S.F. agency head goes to bat for LGBT asylum-seekers

Two tenets in Judaism hold special meaning for Neil Grungras. One is the mitzvah hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stran-ger) and the other is the line from the Talmud “To save one life is as if you have saved the world.”

Grungras, 52, takes those tenets to heart.

He is the founder and executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration — an S.F.-based nonprofit helping refugees fleeing sexual-and gender-based violence worldwide.

Neil Grungras

“There is nothing more deeply gratifying, more sustaining, than saving a human life or helping someone find freedom in a place of tolerance,” said Grungras, who lives in San Francisco but often travels to Israel (where those seeking sexual- and gender-based freedom are often placed these days) and spots around the globe.

The number of people fleeing oppression and violence based on sexual orientation and gender is on a rapid increase, according to Grungras.

He notes that some 75 countries criminalize homosexuality, and that  seven countries execute law breakers. In other countries, he adds, family members sometimes carry out “honor killings” against those who bring shame to the family through non-conforming sexual orientation or gender identity.

ORAM, which has offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., provides  free legal representation, advocacy work and research.

Globally, ORAM is working with government and non-governmental agencies to change protocols, systems and laws that often stifle LGBTI individuals who are seeking asylum from persecution (“I” stands for intersex).

ORAM’s newest project is the Resettlement Pilot Program.

“We are working to help connect LGBTI refugees around the world with supportive communities — mostly in the United States, Canada and Australia,” says Grungras. “We also are working to create safe spaces for LGBTI asylum-seekers to be interviewed about why they are afraid, and to get people approved for relocation more quickly.”

Once a person is eligible for resettlement, not everything will go smoothly, Grungras says. Often refugees are placed in small towns in conservative states “where the refugee still may not be safe.”

Now, Grungras says, the goal is to “funnel the person somewhere safe, somewhere like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York or Seattle.”

Grungras identifies another goal for the Resettlement Pilot Pro-gram: to create programs in LBGTI and faith-based communities that will receive refugees. That’s  where the Jewish community enters the picture.

“We’ve established such a program with the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,” he says.

“What we’re looking for are places to resettle LGBTI refugees where they are free to be themselves, to live up to their potential, to end the cycle of traumatization, to give them a chance to start again.”

For some individuals, Israel is that place. Through the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University, ORAM provides legal support to persecuted LGBTI individuals who seek shelter there.

“Israel is now known as a country that people can escape to,” says Grungras. “The old taboos about the Middle East, the sense of foreboding about Israel — that’s over. Now Israel is known as a modern place with economic opportunities. It’s an open society, and traditional persecution because of religion or sexual orientation or gender is rare there.”

Grungras, who is Jewish, was born to a Polish mother who survived Auschwitz and a German father who survived the Polish work camps. Born in Brooklyn, he became interested in refugee law while attending law school in San Francisco.

From 1990 until 2000, he had a private immigration law practice in San Francisco; later he ran a facility for U.S.-bound refugees in Austria, under the auspices of the State Department.

“I surmise my interest in refugees is because of my personal background,” he says. “I have always had a deep attraction to the plight of refugees, and to the need of people to be secure. I don’t question it — it’s what I have to do.”

Grungras says he sometimes gets depressed over the enormity of what he is trying to do, but quickly adds: “There are a few cases where I think, ‘This person would not have lived, but did, because I went the extra mile.’ And that’s good.”