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Awareness and acceptance: valuable lessons of inclusivity and compassion for 2016

As February rounds out, I thought I’d take a moment and share the valuable lessons the Foundation of Hope has come to learn and expand on so far this year. These are lessons rooted in inclusivity and compassion. They focus on awareness and acceptance, which draws attention to the core of FOH’s purpose.

On queer competency – a lesson in awareness

 

How aware are you on this topic? On February 15th, five FOH board directors attended a queer competency training session hosted by Joel Von Flugen on behalf of the folks at Qmunity. It is fair to say that five cisgender gay males don’t adequately represent the sexual or gender diversity contained within our Board of Directors. Further yet, the board itself does not fully represent the diversity for which we advocate as an organization. So it is incumbent upon those able to attend the learning session to engage, share, and further educate others beyond the excessively narrowed view of sex, sexuality, and gender as binary subjects.

One valuable element that FOH brought to the session was our range in age demographic. Jeffrey Fisher and Carl Meadows, for example, reflected on the evolution of gay rights activism in the late 20th century. Sexual and gender identity terms have been adopted across different cultures over time along with associated euphemisms: queer, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transexual, genderqueer, cisgender/transgender, intersex, questioning, asexual/pansexual, two-spirited, etc… It is an  ever-growing list of inclusivity. And for every term there is an appropriate set of pronouns. The terms I’ve just listed represent a mere subset of identity perspectives. I haven’t listed them all and know that I still have much to learn.

It’s a broad subject that can be daunting. For me personally, I hold the greatest concerns about others’ sensibilities. Just in compiling that list, I put myself in a vulnerable position of being perceived or labeled as insensitive. Why did I lump certain terms and distinguish others? What gives me the right to define or label anything?  I understand this and unfortunately it worries me to the point of not wanting to speak at all for fear that I am promulgating bias or intolerance, which adds to the confusion.

Joel was extremely helpful. He cut through the confusion held among our group and eloquently explained why these different terms and their usages matter so much. He provided hypothetical scenarios of intolerance that resonated within us all. Joel intelligently conveyed the need for heightened awareness. There was no shortage of context provided among our own experiences as a group, and even though much of what was discussed will forever stay in that room, we all left feeling more aware and better prepared to promote inclusivity within the Foundation and beyond.

On private sponsorship – a lesson in acceptance

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The notion that one Canadian or a group of Canadians are willing to gather the means necessary to bring a refugee into Canada is an indelible aspect of what it means to be Canadian. We are a country of immigrants, from the First Peoples to arrive during the last Ice Age to the current wave of Syrian migrants coming to Canada under a banner of acceptance born out of an historic federal election mandate.

On February 18th, the Multilingual Orientation Service Association for Immigrant Communities (M.O.S.A.I.C.) held a public information session to advise Canadians on the paths for private sponsorship in Canada. M.O.S.A.I.C.’s Refugee Working Group has been looking at trends, assessing levels of need, and developing responses to these needs. This includes the Refugee Family Reunification List developed for would-be sponsors in B.C. with families that are refugees. About 200 people are currently be processed under this program. Another key program is the federal Refugee Sponsorship Training Program (RSTP) managed by Catholic Crosscultural Services and based in Ontario. In Western Canada, RSTP is also managed by M.O.S.A.I.C.

Refugee Sponsorship Support Program (RSSP) Manager Saleem Spindari explained how, through its 30 offices in the greater Vancouver area, M.O.S.A.I.C. is providing support for 1000 refugees following the crisis in September 2015. RSSP trains lawyers to help sponsors with the process itself and help refugees meet requirements for private sponsorship.  RSSP lawyer Kassie Seaby chaired a session explaining the options available in Canada. She presented Lawyer David McLeod, who offers a course on Refugee Protection through UBC Continuing Studies, to describe avenues for private sponsorship in Canada and answer questions held by the attendees.

McLeod explained how policy has evolved for private sponsorship since the onset of the refugee crises in Iraq and Syria. Such policy has reduced the burden of proof required for Iraqi and Syrian refugees by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, formerly known Citizenship and Immigration Canada, at its Central Processing Office in Winnipeg. For all other refugees, he described the role of sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs), groups of five (G5), and community sponsors (CS).

