By Melissa Wells
At a panel discussion this past Monday, a staff attorney at the Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project echoed what three other featured panelists affirmed: it is increasingly difficult to reach out to LGBTQ and immigrant communities experiencing such high levels of fear currently. Thus, the services provided must reflect culturally competent care LGBTQ immigrants feel comfortable accessing.
Presented by The Violence Recovery Program and Women’s Health Team at Fenway Health, the fear fostered and barriers created for LGBTQ immigrants as a result of the political climate was a prominent, underlying theme of the event, “Culturally Competent Care for LGBTQ Immigrants.”
Fari Sattar, an outreach worker and advocate for the Violence Recovery Program at Fenway Health, addressed this in his introductory comments presenting the event.
This year as a whole, but particularly the weeks leading up to midterm elections, have been particularly difficult, said Sattar.
A transgender immigrant himself, he found that many other LGBTQ immigrants face the “emotional and physical danger” that Sattar did, not only in their home countries but also here.
He enlisted the help of Tanekwah Hinds, the Women’s Health Program Coordinator at Fenway Health, to pursue the topic for the second annual event in Fenway Health’s “Culturally Competent” series.
Approximately had 65 people showed up for the event by the time it began at 7 p.m., with participants ranging from social workers and college students to lawyers and activists. More than 50 others tuned into the live stream on Facebook as it occurred. It has racked up more than 100 views since then.
Featuring a panel of community leaders of color, the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, the Victim Rights Law Center and the Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project sponsored the two-hour long discussion with Damián Lima, Hema Sarang-Sieminski, Jonathan Briseño and Violeta Haralampieva concerning how best to empower the LGBTQ immigrant population with competent care in legal and health services.
What stood out from the long discussion was not only what resources exist but how services can intersect to help the LGBTQ immigrant population confront challenges.
Lima, an LGBTQ immigrant, advocates for the health and rights of transgender and immigrant communities as coordinator of the Health Promotion Center at Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center.
Lima was adamant about what he believes is racism and xenophobia implemented by the current administration, as reflected in its systems. Concerning asylum within American immigration policy, he said, “It was a system designed to keep people out. The system is designed to be difficult.”
Sarang-Sieminski is a staff attorney at the Victims Rights Law Center, supervising lawyers on immigration in Boston.
“This climate can feel really isolating,” she said during an interview before the discussion. “What our responsibility is as providers is to make sure pathways of resources stay open.”
She represents survivors of sexual assault, focusing on immigrant and LGBTQ communities, and trains attorneys to challenge institutional bias and oppression when representing survivors.
As attorneys, it is crucial to understand how power works to harm and directly impact survivors of sexual assault, LGBTQ and immigrant clients so “we can cultivate pipelines” to providing people of color, immigrants and those who identify as LGBTQ with the same care, Sarang-Sieminski said.
This also involves acknowledging that the stigma surrounding both immigrant and LGBTQ communities acts differently.
“Every patient and every client that you see comes into your office with their own set of unique strengths and challenges,” Hinds said in her opening remarks. She affirmed that culturally competent care includes not only “understanding disparities,” but also “accepting diverse experiences of each and every one of your patients.”
Briseño is a bilingual counselor in the Violence Recovery Program’s behavioral health department, focusing on advocacy education for mental health within the LGBTQ immigrant population.
Educating patients on their resources helps them move past the feeling of judgment they have become accustomed to, Briseño said.
Sarang-Sieminski reinforced that statement, telling audience members how “feeling the magnitude of that level of institutional and ideological oppression on the shoulder of our communities” means it is an ethical responsibility on the part of lawyers, for example, to “constantly fight these fires.”
In developing cultural humility sensitive to that, being involved in the community enhances care, Briseño said.
“If we stay in our offices, there’s only so much we can do to help.”
Briseño offers many ways to do that. Beyond the free training programs at Fenway Health that are open to the community, Briseño heads specific mental health-related courses in both English and Spanish.
He also stressed the importance of staying up-to-date with the news, keeping up with changing policies and protections and looking to consult with both lawyers and organizations when helping a patient or client is beyond the provider’s reach.
Briseño works closely with Haralampieva, who met in-person for the first time at the event, to evaluate the mental health of asylum seekers as well as provide services as a therapist to the community.
Haralampieva is a staff attorney at the Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project, specializing in asylum law.
Her criticism of the administration was evident. “This administration has shown strong hostility against LGBT and immigrant communities,” she said. “They’re chipping away at asylum where they can.”
“They’re chipping away at asylum where they can.”
Haralampieva also assists Briseño with the detention program there to help LGBTQ immigrants.
In the resources she has found to be beneficial, Haralampieva named non-profit organizations in Massachusetts she believes are a “lifeline” that help the majority of her clients, LGBTQ asylum seekers, meet basic needs.
Moderators Sattar and Hinds only asked five questions, but panelists filled nearly an hour and a half of the two-hour long forum answering them before turning to the audience for more.
Participants like Caitlin LeMay found that the resources mentioned were the most important part of the panel, as they helped “open up doors for connections.”
She works at The Center for Hope and Healing in Lowell, a rape crisis center for sexual assault survivors. “If you don’t know where to go or what to look for, you can’t educate yourself or others.”
Of resources at the Health Promotion Center where he works, Lima mentioned three different ongoing training programs examining racism within the healthcare system, designed to help providers treat patients with an intersectional approach.
Lima also noted literature aimed at increasing cultural competency through self-education, explicitly Anthony G. Greenwald and Mahzarin R. Banaji’s book, “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People,” published in 2013.
Haralampieva referenced several training programs for legal advocates and attorneys, such as “Know Your Rights” and other LGBTQ-centered asylum and human rights courses offered through the UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. Beyond their own organizations, Haralampieva and Sarang-Sieminski offered points of contact with other agencies, nonprofits and businesses through the Maebright Group.
The conversation was comprised of evaluating the strengths and struggles unique to the LGBTQ immigrant community, how education is critical to helping providers approach different experiences and what resources panelists could provide to help put cultural competence into practice.
“A popular tendency in social service spaces is to rank deserving and non-deserving immigrants. There is no ‘other-ing’ dialogue that we can engage in,” Sarang-Sieminski reminded participants.
Similarly, in an interview prior to the discussion, Briseño echoed the need for awareness of other experiences to help providers practice cultural competence. “What I want people to take from here is overall awareness that people who are immigrants are experiencing a lot of traumatizing events but adding those layers of the LGBTQ community makes it even harder.”
Claudia Clark is a primary care provider from Jamaica Plain. As someone who works with a predominantly immigrant population consisting of many closeted men and women, she appreciated “any opportunity to get resources.”
Clark smiled as she said, “I think it’s important that there’s always a place to go where we can be together and have these conversations.”