Neil Grungras began realizing the world had a problem while working as an immigration lawyer in Israel and coming into contact with Palestinian gays, some of his first clients.
The Palestinians had come to Israel from the West Bank and Gaza, where they faced persecution and even death, Grungras recalled, but Israeli authorities refused their request for asylum, sending them back across the border.
“The coin dropped, and I realized there was this huge issue in the world,” said Grungras, founder and executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, a small, nonprofit group based in San Francisco. ORAM is the only worldwide organization focused exclusively on helping women and gays flee persecution because of who they are, said Grungras, 52, a native of Sheepshead Bay who lives in California.
Grungras, who is gay himself, worked in Israel for 10 years as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s director for Europe and the Mideast. But his work with Palestinian gays came through the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University, an advocacy program he helped create.
While not disputing Grungras’ comments, a spokesman for Israel’s Consulate General in New York said Israeli authorities review the asylum cases of Palestinian gays on an individual basis.
“Palestinians of GLBT orientation may seek — and often find — refuge in Israel,” said Joel Lion, using shorthand for gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered people. But “it must be understood,” he added, “that Palestinians who illegally enter Israel are subject to deportation.”
For Grungras, though, the plight of his Palestinian clients reinforced what he had learned in earlier cases — that LGBT refugees constituted a small, isolated, frightened group throughout the world, not just in Israel, and that something had to be done to help them. That, in turn, led to the launch of ORAM two years ago.
“I felt it was time for such an organization,” Grungras said during a recent phone interview from Israel, one of several locations in which ORAM is especially active. “The need for it was urgent, and I felt the international community was ready to look at these issues.”
Persecution based on gender and sexual orientation is widespread and obvious, Grungras said, noting that homosexual acts are considered crimes in 75 countries, eight of which apply the death penalty in those cases. Women, meanwhile, face persecution or discrimination “in tens of countries,” he added.
But women and LGBTs who’ve fled their native countries don’t always find the protection they’re seeking or, at best, discover a mixed reception, creating the need for an organization like ORAM, in Grungras’ view.
The global community addressed the refugee problem through a 1951 United Nations convention, which defined refugees as those who face a “well-founded fear” of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality [or] membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”
But each nation handles refugees differently, with some granting them temporary asylum and others offering them a permanent home, said attorney Rachel Levitan, ORAM’s Washington-based director of advocacy. Meanwhile, most Western nations consider those fleeing gender-based or sexual-orientation-based persecution to be refugees, defining them as members of a “particular social group,” Levitan explained. But Israeli authorities, whose system of granting asylum is relatively new, have yet to adopt that view, she said.
As a result of the widely varying rules and regulations, ORAM’s efforts differ from country to country. In the United States, for instance, the group’s Washington office is working with the State Department to develop guidelines that would expedite the cases of especially vulnerable refugees, including LGBTs. The organization also works in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), and in Turkey, a way station for refugees planning to locate elsewhere.
Many of ORAM’s activities are based on the knowledge that, in many cases, LGBT refugees who have escaped persecution in their native country “have landed in a place that’s not particularly safe either,” Levitan said. At times, she added, they are even attacked by other refugees. One effort to redress those problems involves a study, now being conducted for the UNHCR, to assess how the agency’s partners are treating LGBT refugees.
But it’s the group’s work in Israel that may be of most interest to American Jews.
In that regard, ORAM recently issued a 30-page report with its local partner, the Refugee Rights Clinic, on the gaps in protection for women who’ve escaped gender-based persecution and sought refuge in Israel. The woman have fled honor killings, domestic violence, rape, forced marriage and other forms of violence, the report says, but Israel has “consistently” declined to grant them refugee status.
Lion, the spokesman at the Israeli Consultate, said he and his colleagues weren’t familiar with the report and couldn’t comment on specific cases, some of which are mentioned in the study.
But the report itself describes the thinking of Israeli authorities, saying they have rejected such asylum claims “on the basis that women do not form a ‘particular social group’ and that gender-based violence is usually perpetrated by non-state actors.”
In addition, the report says, Israeli officials have contended that if they grant refugee status to these women, many from South America, Eastern Europe and North Africa, Israel would be overrun by women from those areas. But the facts suggest otherwise, Levitan said, adding that only a tiny number of the 34,000 asylum seekers now in Israel are asking for refugee status on that basis.
“The reality,” she continued, “is that most of [the persecuted women in some regions] are so vulnerable that they can’t even escape their countries.” In addition, she said, refugee status in Israel doesn’t lead to citizenship, as it does in the United States.
The situation horrifies Grungras, who believes that rejecting their claims means sending them back to more violence and possible death. He also calls it “jarring” in light of Israel’s history, as a nation founded by refugees, and the country’s allegiance to human rights. But he blames the situation on how new Israel is to the process of determining refugee status — not on any bad intent.
For decades, Grungras said, the UNHCR made all the decisions in Israel on who received refugee status and who didn’t. In more recent years, the UN commission made recommendations to Israeli officials, who then made the final determination. But the process is now entirely in Israeli hands, said Grungras, who observed that the whole phenomenon of non-Jewish refugees entering the Jewish state is also recent.
“We’re hoping that it’s simply a matter of Israeli officials not understanding the guidelines,” Grungras said, referring to the consensus that has developed throughout the West. The very fact that Israel is seen as a hospitable place by others in the Mideast, especially gays and lesbians, should be a badge of honor for Israel, he added.
Like others who battle for social justice, Grungras attributes his involvement to his own background as the child of Holocaust survivors from Poland and Germany. His mother survived the war in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, while his father worked in a slave-labor camp.
Today, looking at the global treatment of gays and lesbians, he observes that many of the countries that are hostile toward LGBTs are also hostile toward Jews.
In each case, Grungras said, “you have a small, defenseless group that can easily be marginalized, scapegoated or blamed. It’s very convenient to have an outsider group that a society can define itself by. There’s no ‘us’ without a ‘them.’ ”
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