The other key representative at the session was Iris Challoner, who is a refugee information and referral specialist. Through her church, Iris helped resettle a Syrian woman and her two children last spring. She is knowledgable about the role played by various SAHs that have been approved by the Canadian government alongside constituent groups (CG) acting as co-sponsors. M.O.S.A.I.C. is currently working to be recognized as a SAH under the federal government’s refugee acceptance process.

Inclusion of M.O.S.A.I.C. as a SAH will vastly expand upon the options available for individual Canadians looking to take up private sponsorship of LGBT+ refugees seeking asylum or escaping persecution from their countries of origin. These are individuals that remain persecuted when they are among refugees in camps. It is hard to imagine how such an overt lack of both acceptance and inclusivity can affect such individuals on top of the state-level persecution generally affecting populations of refugees living in camps.

If you are interested in private sponsorship, there are many resources available to assist you, from the application process itself through to the arrival and resettlement of newcomers to Canada.

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The year in review: milestones for 2015

Suffice it to say, 2015 was a fast-paced year for Foundation of Hope in terms of establishment and growth. The calendar year was marked by so many achievements and with each successive milestone, it’s becoming clear that a movement is underway.

The overarching goal of FOH is to rise far beyond the individual founders, donors, and membership and become greater than the sum of its parts, stronger than any single government mandate, and more collaborative than any single community, organization, or interest.

The year began as an exploration of how FOH should best reach its potential. Strategic planning, communications, and networking within the larger community led FOH to put a call out to LGBT+ newcomers and newcomer services for direction in its funding mission. The Community Needs Assessment workshop served to hone the Foundation’s purpose, refine its mission, and realize its vision as a registered charity.

Hard work by the volunteer Board of Directors in the spring allowed FOH to draft bylaws and a constitution – important conditions under which FOH became a registered charity with Canada Revenue Agency on April 2nd. Attaining charitable status was a critical milestone and perfectly timed for STRUT, the flagship fundraiser that nabbed over $45,000 in donations from corporate partnerships and the tireless efforts of individual participants who collected donor pledges to strut a mile along the seawall in stiletto heels. The inaugural STRUT event literally kicked off on June 6th and was a smashing success. STRUT is expected to be the springboard for expansion beyond the City of Vancouver in the years to come. Stay tuned!

Working into the summer, FOH managed to formally adopt bylaws in the first Annual General Meeting on July 22nd, which officially established a Board of Directors with standing committees and an Executive team – all of us volunteers. We sure grew up fast! But there is so much to do and no time to be wasted…

…And grow we did. Fundraising efforts ramped up and FOH began to feel the momentum.  Individual organizations have begun to approach us seeking to hold fundraisers on FOH’s behalf, including Neighbourhood HouseMercury Artists, and the generous support of caring individuals in the queer community like Kevin Perra and Peter Fitzmaurice. FOH also teamed up with Chimp to get added exposure to the larger world of online philanthropy. All of this enthusiasm has brought tens of thousands of dollars in to date.

During the 2015 Pride celebration, Prime Minister-to-be Justin Trudeau embraced the queer community and stood proud with FOH as an important ally. He later pledged to the world to reform the way Canada addresses refugees. His decision to bring in 25,000 Syrians by year’s end was further qualified to specifically acknowledge inclusion of members the LGBT+ community.

The Grants Committee developed streams of funding devoted to Sponsorship and Community Services and FOH began to receive applications for financial aid on both sides. The ultimate milestone of the year was the disbursement $25,000 in grants during the first round of applications. This included a total of $17,500 in sponsorship funding awarded to Rainbow Railroad of the Greater Toronto Area in collaboration with the Rainbow Refugee and the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. The funds will be devoted to assist with the private resettlement of LGBT+ refugees within the Lifeline Syria project, as well as for emergency travel needs. The remaining $7,500 was awarded to MOSAIC, a locally important newcomer services provider that intends to use the funding to directly assist LGBT+ newcomers with much-needed counselling services.

As always, we remind you to consider a donation, no matter how small. Everything counts! Whether it’s your Time, Treasure, or Talent, we are always looking for enthusiastic people who care as much as we do about the plight of refugees.

