To Canada, with Pride: LGBTQ refugees find a home where they can escape fear

August 3, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

LGBTQ refugees and new immigrants share their stories of hope, resilience and rebirth under the rainbow flag.

Tamara has a body like a flag. The facial piercings, the body art, and the two large bandages on her knees — product of a recent skateboarding accident — are symbols of her new life. Tamara is a young LGBTQ refugee from Syria. Even her injuries she wears with pride.

The petals of a tattooed rose are visible at the open collar of her shirt. She got the body art for her recent 28th birthday, her first in Canada. “It says courage, strength and self-belief,” explains Tamara over a latte in a Davie Street café.

“The tattoo is a celebration, and a reminder of all the experiences I’ve gone through and the obstacles I’ve overcome and a reminder that I can still overcome more difficult things.”

Tamara, who prefers not to use her last name to protect her family in Syria, came to Canada one year ago seeking refuge from persecution because of her sexuality and gender identity. Syria is one of 70 countries in the world that consider homosexuality a crime.

According to the UNCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, a growing number of asylum claims in recent years have been made by LGBTI — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex — individuals around the globe.

In Damascus and later during a four-year work stint in Dubai, Tamara, who says she looked gender-neutral, was a target of suspicion and misunderstanding. “Walking down the street, I would get looks, people calling me names, asking me if I was a guy or a girl. I would get called a freak.”

She tried to grow her hair long and dress in a more feminine way.

For many years, she herself didn’t understand of why she was different. “There was a lack of exposure. My sexuality was never an option or a choice. At the moment of realization I thought, oh, this makes a lot of sense.”

The realization came while at university where she was introduced to a “very small, very underground group of LGBTQ people.”

Her life became better — and worse. “It was better because I realized who I was, and I belonged to this group of people, this family. I was not on my own. But at the same time I was scared. I was something that my society told me was wrong.”

Coming out to her family was not an option — and still isn’t, said Tamara, who endured deep isolation and constant fear of being outed, beaten or jailed.

“I wanted a more sustainable, safe and secure way of living,” said Tamara. Friends in Canada encouraged her to apply for refugee status through the Blended Visa Office Referred program, where costs are shared by private sponsors.

Leaving Syria meant that she would lose “the people that I love, the people that I know, the places that I grew up,” said Tamara, but not leaving meant a life deadened by hiding and fear.

After a process of nearly three years, and a journey of 48 hours, she arrived. The welcome of her sponsorship circle was “overwhelming to the point that it took a couple of days for me to understand it was reality,” said Tamara.

Christopher Koene, manager of corporate citizenship and communications at Telus, and head of the national Telus Pride program, said getting personally involved in the private sponsorship group that helped bring Tamara to Canada was deeply rewarding.

“Sometimes the problems in the world seem so huge, but if you take a small step toward making a difference, you can step back and say hey, I helped one person make a huge step,” said Koene.

Shortly after Tamara arrived, Koene took her to see her first drag show, which featured his partner, Sienna Blaze. Blaze dedicated her performance to welcoming Tamara as a new member of the community.

That’s when she lost it. “I had tears running down my face,” said Tamara, “… of happiness.”

The song Blaze dedicated to her was This is Me, from The Greatest Showman. The lyrics said it all: I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me.

Finally, said Tamara, “I belong.”

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