LGBT Volunteers Help Congolese Refugee Call California Home
Posted by HIAS – NY on Tue, Oct 15, 2013 at 11:48 am
Scott and Victor vividly recall the first time they saw Edward*, the Congolese refugee they’d volunteered to house when he arrived in the United States. He was walking through the airport gates with his homeland security papers on a lanyard tied around his neck. “I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes,” says Scott, a dedicated advocate in the LGBTI community. “After all he’s experienced, the amount of blind trust you need to have that you’ll end up okay is just incredible.”
At 21, Edward has seen more horrors than he is willing to recount. He had been on the run since he was a child, when his father led the family of seven children away from fighting in their village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They continued to move frequently to escape violence. When he was 17, Edward and his aunt boarded a cargo truck and traveled for three days to the country’s border. “When there is fighting you just run,” is all he offers by way of explanation. He hasn’t seen his family since.
Edward settled in Nairobi, Kenya, where he lived for four years working as a pianist and as a security guard, and tried to go to school. He learned English on the streets and found a home in the LGBT community. But when their home was threatened and his housemates ran away, Edward was left behind—now fearing for his life. “People tried to kill me. I had no choice but to leave. That’s why I turned to HIAS, knowing they help people facing danger.”
Since 2002, HIAS Kenya has served the most vulnerable refugees fleeing ongoing conflicts in neighboring Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the refugees HIAS helps are survivors of torture and/or sexual or gender-based violence. HIAS provides them with assistance and protection, including direct psychosocial, welfare, and resettlement services.
HIAS was able to facilitate Edward’s resettlement to California earlier this year with the help of Jewish Family and Child Services of the East Bay (JFCS/East Bay).
JFCS reached out to Scott and Victor, who were eager to help a fellow member of the LGBT community and happily opened their home to Edward for his first weeks in the country. Most LGBT refugees do not have family in the U.S. who can help them when they arrive and are unable to associate with their national groups due to the same prejudices they are fleeing in the first place. Scott and Victor, who are members of the San Francisco chapter of the Sisters (a national group devoted to community service, ministry, and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity, and spiritual enlightenment) helped organize a group of guardians who would provide Edward with all the support of a family in his initial weeks in the U.S.
The guardian group not only provided a home for Edward, but also helped him with a wide variety of needs, from obtaining a Social Security card to getting a job at a local café. “These are not big actions, but it’s amazing the impact you can have on someone at a moment in their life when they are extremely disoriented. You have a very real ability to make them feel welcome,” says Scott.
Today Edward has moved to a more permanent housing situation with a local family and is grateful for all of the assistance he’s received along his journey. “I am thankful for all the people who support HIAS. They took me from a very bad situation,” he says. Most of all he is grateful to be in the U.S. “Here you are free. You can speak; you can work. There is no discrimination.”
Edward already has an American dream, too. He is eager to start school and study law. “There is so much injustice in the world and so many people who need help. I want to help people who face injustice.”
Scott and Victor are both happy to see Edward getting on his feet. “I’m hoping that he is able to realize his potential wherever he lands,” says Scott.
They look forward to hosting refugees in their home again and encourage others to volunteer and help refugees coming to their communities. “Many people really want to do good, but it’s hard for them to figure out how. Helping a refugee resettle gives you a real sense of fulfillment. Some say it’s just one person. But it takes many, many actions from a lot of people to make an impact in the world. Helping one person in a tangible way is a great first step.”
* Names have been changed for privacy reasons