 

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On behalf of Mercury Artists

On the evening of Thursday, December 17th, Foundation of Hope received a wonderful gift: an unsolicited Christmas fundraiser organized by Christopher Steffler at Mercury Artists. It was a fine evening with talented musicians, all of whom donated their time and showcased their skills.

One of the greatest things about events like this, aside from the generosity of those present, is that it provides an opportunity for people to reflect on the freedom we have in Canada. Such freedom of expression is not evident in vast regions of the world.

At this time, Canada has a heightened sense of the Syrian refugee crisis. Less apparent to many is the treatment of those that identify as LGBT+, many of whom are still under acute persecution, as well as those that have managed to seek some form of asylum.

Beyond the plight of the Syrian LGBT+ community, at least 78 countries still exist under laws that view homosexuality as criminal. This makes it extremely dangerous for queer individuals to behave outside of what the majority of their societies view as “normal”.

Most individuals under persecution have been unable to flee to safety. Many have died or have been severely traumatized. They attempt to survive by keeping a low profile while others are singled out and frequently get verbally and physically assaulted by haters. Such hatred is the true crime.

Foundation of Hope endeavours to help Canadian charities that work to assist LGBT+ individuals seeking asylum from hatred and persecution, as well as LGBT+ newcomers that are currently under resettlement in Canada.

As part of the event, Chad Mathew of Outlook TV interviewed me as a representative of FOH. It was a great opportunity to talk about why ongoing fundraising is such an important pillar of success – just as important as our mission of giving. The interview will be available online some time in January 2016.

Foundation of Hope is incredibly grateful to Mercury Artists for its generosity of spirit at this time of year. The “Family Affair” Holiday Party and Fundraiser is tremendously appreciated by us and everyone we hope to assist through our collective efforts.

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First round of grant funding applications approved

On October 19th, 2015, while many were intently watching televisions and computer screens or scrolling their devices to find out where Canada’s political compass would point in the 42nd general election, Foundation of Hope’s Grant Selection Committee gathered in a quiet room at QMUNITY to deliberate over the first round of grant applications. The committee consists of FOH Board members Hasan Abdessamad, Catarina Moreno, and Chad Wilkinson alongside community representatives Rojina Farrokhnejad, Kevin Murphy, and Destiny Sharp, whom FOH requested review the applications and provide feedback.

 

As the Toronto Blue Jays cruised past the Kansas City Royals to pick up a crucial win in the American League Division Series, FOH reviewed four grants worth a combined total of $25,000. Applications valued at $17,500 came through FOH’s sponsorship stream from a different Toronto organization for its mandate to privately sponsor LGBT+ Syrians in collaboration with the Lifeline Syria Project.

Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad plans to organize resettlement teams in concert with Vancouver’s Rainbow Refugee Fund and the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto acting as the sponsorship agreement holder.

Rainbow Railroad’s mission is to help LGBT+ individuals find a safe haven from state-sponsored violence, murder, and persecution. The second element of its combined funding application will provide emergency travel assistance to individuals in high-risk situations to seek immediate asylum from persecution. Individuals will benefit by gaining the necessary pre-travel support, local travel costs, short-term accommodations, passport and visa fees, or any other obligatory costs.

The final grant reviewed by the committee came through the community services stream from M.O.S.A.I.C., a B.C.-based multilingual non-profit organization dedicated to addressing issues that affect refugees in the course of their settlement and integration. M.O.S.A.I.C.’s mandate is to support and empower immigrant and refugee communities, helping to address critical issues in their neighborhoods and workplace. An application valued at $7,500 will provide individual and group counselling support services to LGBT+ newcomers to Canada. The grant targets individuals facing psychological barriers or dealing with lingering stresses associated with traumas experienced while living under persecution.

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Foundation of Hope is very proud to approve these applications and looks forward to taking the next steps to administer funds in a timely manner. Organizations that are eligible for funding under our terms and conditions are encouraged to apply.

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Vancouver Mayor holds town hall meeting to discuss mounting Syrian refugee crisis

Last week the disturbing image of 3-year old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi’s drowned body trended the globe, leading Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson to hold a town hall meeting to discuss the situation and share information. The event led to a huge outpouring from the community as City Hall flooded with concerned citizens.

