reverification process, so it's not a one-and-done situation in which we're listing an organization and never touching it again," they said. "We actually verify all organizations for safety and accuracy at least every six months, and we hope to actually make that more comprehensive moving forward."
Feedback loops between asylum seekers and the nonprofit exist, too, meaning that if someone uses as service and would like to review their experience — positive or negative — they can create a free user account to do so.
"Because, as I'm sure you know, some members of the LGBTQ community, an organization might be really helpful for a gay man from Russia but not so helpful for a trans asylum seeker from Mexico," Sgarro said. "So, those types of nuances are very important to put that publicly on our site so that it really becomes a free, digital, one-stop-shop for where all the reviews and information are aggregated."
When asked what they think are the biggest misconceptions about refugees and the asylum-seeking process in the U.S. today, Sgarro was quick to answer.
"I think there is still a large misconception that asylum is illegal. Asylum is definitely not illegal. It's a legal right for people who are persecuted to come to this country and to seek asylum. And I think another really large misconception is that a lot of asylum claims are fraudulent. … The overwhelming majority of asylum claims are not fraudulent. They should be claimed, and they should be accepted, because they're people facing persecution," Sgarro said.
And regarding the LGBTQ community specifically, while it's not a misconception outright, Sgarro said that a lack of awareness about the "extra battles" the community has to face during the process has caused a lot of confusion — and, sometimes, discrimination.
"Because if you're an LGBTQ asylum seeker, you don't just need to find somewhere that's welcoming to asylum seekers — that's difficult in itself — you also need to find a country that's LGBTQ-friendly in order to truly be safe."