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“We are here to stay”: Rainbow Railroad and LGBTQI+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers Advocate to US Congress

Gathering for Advocacy: RCUSA Advocacy Days


“We are here to stay”: Rainbow Railroad and LGBTQI+... “We are here to stay”: Rainbow Railroad and LGBTQI+...

 

Each spring, refugees, asylum seekers, and activists gather in Washington D.C. to lobby members of Congress to strengthen the US response to global forced displacement. Annually, Refugee Council USA organizes this event, RCUSA Advocacy Days, in partnership with coalition member organizations like Rainbow Railroad. Constituents travel to D.C. from around the country to reach as many offices on Capitol Hill as possible and mobilize Congressional support for refugee and asylum programming.

This year, six Rainbow Railroad refugee ambassadors from Jamaica, Kenya, Indonesia, and Uganda, now living in New York and Pennsylvania, joined more than 300 participants in Washington. These participants included 174 people with lived experience of forced displacement, hailing from 50+ countries, who advocated before a divided Congress on welcoming immigrants with dignity. Our ambassadors met with staffers from Senators’ and Representatives’ offices to raise awareness about the root causes of forced displacement and the critical importance of ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees have timely access to work permits and documentation. 

 

Leading from Lived Experience

To ensure that the US refugee and asylum system is inclusive and accessible to queer and trans people at risk, LGBTQI+-led organizations and LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers must be at the forefront of coalition advocacy efforts. LGBTQI+ people face discrimination and risks at every stage of their journey. When queer and trans refugees are visible and their voices are amplified in policy spaces, we create a powerful opportunity to queer the refugee system and push for change. 

Rainbow Railroad ambassador, The First Lady Karabo Kitwana Kardashian, describes her experience advocating from her own lived experience: “My favorite part of Advocacy Days was when we had the opportunity to share our personal experiences and life stories. We spoke openly about the challenges we’ve faced, the hardships we’ve overcome, and the resilience that has sustained us. It was incredibly empowering to see how our stories resonated with others and to witness the empathy and understanding that emerged from those conversations. What struck me most was the realization that our struggles and triumphs are not just personal narratives but crucial elements in advocating for legislative change.”

A key achievement of RCUSA Advocacy Days is its commitment to representation by people with lived experience of forced displacement. Rainbow Railroad ambassador, Roan Reid, shared, “I was surprised to see so many Black folks, from marginalized groups, like myself, who are advocates on behalf of refugees who come to the US to seek a better life and protection.” 

 

Refugee and asylum seeker advocacy training

 

Refugees and Asylum Seekers Advance LGBTQI+ Rights in a Complex Landscape 

Prior to Advocacy Days, people with lived experience of forced displacement attended a one-day refugee leadership training to enhance their understanding of coalition policy asks and best practices around hope-based storytelling. Rainbow Railroad ambassador Staries Azura emphasized the solidarity in Advocacy Days, saying, “I love the diversity [among] the Advocacy Days participants, people from all around the world, interfaith, queers, disabled, all represented and assisted nicely. The training was absolutely helpful; it helped us, as participants, understand how to effectively talk to the Congress members.”

Participants are acutely aware of the complexity and tension of advocating for asylum and resettlement in the United States despite anti-LGBTQI+ laws in some US states. Rainbow Railroad ambassador and advocate, Richard Wilson, delivered a powerful call to action about the power of immigrants to drive the transformation towards queer liberation in the United States and beyond: 

“In relation to the ongoing challenges and intricate issues surrounding advocacy for asylum seekers and resettlement [considering these anti-LGBTQI+ policies], it is critical to recognize a fundamental truth: the strength and greatness of the United States have been built on the contributions of immigrants. From the most menial tasks to the most significant achievements, immigrants have been integral to the US’ development. Despite opposition, immigrants remain an essential, important and needed part of the fabric of US society, and we are here to stay. We are not going anywhere.”

 

The Fight Continues: Beyond Advocacy Days

Our advocacy doesn’t end with Advocacy Days, as Staries explained, “Advocacy Days really strengthened my work in advocacy and activism, it affects how I could approach the government, do follow-ups with them, and even work together in achieving something.” They also spoke of their ongoing advocacy journey: “Two years in a row of participating in Advocacy Days, I learned that we deserve to be given a platform to talk to governments, and Congress members in person, sharing a real lived experience to show them what we’ve been through and how they can support us.”

There is so much work to do, work that requires community mobilization and amplification of the voices of individuals with lived experience. Richard reminds us that, collectively, we must hold the US government accountable to its commitment to advance protection for LGBTQI+ refugees: “[We need to] get the people in the streets and have us speak our truth so [the government] can hear how their unwelcoming, unloving, unhuman, and uncaring policies are affecting immigrants.” 

Kitwana added, “Collaborating with diverse groups [during Advocacy Days] highlighted the strength in unity and solidarity, motivating me to seek out partnerships and alliances in future advocacy endeavors. Engaging directly with policymakers has inspired me to pursue opportunities where I can influence systemic change through policy reform. My experience has equipped me with insights that will inform and guide my approach to work, studies, and activism moving forward.”

 

Intensifying Efforts to Support Refugees and Asylum Seekers Ahead of the US Elections

Looking ahead to the US elections in November, where so much is at stake for LGBTQI+ rights and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, we are intensifying our US government programming and advocacy over the coming months. Through the Communities of Care program in partnership with Welcome Corps, and

direct referrals to the US refugee admissions program, we are ensuring that LGBTQI+ people at risk have access to resettlement in the United States. We will continue to push the administration and the US Congress to advance protection of LGBTQI+ people at risk, globally and domestically, through coalition engagement, UN representation and direct advocacy. You can join us, byspeaking out on social media, donating or volunteering. This year, we are leaning into solidarity in

 support of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers who deserve our voices, and our action.