Robertson acknowledged steps already underway by the City of Vancouver, including the construction of a 136-bed Welcome House. The facility is currently under construction and will be run by Immigrant Services Society (ISS) of B.C., a local non-profit that assists newcomers with resettlement needs. He also highlighted the work undertaken to establish Vancouver as a Sanctuary City. Sanctuary City is a movement to provide newly settled migrants with access to services without fear, which the mayor claimed to be an important piece the City has been working on along with a number of cities around the world.

In a rare show of advocacy, the mayor called on the federal government to bring in 20,000 refugees by 2020, which would double the number of Syrians the Government of Canada has promised to accept in the coming term, should it be re-elected.

Chris Friesen, Director for ISS B.C., shared some statistics on the situation and Canada’s role to date.

“There is no cap on privately sponsored Syrian individuals in Canada.” Friesen noted that Canada is the only country that provides interest-bearing transportation loans from $15 M allotted annually, 91% of which are repaid by the resettled migrants.”

B.C.’s resettlement target is for 800 refugees per year and Canada has committed to bringing in 10,000 over three years, both as government assisted and private sponsorships. Still, Friesen explained that this number is far lower than what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) requested, further elaborating that the largest number of resettlement needs actually comes from Africa, not the Middle East.

Eyob Naizghi was a key speaker who shared his migration experience when he came to Canada 35 years ago from Africa. As a UBC-sponsored refugee through the World University Service of Canada, Naizghi has since become Executive Director at MOSAIC, an immigrant and refugee services organization.

Naizghi noted that the refugee crisis is much more than a Syrian crisis. Aylan Kurdi’s image inspired so many people, but while leading western democracies like Sweden and Germany are opening up doors to refugees, other countries are not. Meanwhile, little to no effort has been undertaken in other parts of the Middle East by wealthy oil-rich Arab states.

“History will judge our actions. There are 4.1-5 M Syrian refugees and displaced persons, but there are 60 M worldwide.”

As a refugee, Naizghi recounted walking with others for four weeks, including extended periods without water, but with the common desire to escape. He recounted living in a refugee camp for two months outside of Sudan, which was highly dependent on humanitarian aid from the UNHCR.

“We mustn’t confuse the experiences of immigrants and refugees. Refugees don’t make decisions or plan their trips. They are forced to move with very little resources and information and with little to no preparation; often with nothing on their backs. Imagine the amount of isolation and the build up of trauma.”

As Naizghi put it, many in the North have become desensitized, but a strong level of resilience can be seen in refugees. Historically, Canada has demonstrated compassion. He particularly noted Canada’s responses to crises including the Vietnamese boat people and Kosovo refugees.

“We step up to the plate when action is required. Today we have the experience and organizations that are ready to support. We also have a large group of sponsors, whether church groups, ethnospecific groups, or otherwise.” But in human terms, Naizghi feels as though there is currently a lack of political willingness on the ground.

“20,000 compared to 60 M is a drop in the ocean. What we are doing compared to Germany is a drop in the ocean. We need to change the application process time. It is taking too long and this is not acceptable. We have the means to support them and we should be bringing them now.”

The B.C. government has acknowledged it will give $1 M in support of this initiative. On the ground, there are three immediate things you can do:

1) Donate: be creative in your fundraising activities. Consider donations in lieu of gifts for celebratory events;
2) Volunteer: get involved with local organizations that are already doing the work on the grond; and
3) Sponsorship: think about joining a constituency group with organizations like Rainbow Refugee and Rainbow Railroad.

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A year and counting: FOH’s growth and expansion

Foundation of Hope held its first annual general meeting on July 22, 2015. We officially adopted our bylaws, appointed an Executive and Board of Directors, and established a set of standing committees for the coming years – these are the hallmark of sound governance.

Standing committees are the pillars of FOH’s success. They comprise members of the working Board of Directors as a volunteer organization and extend to include the generous volunteer community that has taken membership with the Foundation. This level of administrative support is just as important as financial contributions from generous donors and FOH is grateful for the level of individual and corporate contributions made to date. Success is enabled by effective fundraising efforts, strong levels of community engagement, and continual grant funding to eligible non-profit and non-governmental organizations doing the legwork on the ground.

