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Persecuted in Chechnya, gay refugees face new struggles in Canada

Gay men from Chechnya look out the window of a safe house in Moscow in April.

JAMES HILL/The New York Times

Organizations helping traumatized gay Chechen refugees adapt to their new life in Canada are appealing to Ottawa and fellow Canadians for help.

"They're struggling," said Helen Kennedy, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Egale, of the 16 Toronto-based refugees her organization is assisting. Egale operates a crisis-counselling service that it is adapting to the needs of these most recent arrivals.

But providing the necessary support for the Chechens is a challenge.

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Read more: How Canada has been secretly giving asylum to gay people in Chechnya fleeing persecution

"The trauma that these folks have endured, the amount of violence – we hear a lot of awful things, but this is off the charts," Ms. Kennedy said Sunday in an interview.

Earlier this year, the Chechen government launched a pogrom against gay men in the Russian republic, where homophobia is deeply entrenched.

The men were taken to detention centres, where they were beaten and subjected to electric-shock treatment in an effort to force them to incriminate other gay men.

Upon release, they were outed to family members, who were encouraged to take matters into their own hands.

The Chechen government tacitly supports so-called honour killings of homosexuals.

As a result, men from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus region fled to cities in central Russia, where the Russian LGBT Network, an NGO, placed them in safe houses. Women who were at risk of honour killings by family members also fled. But those in hiding remained at risk of being discovered by Chechen authorities and hostile family members.

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As The Globe and Mail reported Friday, the Canadian government has been operating a secret underground railroad since June, spiriting an estimated 30 men and women from the safe houses to Canada as government-sponsored refugees, by means it refuses to disclose. The Russian LGBT Network and Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian NGO, have been working with the government to identify candidates, bring them to Canada and help them settle here.

Many of the new arrivals are still reeling from the traumas and dislocations of the past six months. "And then you have the day-to-day things like finding a place to live, learning English, the grocery store, the medical system – everything is new," Ms. Kennedy said. "They're starting over."

But there is little government funding for LGBT refugees. And until the Chechen underground railroad became public, there was no opportunity for Canadians to offer their support.

Organizers working with LGBT refugees stressed that they are not saying sexual minorities deserve greater assistance than other refugees, only that they often have special needs, having in the case of the Chechens fled imprisonment, torture and the threat of death at the hands of their own families.

"I'd like to see all vulnerable refugees treated better," said Lisa Hébert, of the Ottawa-based Capital Rainbow Refuge. "And LGBT refugees are among the most vulnerable." Sexual minorities in refugee camps are often beaten and harassed by other refugees, she pointed out.

"LGBTQ refugees face special challenges from arrival through integration," said Sharalyn Jordan, board chairwoman of the Vancouver-based Rainbow Refugee, which helps match LGBT refugee applicants to private sponsors.

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Examples she offered: Where is a safe place for a gay Muslim refugee to pray, or for a lesbian with children to find services in Farsi?

The need for financial support increases as the number of sexual-minority refugees increases. The Conservative government brought in homosexuals fleeing persecution in Iran; some of the more than 40,000 Syrian refugees that have been entering Canada since last year are sexual minorities, and now the Chechen underground railroad has produced another cohort of LGBT refugees in need.

Kimahli Powell, executive director of Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad, said government, NGOs and individuals offering financial and other support must work together to support and integrate LGBT refugees "The federal government, working with civil society and individuals, is what's necessary in order to really have a policy and program that will allow refugees to successfully resettle here," he said.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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