From Jewish Exiles to Sexual Exiles

By Michael Kaminer

Published December 02, 2009, issue of December 11, 2009.
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A former executive of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is about to shake up the world of refugee aid. Longtime refugee advocate, Neil Grungras, founded the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, & Migration last January and it is on the verge of launching a historic global survey about prevailing attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender migrants.

A New Cause: Former Jewish refugee specialist Neil Grungras now seeks to aid gay and transgender people fleeing oppression.
A New Cause: Former Jewish refugee specialist Neil Grungras now seeks to aid gay and transgender people fleeing oppression.

Starting in January 2010, ORAM will query more than 100 NGOs worldwide about their protocols for helping gay and transgender individuals — “the most persecuted group on the planet,” according to Grungras. The new agency bills itself as “the first international Non-Governmental Organization focusing on refugees fleeing sexual and gender-based violence.”

The survey has roots in a June report by ORAM and the human rights group Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Turkey about mistreatment of gay refugees in that country. Singling out the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — as well as the Turkish government — for pervasive prejudice, the report concluded that the system was punishing people it was supposed to protect.

“We’ve found that workers on the ground reflected the homophobia of the society they live in,” said Grungras, 50, who had most recently served as director for the Middle East and Europe for HIAS. “We want people to understand that even if you don’t approve of homosexuality, or believe transgendered people shouldn’t exist, you should not allow that belief system to result in someone else’s persecution.”

Grungras’s zeal isn’t just academic. The son of a Polish-born mother who survived Auschwitz, and a German-born father who survived Polish work camps, he sees “striking parallels” between the persecution of Jews in the Holocaust and the persecution of gay and transgender people in many countries in the world today.

According to the activist, 85 countries criminalize homosexual behavior, with seven applying the death penalty. Indeed, a New York magazine dispatch in early November compared Iraq’s reported purges of gay people to “pogroms”; Iraqi militias, the magazine reported, “appear to be repositioning themselves as agents of moral enforcement, exploiting anti-gay prejudice as a means of engendering public support.” In Iraq, media and clergy routinely demonize gay people, the publication wrote.

“The animus toward [gay and transgender] people around the world is pretty shocking,” said Victoria Neilson, legal director of Immigration Equality, which helps obtain asylum for gay and HIV-positive refugees, and lobbies against discrimination in immigration laws. “I can see where Neil’s analogy is coming from.”

Indeed, when Grungras told his mother that he was leaving HIAS to launch an advocacy organization for LGBT refugees, “her response was, ‘Oh my God, it’s just like the Jews.’”

“I told her that I’m helping people leave from a country where they’re afraid, [go] to another country where they’re equally afraid and always on the run,” he said. “I’m trying to help them find a place where they can be safe. Jews immediately get it. Few groups are so hated just for being themselves.”

A major part of ORAM’s agenda, Grungras says, is “mainstreaming” gay and transgender refugee issues so that refugee agencies around the world can handle them. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues “shouldn’t be an LGBT problem,” he said, using the short-hand acronym for these minorities. “They’re a human rights problem. The more I dealt with refugees in my career, the more aware I became that we’d virtually omitted LGBT refugees from the panoply of issues we’d been confronting. It’s a taboo that needs to be opened.”

The survey is the beginning of a long campaign to make that happen, he said.

Born in Tel Aviv, Grungras was educated in the United States. After graduating from the University of California Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco, he dabbled in different areas of law before “it very quickly became clear I had to do refugee law.” In 1987, he launched what would become a long career in refugee advocacy, representing Soviet Jews applying for asylum to the United States, and advising sexual minority groups on immigration issues. By 2000, HIAS recruited him as director of its Israel operations. He ascended quickly, assigned to run HIAS’s Vienna office before getting promoted to Tel Aviv-based director for Europe and the Middle East.

His experiences with gay Palestinian refugees in Israel — he also founded a refugee law clinic at Tel Aviv University — were “a turning point” that gave birth to ORAM, Grungras said. “There’s a long history of gays from the Palestinian authority escaping to Israel from oppression, arrests and honor killings,” he said. “At that time, no one else was doing any work with gay Palestinians in Israel. They got bounced around. They would have certainly been killed had they returned home. They were abandoned by everyone.”

Grungras said he left HIAS “lovingly” in 2008 and started ORAM with his previous employer’s blessing. ORAM now represents 40 refugee clients. Anonymous private donors and the Arcus Foundation, which funds gay rights initiatives, support its $200,000 first-year budget. From offices in Tel Aviv, San Francisco and Istanbul — many Iranian sexual refugees endure a difficult transit through Turkey — the group “deals with people who are stuck. They’ve escaped countries of persecution, they’re in secondary countries where they don’t intend to stay, and they’re trying to get somewhere safe,” he said.

“But we’re not defining ourselves as an aid organization, or an assistance organization, or a care organization. We’re defining ourselves as an empowerment organization,” he said. “There was a self-help precedent with Jews in World War II that hasn’t existed in the LGBT world. Refugees have to be empowered to take care of themselves, one another, and other refugees in the future.”

In a world that promises no shortage of refugees over the next decade, how big does he want his organization to grow?

“Our main goal is to show other organizations how to handle these cases, and let them fly with them,” he said. “In an ideal world, 10 years from now ORAM will still have 40 clients because other organizations are doing such a great job. And in a really ideal world, no one will have any clients, because persecution will have stopped.”

Contact Michael Kaminer at

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