Foundation of Hope’s efforts are ultimately intended to help individual LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers, both as newcomers to Canada and across the world, in order to successfully accomplish its mission.

I can’t believe is already September! In the time since STRUT, our flagship fundraiser, we are thrilled to report that we are growing up fast as an organization and getting geared up for giving. And ’tis the season indeed, considering the looming refugee crises across the world, foremost of which has been escalating in Syria following the onset of the civil war and ensuing political turmoil in the Middle East.

The Syrian war was the initiate for FOH. Several of us were part of the original constituency group that sponsored two Syrian gay men to come to Canada. The Foundation emerged from that original Circle of Hope and through fundraising efforts and an online granting program, FOH has recently been formally approached to financially contribute to a growing movement known as Lifeline SyriaSponsorship of LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers is one of two streams of funding that FOH offers.

Community services is the other stream of FOH grant funding. Foundation of Hope has been approached to assist with counselling services intended to help LBGT+ newcomers overcome emotional and psychological barriers associated with migration from their countries of origin. These are countries that denounce the right to freely express alternative forms of gender and sexual identity.

Moving forward, Foundation of Hope is actively accepting applications from eligible applicant organizations and is continually seeking individuals and organizations that are interested in contributing through volunteers efforts and as donors.

Contact Foundation of Hope today and consider becoming a member, either as a volunteer or through generous contributions. Or better yet both!

 

 

 

 

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STRUTTING for HOPE

I moved to Canada in 2012 to seek protection as a refugee because homosexuality is not only illegal; but also punishable by 14 years to life in prison where I am from.

I was born and raised in The Gambia, a very small West African country. Walking a mile in pink high heels to help raise funds and awareness for LGBT+ refugees was a big deal and something very close to my heart because I am a refugee myself.

By participating in STRUT, I put my face on homosexuality for young kids growing up in The Gambia so they wouldn’t feel alone in this world like I did. It wasn’t until I moved to England that I learned about others like me in this world.

If I can help one kid feel secure and not alone, that makes me happy.

I arrived in Vancouver on a very cold/rainy day in October of 2012. I had never been here before and with no family or friends here I had nowhere to go and very little money. Moving here all by myself was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life.

I vividly remember getting out of the train and thinking to myself, “I have no idea what I am doing or if I will even survive this mentally and emotionally, but I am ready to make this chapter in my life a good one.”

All I wanted was to live in a country when I can be who I am without the fear of persecution.

I feel very lucky to have the support of my family and to be living in a country like Canada where I can be my authentic self and express myself however I want. That’s not the case for so many LGBT+ men and women around the world, who are prosecuted or even killed for being who they truly are.

I feel it is my duty to be the voice for the voiceless, to help bring awareness.

The freedom of expression is what STRUT represents to me and that includes non-gender conformity: men in dresses, wearing makeup or heels, and vice versa for women. People should be free to express themselves however they please and without any fear of persecution!

I often ask people “Have you ever had your heart broken?” Imagine the things you have known as a child—the food, the people, your childhood home, your neighbors, playgrounds, the smell of the air… Then imagine having all of that taken away from you forever and to never have it back.

That is the heartbreaking reality of being an LGBT+ refugee and it really identifies what STRUT is all about.

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ALL OUT launches its #GAYISOK campaign with Lush Cosmetics

As board members of Foundation of Hope, we were thrilled to have been invited to attend the Lush Cosmetics pre-launch event of a fantastic new soap product that has been crafted specifically for a campaign that will run from June 25th to July 4th, 2015. The event highlighted the new Love Soap, a beautiful bar of soap that prominently features #GAYISOK in gold letters.

Honestly, it’s beautiful. The bar is beautiful. The scent is beautiful. The sentiment is beautiful. But what is most beautiful is that the company plans to raise 250,000 pounds, all of which will be directed to LGBT+ groups through grants from ALL OUT . Many of these groups currently lack the resources needed to meet the challenges to a right to live equitably as an LGBT+ individual. And many are in constant danger because they challenge the status quo. This cooperative venture with ALL OUT will mean that millions more individuals will be able to learn about this human rights crisis and will know that money from their soap purchases will be directed to groups via an organization that is fighting for love, equality, and acceptance throughout the world.

