Giving Back Series: Safe Place International

At TomboyX we know that giving back to our communities is a central part of what it means to be a responsible business. This year we are partnering with six outstanding charities the world over who are doing important work. Over the course of the year we will publish interviews and articles with these amazing organizations.

This month we are focusing on Safe Place International. Safe Place International works with LGBTQ+ refugees to help them find housing, clothes, and to protect them from the ongoing global violence against this community. We sat down with founder Justin Hilton to learn more about how Safe Place International came to be and the continuing work they are doing today.

This is a little bit of a long read but we promise that you’re going to learn a whole lot along the way.

TomboyX - Can you tell us a little bit about how Safe Place International was formed?

Justin - It all starts a little ways back, I was working in Southern India after homosexuality was re-criminalized doing rescues of trans people and lesbian women who were pursued by their families. At the same time I was doing human trafficking work in Northern India and educational work with women and girls in Nepal. I made regular trips to India and Nepal; via Istanbul where on a long layover, I began to learn more about the refugee crisis and the specific needs of the LGBT community. It was after the brutal murder of a trans woman that I knew we needed to mobilize. Istanbul is like the San Francisco of the Middle East, it’s thought to be one of the most tolerant cities in the region. So the murder put into real perspective the crisis at hand and the double marginalization the LGBT community faces.

TomboyX - What are some of the specific issues that LGBT refugees face that others may not?

Justin - Well, typically when a refugee lands in a new area they will connect and stay with people from their same region or country. So if they’re fleeing Cameroon they’ll end up with other people from Cameroon, the same is true for Pakistan, Algeria, Iran, what have you. Unfortunately for LGBT people that often means ending up with the same people who were trying to harm them in their home country.

So they face threats from their native population. As well as a growing right-wing religious fanatical population in Istanbul, similar to others growing in the U.S. and around the world. Folks that are very fundamentalist and very anti-LGBT, and anti-feminist, and anti-everything.

TomboyX - So upon learning about the threats to LGBTQ refugees what were your next steps?

Justin - When I dug into this I learned there were no LGBT shelters in Istanbul, nobody providing services. So we started looking for a place to start a shelter. The problem was that nobody wanted a shelter in their neighborhood. People didn’t want refugees, and certainly not LGBT refugees in their neighborhood. After an exhaustive search with a lot of rejection, we found a space in a Kurdish neighborhood and opened our first shelter with 14 beds which quickly expanded into 21.

Once we were full we found ourselves doing a ton of outreach. If people already had an apartment, but they didn't have rent money, we would help them with rent money. If they had a place to live, but they didn't have food, we would help them with food. And then we helped people with asylum applications. We worked with an NGO called ORAM to help people get vulnerability status. We had 100% success in getting the people that we worked with asylum in Western Europe. It was great. The Shelter was a true Oasis, it was the first time that the community members were able to be themselves, and feel safe.

However, after a while having all those vulnerable refugees in one place meant that we couldn’t guarantee the safety of those we were helping or our volunteers. In the end we had to shutter the Istanbul shelter and now we just work through activists there in an informal network, and help fund and support people as they go through Turkey.

TomboyX - So with the shelter closed in Istanbul did you think “well we tried, let’s all go home”?

Justin - Well at the same time as we were working in Istanbul there was a parallel process happening in Athens. But it was a much different situation, because, of course, Greece is an EU country. We could become a Greek NGO and we could operate very visibly with a network of other service providers. We started with one apartment in Athens to house LGBT folks. Now, we're just over 20 apartments, housing close to 55 people.

We also have a three story community center, that both serves the people that we house, as well as the larger community of LGBT refugees that are living on the street or couch surfing. So they can come and do laundry, take showers, get new clothes, enjoy a hot meal. They can also take language classes, writing classes, theater classes, yoga classes, and meditation classes.

Then in addition to that we’ve opened several women and children shelters around Greece which all came about because of an incredible volunteer and refugee named Joseph. Because there are few to no black people in Greece there is this assumption that if you are black you must be a refugee. So Joseph could walk into these camps in ways that we couldn’t. So after one night spent in this massive camp, Moria, Joseph found two gay men, two lesbians, and a pregnant woman on a very wet, cold tent on a muddy hillside. Now if you Google Moria you’ll quickly find that it is no place for a mother, it is overbooked by 10 times and people live in terrible conditions. So as soon as we saw this woman, Lynette, we knew we had to become not just an LGBT NGO, but an NGO for double marginalized people.

