Even after moving out of the home he had shared with Joel Dick and Dara Douma for five months, Rolston Ryan still had a key.
Like an adult child that’s moved away from home, Ryan would often pop in and out; for laundry, a meal or just to say hello the couple’s foster daughter.
One day Ryan came back with some laundry and hung out with the little girl.
“He didn’t know that I was behind them,” Douma says. “He was sitting on the couch singing kumbaya with her. I snuck up to take a picture.”
For Dick and Douma, that was without a doubt a family photo. But little by little, their non-traditional family is breaking apart.
Their foster daughter went back to live with her biological family. And now they’re only a few weeks away from a Federal Court hearing that could see Ryan deported back to St Kitts and Nevis.
Ryan, a gay man who has been fighting to get refugee status in Canada, faces “a serious possibility of persecution if he were to return to St Kitts,” according to the Refugee Protection Division.
Dick, a personal injury lawyer, and Douma, a firefighter, have become Ryan’s main advocates in his bid to remain in Canada. But they never expected to be here three years later trying to convince judges, reporters and politicians that Ryan deserves to stay in the country.
The story of how Ryan ended up in their small, lakeside home is a fairly straightforward one. The couple had bought a house with an extra room so they could host foster children. But the process takes time, so they had an empty room.
Someone they knew from the Metropolitan Community Church was involved with Rainbow Railroad and approached them to host a refugee for a short period of time.
“When he showed up, it was just a guy coming from the airport and, at that point, we thought maybe staying for days or a couple of weeks,” Dick says.
But things became more complicated from there, in the way family always does.
“In both of our lives we are often open to jumping into the messy with people,” Douma says.
At first, Dick and Douma tried to help Ryan settle in. They’d go over transit maps so he’d know how to get around the city. They got him some winter clothing to help him deal with the Canadian winter. They’d share meals together, but only when their busy schedules aligned.
“He’s a fairly quiet presence, so he’s sort of took over the back room and fit in pretty easily,” Dick says. “It actually went remarkably smoothly. I think it was obviously hard for Rolston; new country, new place, but we clicked fairly easily.”
But Ryan still had some difficulty coming out of his shell.
“Even though he knew it was okay to be free and who he was here, there’s a whole level of having lived your whole life feeling isolated and secret that’s different for LGBTQ refugees,” Douma says.
Bit by bit, the relationship between the couple and Ryan changed from roommates to something more.
“I think like with lots of human relationships that grow kind of organically and then you share these very emotional times together, and scary shit and sad stuff. You share that together, your connection to each other grows too,” Douma says.
Douma was with Ryan when he got the news that his first refugee application had been rejected.
He had moved out by the time he got his appeal decision, but it was mailed to Dick and Douma’s house.
“He came here to open it and he stayed over that night,” Dick says. “Those were really big emotional moments.”
And while Ryan was always a little bit quiet and a little bit reticent around adults, he became more of himself when he was around Dick and Douma’s foster daughter.
“Until Rolston came here, most adults in his life had been people to be afraid of, because they had treated him in a harmful or hurtful or even neglectful way,” Douma says.
But he always had an instant connection to children
“He’s able to open his soul,” Douma says. “She helped him to be able to do that.”
Even today, Ryan is at all of the family holidays; he comes to Christmas and goes over for Easter to each of their mothers’ homes.
In anticipation of Ryan’s application for judicial review, which they expect to fail, Dick and Douma have been reaching out to politicians and media outlets trying to convince them to take another look at Ryan’s case. They’ve even helped finance his legal challenge to buy more time.
“I feel like Rolston is a beautiful addition to Canada,” Douma says. “He’s found employment. He’s paying his own way. He’s costing this country nothing. And he would be at risk of death to return.”
But regardless of how the judge rules and if the Liberal government responds, Dick and Douma feel thankful that Ryan was able to enter their lives.
“We added someone to our family and we feel lucky that that happened,” Dick says.