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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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Hope in community: exploring Vancouver’s queer newcomer services provider network

As our foundation closes in our first round of grants, it is important for us to build relationships with the LGBT+ community and with those who eventually might apply for them. Part of that work involves getting to know the various service providers and grass roots organizations that do great work with LGBT+ newcomers.

As a board member, I have been assigned a number of tasks and recently I visited Catarina Moreno, Program Manager for Qmunity, located in the heart of Davie Village. Cat invited me for tea and a tour of the place, which includes a library with a youth lounge, meeting rooms for free counseling services, and the Bute Street Clinic jointly administered with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH). When we sat down, she began by telling me about Qmunity’s four main program streams.

“We build community through a range of programs including drop-ins for free counseling and health and wellness services,” Cat told me. “We provide queer competency training that allows services providers to remain respectful and offers teaching tools for schools. We advocate through various forms of engagement to increase our visibility and we provide space for connection that celebrates queer community.”

Qmunity increasingly provides services to LGBT+ newcomers as part of a larger services provider network (SPN), which I attended with Cat the same weekThe group includes representatives Mosaic Settlement and Family Services, Immigrant Services Society (ISS) of BC, and Raven Song Community Health Centre, among other attendees.

The group gives service providers a chance to network on each other’s resources and identify gaps in the community. But after a while the discussion seemed to focus on one issue: housing.

Finding safe, long-term housing is an issue for many refugees who often face additional discrimination. Under the resettlement assistance program, government-sponsored refugees have access to temporary housing such as Welcome Houses, but only for as little as two weeks, according to Dorcas Mendez of ISS. Living in or near downtown Vancouver is also expensive, but that is also where most services for LGBT+ refugees are located. So many choose to live further away from the city, where they can become isolated.

To combat this issue, Mosaic identified the need for LGBT+ support groups and recommended service providers consider sending clients to Mosaic’s I Belong program — a six-month pilot project funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). I Belong supports LGBT+ immigrant newcomers by learning about “the intersectionality between sexuality, gender, race, cultural diversity, class, criminalization, and colonialism.” The project provides support groups and one-on-one community connection opportunities, conducted research to learn of existing gaps, and put forward recommendations in a report.

“Mosaic is taking baby steps and learning, building capacity, and remaining transparent”, says Roja Bagheri, Mosaic’s Program Coordinator. Funding for I Belong runs out on March 25 and currently does not extend beyond this stage.

My impression from the meeting is that clear deficiencies exist in terms of opportunities available to LGBT+ newcomers. Lack of housing and community support services are chief concerns held by the SPN; however, the willingness to meet and share resources and information is encouraging. It opens the door to a more collaborative approach. Foundation of Hope intends to be more involved with the SPN moving forward.

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Valuable lessons learned at FOH community grants needs assessment workshop

The Foundation of Hope has moved one step closer to supporting LGBT+ refugees in Canada with its first community needs grants assessment. Representatives from across the LGBT+ community, refugee service providers, and grassroots organizations all joined up with FOH Board members on February 1, 2015. The goal of the meeting was to advise on how FOH can best target community grants to effectively benefit LGBT+ newcomers.

The group looked at potential grant categories that FOH is considering and provided feedback on each item. “It was really neat how we came to the community with our ideas on how we could help and they came back to us and said the community needs more capacity for sharing and collaborating across sectors,” said FOH Chairperson Carl Meadows.

The FOH grant development committee offered up items including housing, health care, circles of hope, community support services, and emergency funds as its first draft of possible funding categories. “But after it was all said and done,” noted Meadows, “the community told us we should shift our priorities away from ‘band-aid’ solutions and focus on supporting systemic change.”

The group suggested including a funding category focused on community capacity building. “Now it’s the committee’s job to look at the feedback and figure out what that will all look like,” Meadows added. The committee intends to use the valuable feedback to develop appropriate terms of reference for all grant applications going forward.

The Board would like to thank everyone who participated and offered feedback. We gratefully acknowledge the City of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant Community Centre for allowing us to host the event. We thank Hamid for providing last minute Farsi translation and are grateful to Hugo at Blenz Coffee on Davie and Richards for supplying complimentary refreshments. The Foundation especially thanks Pamela Schmidt for facilitating the workshop.

We at FOH also want to send a big hug to the LGBT+ refugees who spoke at the meeting. It was truly a community event that brought wisdom and expertise to an evolving discussion about what the LGBT+ refugee community needs.

 

Kevin Perra with FOH Chair Carl Meadows
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Pride party and inaugural Foundation of Hope fundraiser

On August 1, 2014, Kevin Perra graciously hosted the Rainbow Foundation of Hope at his Annual Pride Party. Thanks to his enthusiasm and tremendous generosity, the party was a raving success. Announcement of the Foundation brought in its first contribution of $2800.00. Kevin, you are amazing!

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