An Oasis for LGBTQ Asylum Seekers
When Cristina Ceballos was faced with the decision to take responsibility of leading OLAS as its Program Director or see it shutter its doors, they embraced the challenge and have never looked back. “I’ve definitely had my moments of, oh my God, what if I mess it up? But I think maybe that’s just also [being] a saboteur…that feeling that you just don’t actually have what it takes. But what if you do?”
Horizons Foundation’s grantee partner OLAS, which means “wave” in Spanish and stands for LGBT Organization for Support and Solidarity, works with LGBTQ Latin-American immigrants, especially asylum seekers, in order to foster self-acceptance, emotional wellbeing, and community support. By focusing on personal and collective healing, OLAS supports participants to thrive. As one participant said, “Coming to the US saved my life, but OLAS saved my soul.”
Violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender leaves long-lasting, traumatic effects on the individuals who experience it. People who have access to supportive community resources tend to have much better outcomes than those who don't. We believe that gender and sexual orientation or country of origin should not be an impediment to being happy, healthy, and thriving members of our community.
“The process of becoming documented in the United States can often be retraumatizing,” Cristina explained, “and OLAS is a space where people can come and not only rest, but also build community with people who are like them in many ways. [They can] feel seen, heard, validated, while also…caring for their mental and emotional wellbeing.” Many OLAS participants are separated from their families due to violence, immigration laws, homophobia, and transphobia, leading to isolation. Since 2004, OLAS has been fostering community to help asylum seekers heal. “The spirit [of the group] is to meet and commune and heal together [and] come back to visit your chosen family,” Cristina said.
OLAS partners with East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC), an organization that provides legal services, community organizing, and transformative education to support low-income immigrants and people fleeing violence and persecution. “They have always been very open and accommodating and supportive,” Cristina said. EBSC-OLAS received a Community Issues grant from Horizons Foundation to support their work providing holistic support to asylum seekers.
Since 1982, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant has provided integrated legal and social services to LGBTQ asylum seekers in the Bay Area. They reach over 500 LGBTQ asylum seekers yearly, and to date have won asylum for over 2,600 LGBTQ people with a 99% success rate.
EBSC-OLAS plans to use its grant to provide workshops through OLAS to 125 LGBTQ asylum seekers. Additionally, 160 will receive legal help to apply for asylum, and 25 will receive financial aid for psychological evaluations. Cristina is currently planning two retreats for the second half of the year. “The [funds] we have received from Horizons is what’s going to help make those two [retreats] happen,” Cristina said. “It’s already being put to use…to provide two weekend retreats which are absolutely important for the community we serve, for them to come rest, share, and heal together. It’s going to be wonderful.”
These workshops are facilitated by bilingual LGBTQ people of color and mental health professionals, and help jumpstart a collective healing process through mental health support, stress reduction tools, community building, arts, and education. For example, OLAS hosts a “Know Your Rights” workshop focused on housing and workers’ rights, financial literacy, and other topics.
Cristina explained that there is still a stigma around talking about mental health, especially within immigrant communities. Cristina is able to connect with OLAS participants over a shared culture, and encourages many asylum seekers to utilize OLAS’ services. “I am them and they are me,” Cristina said.
Cristina’s own background as a child of immigrants and Mexican heritage connects them with the people they serve. They moved back to Mexico when they were four, so they have had many similar experiences to the asylum seekers they serve. “I really do believe we’re all the same… I am just like everyone. But I also have this big responsibility, and I care, and I think that’s why I was willing to jump and take [OLAS] on, because…I knew inherently why it was necessary, because I felt that way before.” Cristina refers many people who come to EBSC for legal services to OLAS. “OLAS is meant to hold your hand as you go through the legal process of asylum,” they explained.
The impact of OLAS’ work is evident in statements from participants:
“M” is a trans man from Mexico. We first met M when he identified as a lesbian and was seeking asylum with his wife. After M expressed concerns about alcoholism, we connected M to free therapy through Partnerships for Trauma Recovery. Therapy and OLAS activities helped with anxiety, sleep, and clarifying M’s desire to transition. He shares, “I never knew what it was like to be connected to my true self. OLAS is like the family I never had.
“It’s mostly a labor of love,” Cristina said. “This program was born out of love.”