As Canada celebrates the arrival of refugees, we should also remember the difficulties for LGBTI Syrians.
The photo ops were tear-jerkers: Dozens of Syrian refugees—families, children skirting down escalators, trying on new winter coats, and shaking hands with the country’s political elite at Pearson International Airport. “Welcome to Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told each one. “You are home.” They are phrases widely quoted in media outlets across the world, emblematic of our country’s open and giving community.
The government was lauded internationally for its acceptance of 163 refugees last Thursday. In an editorial the next day, the New York Times suggested Trudeau’s leadership “can serve as a beacon for others.”
Yet, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) Syrians seeking asylum have not fared as well. As CBC reported in November, Canadian resettlement efforts would not initially include “unaccompanied [without family] or single adult males.” Paradoxically, the government has promised to prioritize LGBTI Syrians seeking refuge from a country where homosexuality is criminalized. But few gay Syrian men can be forthcoming about their sexuality in fear of repercussion, and this creates challenges.
According to reports by The Huffington Post Canada, the government will identify and prioritize gay men who disclose their sexuality—something that isn’t always possible for those who live in fear of persecution. In Vancouver, Danny Ramadan, a Syrian refugee who identifies as gay, says doing so is incredibly risky. “If I was a refugee in a camp at the moment and I went out and went to the Canadian embassy and applied for refugee status, that’s basically outing myself to the whole refugee camp,” he told Metro Vancouver. “[That would] be putting myself in extreme danger.”
Queer Syrian women, too, face these challenges. “We talk about how for gay men over there, it’s extremely taboo. For gay women it can be just as bad, because they don’t have the same kind of rights that men have,” Winnipeg Pride’s Jeff Myall told CBC in November. “For gay women, in some cases, it’s even more dangerous.”
For those who have openly identified as LGBTI, several Toronto organizations have stepped in. Rainbow Railroad, for one, has a track record of aiding persecuted queer individuals living abroad. The organization has teamed up with Lifeline Syria to broaden its reach during the refugee crisis. But it is relying on private sponsorships to get Syrians the help they need. Egale Youth OUTreach also relies on donations.
These donations are difficult to yield when sensational media coverage distorts the reality of LGBTI refugees. A Global News story, for instance, about Amnesty International’s outcry against the Canadian government’s exclusion of single men from resettlement efforts bears the headline, “Could prioritizing gay Syrian refugees do more harm than good?” A quick scan of the article suggests not. Commenters, however, express otherwise: “So now hetrosexuals [sic] are being descriminated [sic] against?” one writes. “This is ridiculous, didnt [sic] realize gay lives meant more than others,” writes another.
What, then, is left to do?
Perhaps future resettlement plans will address the government’s initial shortcomings. Perhaps—if the country is lucky—these addresses will happen in conjunction with queer activists, those who understand the needs and issues of LGBTI Syrians at a rudimentary level. Too often, these issues are overlooked in favour of the bigger picture—whether by the media or even by the government itself. But queer Syrians’ lives matter. They are people in grave danger if they pursue their refugee status in the way the Canadian government has brought forth: by coming out, by thrusting themselves into a world of uncertainty and violence.
For now, better media coverage of the issue and private funding is all that can be done to help. At the most basic level, there is a responsibility to take care.
After all, LGBTI Syrians deserve to be part of those photo ops, too.