When I first got off the plane from Lebanon in 2014, I was jet lagged, tired and shocked to the core. I was arriving in a new country for the first time.
People I’d never met hugged me, spoke to me in a language not my mother tongue to welcome me to my new home. I walked outside the airport and everything I knew about life changed forever. The smell of the air was different, the colour of the skies, and the way you say hello to people.
Of course, it was a happy occasion. It was my first day in Canada as a permanent resident, on my way to becoming a Canadian and joining one of the most beautiful societies in the world. But it was naïve of me to think that day would be the happy ending to my LGBT refugee’s story; a journey awaited me in Canada.
While LGBT refugees face similar challenges to their heterosexual counterparts, their integration into the Canadian community is much more complicated.
I find it interesting that the material provided by Citizenship and Immigration Canada on integration focuses on the logistical needs of a refugee: providing for the cost of food, rent and household utilities, providing clothing, selecting a family physician and dentist, enrolling children in schools and adults in language training, and offering support in finding employment. All of these elements are indeed vital when it comes to relocating a refugee to help them feel settled in their new home. However, the material disregards the emotional, mental and spiritual needs of a newcomer with a refugee experience as they land in their new home.
When we talk about LGBT refugees specifically, we need to recognize that they face a mental and emotional disconnect that needs to be addressed by their sponsors, since they’re the primary providers of stability in the refugee’s new home in Canada.
LGBT refugees have left behind years of living within homophobic and transphobic societies, where they were branded with shame, and struggled for too long. When they arrive here, they won’t be able to integrate easily into the local community of immigrants from their homeland, either. They might fear repeating the experiences of coming out and homophobia from home. Basher, an Iraqi refugee in Germany, is a clear example of this disconnect as he speaks about his experience escaping the local Iraqi community in his interview with Channel 4.
It might be easy to assume that a gay newcomer would be the one putting the effort into integrating themselves into the gay community in Vancouver. But for a healthy integration to happen, the refugee himself has to open up about his sexuality in a way that he likely never experienced before.
For many LGBT refugees, walking out of the airport at YVR, also means coming out of the closet right into his new community. This is liberating for many folks, but it’s a sudden change that needs to be addressed.
That’s why people who sponsor gay refugees should prioritize the newcomers’ mental health. Finding a counsellor with experience working with LGBT folks is an important first step.
But sponsors absolutely should not force refugees into anything. While I appreciate the sense of responsibility sponsors may have felt over the years of filing and pursuing the application, the refugee is not a child who needs your constant protection and guidance.
It’s a sponsor’s responsibility to protect a refugee’s agency: offer the refugee the option of counselling but don’t force them into anything. This applies to everything. There is an imbalanced power dynamic between a sponsor — an established Canadian in a gay-friendly society — and a refugee who has just arrived, who has faced challenges that most sponsors can’t even imagine.
To balance that dynamic, sponsors should be careful never to force the refugee into anything: a specific employment you think is good for them, a location you believe is the best for them to live in, or even a fun event you want them to attend. Give them options then let them make their own mistakes.
You’re their safety net for the first year and protecting their agency, their ability to make their own choices, is more important than impatiently expecting them to do everything the Canadian way the minute they arrive.
It takes most Canadians a lifetime to learn the Canadian way; a refugee has the right of a year or two to absorb it.
Ultimately, a sponsor’s job is to help a newcomer integrate into the Canadian community. Integration in its basic meaning is to combine many things and make them whole. My advice to sponsors: make sure that as time passes by, this gay newcomer can have the experiences you have. They have the right to be part of the community, without being pointed at as different. They have the right to live in the country, without constantly having to express how grateful they are to you for sponsoring them. There should come a time when the newcomer is not a “newcomer” anymore, but another Canadian among us.
I know a sponsor who used to refer to the refugee they sponsored as “my refugee.” This rings in my ear so terribly, like an insult. You don’t own the refugee; they have their own life, you should be thankful you’re part of it.
I have a refugee experience in my past, I’m proud of being a former refugee. The people who sponsored me gave me the space to become part of the Canadian community, to become friends with them and they, slowly but surely, forgot about my refugee experience. We became a family of people who are equal in our social relationships.
I feel integrated, I feel part of a whole, I don’t want to stand out, I just want to be seen for who I am as a human. I don’t want to always be someone’s refugee.