SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) – Thousands of LGBTQ immigrants flee their country every year from discrimination, abuse or even death due to their sexual orientation.

The Bay Area has become a popular destination for asylum — but there are very few organizations that provide free legal help.

Hundreds of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer flee their countries each year coming to the Bay Area for safety. Many are facing persecution or death for simply being themselves.

“In 70 countries it is still illegal to be LGBTQ,” Okan Sengun, the co-founder of the LGBT Asylum Project, told KRON4. “In ten of those countries, it is punishable by death.”

Sengun is from Turkey. He moved to San Francisco in 2009 as an international law student.

“I’ve always known I was a gay man and I’ve always known that it would be very dangerous for me to hold my boyfriend’s hand, which I couldn’t do in public so I decided to leave for a better future,” Sengun said.

All asylum seekers hope for a better life when coming to the United States, but when they get here, it quickly becomes expensive and difficult get approved.

If they are eligible, they must apply for asylum within one year.

“Only about 13% of asylum applications are successful in the United States,” Sengun said.

Sengun said no representation is given during this process.

“My first immigration case was my own case,” Sengun said. “Luckily I was a lawyer myself so I presented my case properly. I got approved and I am a U.S. citizen now. But I knew I had to do more.”

Sengun co-founded the LGBT Asylum Project in San Francisco in 2015 to represent others seeking safety.

“It’s the only non-profit in San Francisco dedicated to providing legal services to LGBTQ+ aslyum seekers coming from countries where it’s illegal to be apart of the community,” Sengun said.

The LGBT Asylum Project continued to help people in the peak of the pandemic.

“Against all odds we were able to help 338 LGBTQ+ immigrants get into the U.S. and in 2021 that number went up to 531 people served by our organization,” Sengun said.

The non-profit hopes to continue to grow those numbers.

Sengun said that they give clients pro bono help to immigrants so they too can experience the freedom he describes feeling in the Castro neighborhood when he first moved here.

“I could not stop going to the Castro every single day,” Sengun said. “I wanted to see gay flags, gay couples, trans people. It was a feeling of belonging and that feeling is a life saver.”

And that’s what the LGBT asylum project works to do — save as many lives as possible.