She helps at-risk members of the global queer community get new starts in safe havens.
In her day job, Karlene Williams-Clarke is Manager, Direct Services at The 519 community centre. But in her off-hours, she extends her reach a little further. As a member of the Rainbow Railroad, Williams-Clarke helps people facing persecution, violence, and worse due to their sexual orientations and gender identities find new beginnings in less hostile countries. While Williams-Clarke is the team lead for the African Areas committee, the Rainbow Railroad also helps members of the LGBTQ community in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East. Williams-Clarke estimates that, in any given month, she works on between 10 and 15 cases; so far, the organization has a 100 per cent success rate of relocating LBGTQ refugees.
Williams-Clarke, 47, came to Canada in 2009, herself an LGBTQ refugee from Kingston, Jamaica. She became involved in the Rainbow Railroad in 2010, after Michael Battista, the chair of the board, approached her about becoming a director. “I like giving and serving the LGBT community,” she says. “Saying yes to the Rainbow Railroad, to the work it was doing, to saving people’s lives? Of course I wanted to help.”
Our conversation with Williams-Clarke—about making the jump from corporate to social services, the impact newcomer LGBTQ refugees have on Toronto, and the recent Orlando tragedy—is below.
Torontoist: What does a typical refugee case look like for you? What steps do you usually take to get someone out of a bad situation?
Karlene Williams-Clarke: It starts with someone sending us an email saying, “My life is in danger because of my sexual identity or gender identity,” and our team responds. I introduce myself, and try to find out more about their story. What are their qualifications? Do they already have a visa? Do they have any funds? What level of danger are they facing? Are they connected to a local LGBTQ organization? If not, we have to connect to one, because we have to verify these cases. We have to ask them for documentation. We ask where people want to go. And we try to find routes to get people out. Then we plan what it costs. We don’t send people money directly, which is why we try to work with organizations.
If someone is from, say, Uganda, people don’t always come to Canada. We get them to whatever safe country we can. Sometimes, it can be a week. Sometimes, it takes over a year. It’s an underground movement, so we try to get people by whatever means we can within legal frameworks. It takes a lot of planning, a lot of coordination. We tell them about making an asylum claim, so they have a clear picture of what they’re getting into. If they’re coming to Canada, I work at The 519, so right away we’re able to help. If we’re getting to Holland, there’s no one to connect them to, so they just make a claim at the post of entry, and I explain to them what to expect and to make sure to bring evidence to prove your case.
Mostly, the cases remain within the team responsible for the area these people are from. Once we’re able to verify that the case is real, it’s about necessary action. Where is it easiest to get this person? We’re also doing research on routes. If the person is from a country where we’ve successfully used a route before, we try to use that route again, but we’re always looking in case it gets closed off.
How does relocating LGBTQ people from bad international situations help shape the conversation about human rights on a global scale? On a local one?
For someone facing risk, they just want to live and be free, to be themselves. When we get them to a country to live free, they become a part of the voice in their new country about what is going on. How can work we work together to not drive people away, to not have brain drain? That country that people are moving away from, that country suffers and it looks bad on that country. The country that receives the refugees should be able to have the conversation.
We talk about people living in privileged countries, and it opens the eyes of local people to other countries. We have the right to marry, get benefits. There are people in the world looking to come here because they don’t have basic rights to sleep, to eat, to walk in the world. They can’t help it. They just want to breathe. As a city, we’re open to LGBTQ issues, so how can we shape the dialogue and encourage people in other places to have a voice? It gives people awareness of what’s happening in the world out there. People get a chance to hear from people who are from these countries, and hear how we can help them live in the country. Running away doesn’t mean that you don’t love the country you’re from.
You worked in the finance sector before moving over to work with LGBTQ refugees. How did you make that decision?
When I came here, I was looking for work in corporate, because that was what I knew in my professional life. But volunteering, and working with LGBTQ people in Jamaica, my passion was with my community. I never thought I would work in social services—that was never my dream—but giving back to the community was. I came to The 519, and saw everything people were doing in the name of being safe. I temporarily filled in for the person who ran the program, and it gave me a thrill. When I was interviewing for this job, I actually had two job offers in the corporate world, but there was something about this job that pulled me in. It’s my passion to work with the community. I’m a member of this community, and I’ve seen the worst of the worst. I went with my passion.
Do you see the world getting safer for LGBTQ people? I’m thinking about tragedies like the Orlando massacre, which happened in a space that was supposed to be safe for queer people.
Safe spaces are safe spaces because, at least in countries like Canada, the U.S., and other places that observe LBGTQ [rights], there is always a recourse for justice. If you’re from a country without those rights, if you report something like this, you might get arrested. Countries like Canada, for me, are safe. Homophobia does exist, but it’s on a different level. Things like Orlando happen, but people are working together and talking about it. It’s not hush-hush.
The world isn’t necessarily getting safer, but in some countries it is safer. Some countries are nowhere near safe.There must be acknowledgement that LGBTQ people face discrimination all over the world, but there is a difference. No one is safe anywhere, but there’s always recourse for justice.
What’s the best part of your job?
It’s knowing I’ve helped someone. When someone can say, “I’ve arrived, I can breathe, I can go to bed and be safe.” I don’t want a thank you, I just want to hear that someone can sleep in a safe place.
A previous version of this article misstated Williams-Clarke’s title at The 519, and misspelled Michael Battista’s last name. Torontoist regrets the errors.