So that’s the good news! The tragic news about this campaign is that about 100 Lush shops around the world will be unable to participate due to anti-gay legislation in their country. Clearly, when it is a crime to be gay in 76 countries, there is a huge amount of work left to be done.

There are still 825 Lush shops around the world with kick-off campaigns on June 25th, at which time the soap will also be available for purchase online.

As for the Vancouver pre-launch event, it is truly wonderful to see and experience the pride of Lush employees and their strong willingness to participate in this initiative. Imagine working for a company with such a bold and caring vision. Lush is committed to being one of these companies.

The energy in the store was riveting when the speakers, such as Brandi Halls, Director of Brand Communications for Lush, provided a comprehensive overview of the campaign and Lush’s relationship with ALL OUT. In listening to her, it was clear that the campaign is a hugely passionate endeavour. Foundation of Hope Board Director Dr. Hasan Abdessamad explained the role of FOH in financially assisting organizations with the challenges of transition for refugees that come to Canada upon being persecuted in their countries of origin. Former refugees Zdravko Cimbaljevic and Moe Sonko also told their stories of how they endured the hatred in their home countries simply for being gay, which ultimately forced them to leave in order to survive. As refugees, they believe that getting their message out provides hope and empowers others. Their stories clarify why the work being done by Lush and ALL OUT is so powerful and so necessary.

Click to view Dr. Abdessamad’s speech.

Click to view Mr. Sonko’s speech.

Click to view Mr. Cimbaljevic’s speech.

When a company like Lush Cosmetics commits itself to such a powerful endeavour, it is quite simply heartwarming. And Lush is moving way beyond the production of a beautiful soap. They are part of a movement that is spreading love and acceptance.

The Foundation of Hope is pleased that we are a trusted ally and were invited to participate in this event. We are particularly pleased that LUSH and FOH plan to continue this conversation and collaboration.

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In-Canada refugee status for Indian homosexuals

I recently accompanied a young Indian man to meet with Chris Morrissey at Rainbow Refugee’s drop-in session at Qmunity. He looking at options that would prevent him from having to return to India, which has recently criminalized homosexuality, thereby putting him at risk of persecution. When his work visa expires, his family back home expects him to return and they intend to marry him off.

According to Morrissey, he has an option to file an in-Canada refugee claim, largely based on his country of origin due to the recent regressive legislation that directly jeopardizes homosexuals in India. The new law was recently instated under India’s criminal code. Family pressure to get married is one thing, but under this law, individuals have no recourse, since the state doesn’t support their sexual identities.

In the case of Indian LGBT+ individuals seeking asylum, chances for a successful refugee claim are improved in Canada. Claimants must first get a lawyer for the hearing. Legal aid is an option available to many that don’t have the means to finance themselves. They should feel comfortable being represented and will need to make sure they can prove their country of origin.

A great deal of planning and preparation goes into a refugee claim. It is necessary to supply evidence to support one’s sexual identity. Every written accounts and piece of supporting testimony must also be consistent. Questions asked at hearings can be somewhat uncomfortable, partly because agents at the hearing will have to make a decision in writing. So they need to clearly understand the position and must document the evidence to support their decisions.

According to Morrissey, a refugee application to Canada also has a medical waiver (i.e., the individual does not have to meet the medical requirements that are otherwise necessary under general immigration protocol). Having some non-communicable medical condition such as cancer, diabetes, HIV,  etc… does not make it impossible to get a refugee claim, whereas applying for immigration as skilled worker with a disease automatically makes you medically ineligible.

“People often think they are ineligible based on these grounds and ‘self-select’ out”, stated Morrissey, founder of Rainbow Refugees Society. Any health-related issues that may exist can intuitively be perceived as a challenge to a successful claim; however, under India’s new law, Chris figures it could actually bolster a refugee claim. Perceptions of disease may put individuals exceedingly at risk of persecution in society, particularly due to India’s history as a caste society.

“Diseased people will be treated as untouchable within their own family, even though parents love their kids,” stated the young man who met with Chris. “It puts them under extensive pressure and improves the chances for making wrong decisions. Without any perceived love and support from family, how can they expect love and support from society?”