TomboyX - That is an incredible amount of work that you are doing. How does an organization such as yours fund yourself?

Justin - I guess we haven’t had a lot of time to reach out to supporters. Plus it’s like, how do you even raise money? How do you reach out to corporations? We have financial help from Spectra an amazing non-profit in the Bay Area and the majority of our help comes from fellow non-profits who hear about us via word of mouth and say, “We know what you're doing, and you deserve to be supported."

TomboyX - So how does an underwear company like TomboyX factor into refugee shelters?

Justin - Underwear was the big thing that we didn't have. No one had any of their own underwear, and there is not much donated underwear. So TomboyX was an unbelievable joyful gift. It was like ecstasy in the communities. And when they were unwrapping and getting to pick, first of all, they never get to pick their own clothes. Second of all, they're never new. Third, there's never underwear. There's never something that you could put on, and feel like, "This reflects my individuality. It's mine. And it's new."

TomboyX - Has there been a difference in working with a queer-lead company versus some of the other brands you have worked with?

Justin - Yes. Talking to Fran for the first time, I mean, I just wanted to cry because when you're talking to people usually it is such a leap to get people to understand what our community is going through. And in this conversation she just got it. And she was like, "Yeah. No, we're totally going to help." And then they just came through and the boxes arrived. It was just such a different experience to really feel like there was a deep caring and a wanting to be involved.

TomboyX - One of the things I’m hearing from you is that there is both incredible good in the world and at the same time awful things happening globally. How do you reconcile the two in your mind?

Justin - Basically, being in the NGO space is somewhat out of emotional survival. When I'm bombarded with images of the worst of humanity, I know where I need to be is with the best of humanity. And the best of humanity is in the NGO space, it's in people that have given up their lives and the pursuit of their own careers to help the most vulnerable people. There's people everywhere that are doing selfless, really inspiring work of service that are just under the radar. And all we hear about are the folks that are destroying the planet and taking away basic human rights. And so for me, it's like emotional survival to stay in the middle of the best of humanity, because, otherwise, it feels very difficult to be alive at this time.

TomboyX - Amazing. As we start to wrap up here, can you tell us a little bit about where you’d like to see Safe Place International in the future?

Justin - Safe Place doesn't aspire to be a United Way or a big behemoth non-profit. So We're supporting small grassroots organizations, and that's where our growth is. So we're going to continue to operate in Greece. But we're not going to extend operations of Safe Place itself beyond Greece. Instead what we're going to do is financially and through other resources and logistics, support non-profits around the world in delivering the best possible outcomes and services. Our goal is to support 10 grassroots NGOs by July, and another 10 between July and December so that we are supporting 20 by the end of the year. That's how we would like to grow.

TomboyX - How can people get involved in Safe Place International?

Justin - We desperately need donations. I mean, we are literally kind of living month to month just because we increased our number of caseworkers and increased the amount of things that we're doing. I bought the apartments, and I donate those so we don’t have a lot of hard costs. But we do have the utility costs, and then we have the cost of the staff, and then we have the costs of the food.

And then also we'd love for people with social work experience in treating trauma to come and intern with us, to volunteer, or if people have a particular talent like they are theater directors or producers, are choreographers or writers that teach poetry or any kind of movement or dance or creative endeavor, they teach painting, whatever like that, we'd love to offer our community different kinds of workshops and experiences.

TomboyX - Any last thoughts or important things we didn’t touch on that you’d like to share?

Justin - What I would offer is to not underestimate the impact of breaking the stereotypes that get floated, the narrative that gets floated about refugees. Every time there is a tweet from the administration or some offhand scapegoating or demonizing of refugees, somebody somewhere dies. It causes people to live in conditions where they're not able to survive. It's really important that as a domestic LGBT community that we follow the example of Fran and TomboyX, and really are inclusive of these folks that are facing death and persecution.