Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15737 ‘Not This, Not That:' the Experience of Muslims Seeking Asylum In the United States On the Basis of Gender and Sexual Orientation

Sunday, January 15, 2012: 10:45 AM
Constitution D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Sara Kahn, MSW, Consultant, New York University, New York, NY
Purpose and Background: The purpose of this study is to create a grounded theory of facilitators and barriers to ontological security for Muslims who seek asylum in the U.S. on the basis of sexual orientation or gender, to optimize wellbeing through enhanced services and immigration policies.

Since 1994, an increasing number of LGBT persons and women fleeing female female genital mutilation (FGM) request asylum in the U.S. Muslims in these categories have the added burden of negotiating a post -9-11 socio-political landscape marked by xeonophobia and stigmatization of Islam.

Moving away from a ‘one-size-fits-all' approach to immigration and resettlement policies, and extant empirical data suggesting risk and protective factors are generalizable to all refugee-like persons, the study's objectives are: to examine how Muslims with LGBT and FGM-related asylum claims navigate the U.S. immigration system; to explore how these asylum seekers balance newfound cultural liberation and agency against losses of families, communities, and traditions; and how they reconcile identities within post 9-11 structures of oppression and racialization in the U.S.

Methods: Utilizing intersectionality, queer/feminist and critical race theories as foundations, a grounded theory methodological design with purposive sampling engaged 14 study participants throughout the U.S. who had gained asylum since 2005, and met criteria for inclusion in one of two homogenous groups: Seven African Muslim women who had undergone FGM and gained asylum to protect their daughters from the practice; and, seven gay Middle Eastern or African Muslim asylees were interviewed. Participants were recruited through African Services Committee, Sanctuary for Families, International Institute of New Jersey, and private attorneys. Data collection involved in-depth interviews, observations, and supporting documents from asylum proceedings. Rigor was achieved through prolonged engagement, maintaining an audit trail, triangulation, member checking, and peer co-coding. Data analysis was implemented according to grounded theory guidelines specified by Charmaz (2006) and Padgett (2008), from line-by-line coding, incident to incident coding, axial coding, theoretical coding, and theme development.

Results: Findings challenge received wisdom about protective factors for refugee-like persons in resettlement and assumed benefits of Western freedoms of identity expressions, and reveal gaps in immigration adjudication and service delivery systems: For gay asylees, ‘coming out' --required to attain asylum-- can be fraught with fears of loss of family connections. For women, disclosing details of FGM to supportive female providers and adjudicators may help validate the experience of violation while strengthening their sense of agency in protecting daughters. Gay asylees can experience racialization within mainstream gay structures; and, struggle with unresolved shame while searching for meaningful intimate relationships. Women may live with FGM-related sexual problems often unaddressed by service providers. For all, co-ethnic community members, rather than providing support, may replicate homophobia and/or ostracism experienced in the home country.

Implications: Findings may help influence existing policies and practices, suggesting that co-ethnic affiliations and mainstream resources are not universally beneficial, bringing the voices of asylum seekers into current advocacy efforts to reform asylum/resettlement policies for this growing ‘special needs' population, and providing the basis for specialized training for immigration adjudicators and service providers.

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