Somewhere over the rainbow

The struggle for gay rights remains real and deadly across the world. The Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia is trying to help.

Tan-Nee Ng, board member of Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia.
Tan-Nee Ng, board member of Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia.

"At the present time, there are approximately 82 nations that criminalize same-sex relations, and of those, eight have a death penalty for consensual same-sex conduct," says Tan-Nee Ng, a board member of the Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia. "We think that we've fought for gay rights and we have reached some semblance of equality, but in other parts of the world, that is so far from the case."

Since 2011, RRANS has been advocating and sponsoring self-identifying LGBTQI persons who have fled sexually oppressive countries with refugee status in asylum countries. This provincial association is one chapter of a national movement that began with Ottawa-based activist David Pepper.

In that year, Pepper booked speaking engagements at Immigration Settlement & Immigrant Services bureaus across Canada to inspire and educate LGBTQI activists on the extreme and fatal realities facing LGBQTI persons and same-sex couples in almost half of the countries of the world.

"What David Pepper would have talked about is how LGBTQI people can be criminalized by their governments, shunned by their families, disowned and ostracized in their own communities where they reside, and that LGBTQI people are still one of the most isolated and brutalized groups world-wide," explains Ng. "On a day-to-day basis in 82 countries, LGBTQI people face arrest, harassment, torture, beatings and death for something they really cannot change. It's a human rights issue. It's violation."

After months of organization, fundraising and paperwork, RRANS sponsored and relocated a same-sex couple to Nova Scotia this past November, after they fled Iran to Turkey in fear of their lives.

"I think a large part of people flee because they risk facing the death penalty even if they're just perceived as homosexual. Iran is one country that punishes homosexuality by death," says Ng, who adds Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Mauritania to the list. Many other Middle Eastern and African countries have severe penal codes in place to legally condemn LGBTQI peoples as well.

Last year, the media announced the arrival of the first two sponsored RRANS refugees in Canada, which was when Ng was motivated to get involved with RRANS.

"I come from a background of ESL education and I've also been a long-time anti-racism activist, so when RRANS successfully brought over their first sponsored LGBTQI refugees, I thought, wow, this is incredible! This group of individuals raised enough money to save someone's life," she says, "It's so immediately practical, rather than trying to fight this overarching system, which has less tangible results."

She contacted RRANS hoping to volunteer and ended up joining the nine-person board.

As she worked with RRANS, Ng realized the difficulties inherent within this particular form of refugee service. For one thing, RRANS' recent application for sponsorship of a refugee from India will take 48 months.

"Basically, the situation and climate of helping LGBTQI refugees is not as easy as it sounds," she explains. "One reason is because refugees have to flee their home country to an asylum country and claim refugee status for sexual orientation under the United Nations charter, but I'm not sure how many people can express the true reason because they don't want to come out, either for political or other reasons."

The fear of self-identifying limits the extent to which RRANS can apply as sponsors of refugees. "They might declare sexual orientation as a reason for fleeing once they've reached asylum, but they might not go through the official process in which they're outed, so they may instead claim conflict reasons," she says. As a result, RRANS can only focus on supporting those who are out.

The fear of coming out in such dangerous contexts is a symptom of wider oppressive conditions and attitudes still faced by LGBTQI people. But for those who do come out, RRANS can save their lives.

"It's important to understand that these people have come from a background of adversity, so it's even more important to be compassionate and understanding to some of the psychological trials they'll go through," she says. "As a refugee, you don't get to pick which country you go to. It's much different than immigration and it's important to be cognizant of that when re-settling people into a new country, because we try to take care of everything: transport, food, clothing, rent, how to do daily tasks, everything."

Since December, RRANS has helped settle a third Iranian refugee, while the first two have been getting used to their new lives in Halifax. But overcoming the fear and trauma is a life-long process.

"I make contact with [them] on a regular basis and for everything that could go wrong, everything is going right," reassures Ng. "They are taking a lot of ownership over their renewal because they're finally able to go outside and live without fearing they will be persecuted. But this fear of persecution still has resonance. That they're not speaking to the media speaks loud enough."

It also speaks to the importance of RRANS in continuing education and outreach. This year, New Glasgow's Scott Jones aligned the "Don't Be Afraid" campaign with RRANS after a horrific attack that was motivated by his sexuality left him paralyzed. He's now a proud member of the board with Ng.

"The main thing is for people to educate themselves on what the LGBTQI state of affairs are for the rest of the world, how to advocate on behalf of LGBTQI people and to voice concerns to higher levels of government organizations and agencies who determine refugee adjudications and policies. Become familiar with organizations like ours," Ng says. And, of course, financial donations are required.

"The cost to sponsor someone is about $11,000 and so every donation helps RRANS," she says. "Without attention and assistance, this persecution will continue. So what we can do is help those fleeing find safe ground. From here, they can help us influence society and broaden the outreach worldwide."

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