A claimant must have a reasonably well-founded fear of persecution.

“It is important to distinguish between persecution and discrimination”, noted Chris. An article under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Canada is a signatory, states that persecution is implicit if individuals cannot get state protection. Persecution is explicit in situations where the state has legally denounced certain sexual identities, such as in India.

 

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International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia #IDAHAT

QMUNITY hosted its 11th annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHAT) breakfast on May 15, 2015.

When I arrived, I was surprised by the number of fine womyn and men among others on the gender spectrum, all of whom made the effort to wake up early on a Friday morning to gather and raise much needed funds in solidarity for such a worthy cause.

On the table to my left was a policeman, with whom I swapped stories. He shared his experiences at the Hate Crime Unit of the Vancouver Police Department, fighting hate crimes of all kinds, including those rooted in homophobia and transphobia. I explained to him the anal tests enforced in police stations on men arrested in countries like Lebanon and Egypt, as an assessment of suspected homosexuality. The very same civic uniform leading the way in Vancouver’s Pride Parade is what the LGBT+ community dreads in many countries around the world.

“Forty percent of LGBTs worldwide are criminalized,” noted Chris Morrissey, founder of Rainbow Refugee, as she spoke about how the Canadian refugee process works. Morrissey is an LGBT+ rights advocate and leader of the society that represents international queer refugees, asylum seekers, and newcomers to Canada. Morrissey took the stage and made it very clear why and how each one of the attendees can and should make a difference.

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Moments before Morrissey took the floor to speak, Deputy Mayor Andrea Reimer of the City of Vancouver announced that May 17 would henceforth become observed in Vancouver as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, or IDAHAT — a proud moment for Vancouver. For me, it brought back memories of when we first celebrated IDAHOT in Lebanon about a decade ago. This year Lebanese celebrities spoke up on IDAHOT. The situation for LGBT+ individuals in the Middle East is not an easy one to comprehend. We hear of beheadings in one country and of a ‘gay haven’ in another. We hear of immediate deportation of HIV+ individuals in one place and full low-barrier, state-sponsorship of transgender surgeries in another.

I am often faced by a dilemma of what image to portray when I am asked about the current LGBT+ situation back home. The issue is that each situation is unique and “home” is not one big, uniform space. Each situation differs from one alley to another and from one day to the next; it is complex to say the least. The best way to help is to invest one’s time and interest to learn about the complexities, just as much as investing tax-deductible dollars to charitable and noteworthy causes in Canada.

Danny-and-Aamer-Circle-of-Hope_insetDanny Ramadan, a “former refugee” as he self-identified on stage, brought that message home. Danny and his partner Aamer were sponsored by a group of Vancouverites, of which I was part. We created the Danny and Aamer Circle of Hope in 2013, which has since evolved into the Foundation of Hope. Danny narrated his personal story about home and family in Syria. He spoke of his dear friends “whose shadows are with me today on stage”, friends he left behind, leaving him with “survivor’s guilt.” But Danny also shared the joy and laughter they had, the ties and love that bonded them together, and the story of how they came together, then fell apart just as their country did. Danny put faces and names to those we only know of and talk about as “LGBT+ refugees”. He painted an authentic image of the very people we are stepping up to help. I saw him standing high and with much deserved dignity, enjoying our hospitality in Canada, but not our “charity”. He brought identifiable stories to those in the audience, made us laugh with their laughter and shed tears with their pain. By the end of it, Danny received a well-deserved and prolonged standing ovation.

Danny, it is true that “home is where you feel comfortable sharing your stories with others”. My heart sank as you shared your regret for losing your Syrian home keys on your journey. Danny, what a beautiful gesture it was to finish your storytelling by tossing your set of “Canadian home” keys up high in front of us all.

Ahla w sahla – Canada baytak: Welcome to Canada – it is your home.

And kudos to Qmunity for pulling together such an inspiring event. It was my first attendance, but will definitely not be my last — it is sure to become an annual favorite of mine. I have started a personal monthly donation to Qmunity and I encourage you to do the same.

By: Dr. Hasan Abdessamad, MD FRCSC FACOG

This post was simultaneously published at habdessamad.com

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