When the Syrian refugee crisis finally made headlines in Canada, Trevor O’Rourke felt sick.
For months, he had listened carefully to heart-wrenching stories of war, hardship and challenges told to him by a queer refugee from Lebanon, a country to which many Syrians, forced out by the civil war, continue to flee.
“I’m not a super-anxious person in my day-to-day life,” O’Rourke says. But, he says, he spent several months “just feeling kind of ill about this.”
Sensing the mounting humanitarian crisis, he found he “just wasn’t quite equipped to handle it without doing something about it.”
A 30-year-old high school Spanish teacher and musician, O’Rourke is close friends with several people who have been privately sponsored to come to Canada. So the decision to sponsor a queer Syrian refugee made sense to him.
“I just see it as, like, the right thing to do,” he says. “Yes, I’ve been exhausted, and yes, I’ve been discouraged, but it’s the small thing that I can do to feel a bit anchored in what this world’s situation is right now.”
After attending a public presentation last fall about how to support Syrian refugees coming to Canada, O’Rourke took a lead role in founding the Safe Passage Circle, one of several small groups of Vancouver-area residents who are organizing to privately sponsor LGBT refugees from around the world.
Along the way, he received more cues and encouragement from other concerned people, including his colleague’s seven-year-old daughter who felt compelled to get involved. The young girl had been deeply upset by the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s small dead body washed up on a Turkish beach, and she and her mother were looking for ways to help displaced Syrians.
The pivotal moment of committing to the project happened over breakfast with long-time gay activist Murray Corren, whose work, with his late husband Peter, changed adoption laws for queer families in BC, challenged homophobia in schools, and helped legalize same-sex marriage in Canada.
Corren and O’Rourke met through Rainbow Refugee, a Vancouver non-profit that helps LGBT refugees escape persecution in their home countries, after both men expressed interest in forming a sponsorship circle.
“We had breakfast at his place on Sunday and started hashing out what this would look like and whether we were a good fit in terms of doing this . . . whether our values matched enough,” O’Rourke recalls.
They quickly found they matched.
During that first meeting, the pair discovered they had both lived on Bowen Island at the same time and, with Corren being a retired school teacher, they both shared a love of learning and mentorship.“He’s really good at acknowledging people and the efforts they’re making. So that’s a really great quality he has that I think brings a lot to this whole process.”“We get along really well, I have great respect for Trevor,” Corren says.
Reached by phone, Corren tells Daily Xtra that he got involved with sponsorship work after spending five years abroad in Mexico. After his husband died, he was looking for a new adventure. “I thought, I’m going to be very bored if I’m doing nothing,” he says.
Corren was also motivated by a broader sense of solidarity and his lifelong dedication to improving lives within the LGBT community. “I wanted to be involved in something specifically related to the queer community,” he notes.
“That I am able to do this,” he adds, “gives me a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure.”
Now, a little over a year later, their group has nearly a dozen members. They’ve raised the required money and are in the process of arranging a plane ticket for the person they’re sponsoring, Sayf.
The process has been anything but easy. O’Rourke spends 40 hours per week on his sponsorship work, the same amount of time he puts into his paid teaching.
During our interview over coffee, O’Rourke and fellow group member Jenny Simpson describe Sayf’s living circumstances. He’s currently living in Turkey, waiting for his application to be accepted and processed. Because it’s unsafe for him to be open about his sexuality there, and because being gay is not culturally acceptable within the Syrian refugee community, Sayf is socially isolated. The past few months have been particularly challenging for him, O’Rourke and Simpson say, because Turkey has seen two high-profile killings of queer people.
With a serious health condition that’s exacerbated by stress, and no doctor (his doctor fled during Turkey’s attempted coup in July), Sayf needs emotional support. As the primary point person for Sayf, O’Rourke tells me he video chats with Sayf every week, holding space for him to talk about his challenges.
“It’s usually pretty gut-wrenching,” O’Rourke says of their conversations. “I’m really lucky that I have a good support network here. It’s weird to be supporting somebody and need support from other people. So afterwards I’ll usually call my parents or somebody like Jenny who’s involved.”
In addition to offering emotional support, O’Rourke is also involved with Sayf’s lengthy application process and the financial administration of his file; he also performed every week last spring to fundraise the money required for the application to proceed.
Despite the personal sacrifice that seems to be involved, both O’Rourke and Simpson frame the endeavour as solidarity work and reject the notion that they’re trying to rescue someone.
“We’re working to use the privilege that we have to help others access their own rights,” O’Rourke says.
Simpson teaches social studies at the same school as O’Rourke, and says the work has helped her feel grounded in the face of news of the war in Syria.
“It’s hard to know what to do when you’re looking at the news, but this was an opportunity to collaborate with people I knew and trusted,” she says.
“It’s really overwhelming, I find, to hear about some of the world events,” she later adds. “It hurts me emotionally.”
O’Rourke and Simpson’s group is one of about 12 small groups currently working with Rainbow Refugee.
Over the past four and a half years, sponsorship “circles of hope” in Canada have submitted 77 applications to bring queer refugees into the country, according to Rainbow Refugee. About half of the refugees have already arrived.
The sponsorships are lengthy, involved processes. With the help of Rainbow Refugee volunteers, groups of five to 12 people come together to make immigration arrangements for someone they’ve never met. This includes fundraising a minimum of $15,000, learning their sponsoree’s story, and submitting several applications to different government bodies.
This first half of the process can take over a year, with applications sometimes held up in bureaucratic bottlenecks for several months. Then, once the application has succeeded, the group is responsible for paying the airfare, arranging housing and providing social support during the refugee’s first year in Canada.
Simpson says that once Sayf has arrived, her group will help him find work and enrol in any language or skills classes he’s interested in. She emphasizes that as per the sponsorship ethics agreement they’ve signed, the group will be responding to Sayf’s needs and interests, rather than imposing their own vision.
“Truly, the work that we have been preparing for and hoping for starts once he gets here. We need to be ready for that,” she says.
Under the Canadian government’s humanitarian resettlement program, refugees may come to Canada if they are referred by an organization, such as the United Nations Refugee Agency, or if they are sponsored privately.
Eligible individuals must be living outside their home country, having fled war or significant human rights violations, or fear returning to their country of origin due to a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, such as women or people with a particular sexual orientation.”
Coordinating the sponsorship groups in BC is Chris Morrissey. Once a Catholic nun, she now volunteers about 60 hours per week with Rainbow Refugee. After years of hiding her sexuality, Morrissey left the church in 1988. She founded a queer immigration advocacy group after she discovered how difficult it was to sponsor her Irish-American same-sex partner to come to Canada in the early 1990s.
Morrissey says she saw a spike in people getting involved with Rainbow Refugee after the picture of Alan Kurdi hit the media. That spike was responsible for creating eight to 10 new sponsorship circles within a couple of months. And the interest has carried, she says, with several new circles starting since then. But Morrissey worries what will happen when the media spotlight on refugees dwindles.
“Our concern is that we know that the laws in countries that persecute LGBT folks are still alive and active and are not going to go away, even if the Syrian crisis is resolved,” she tells Daily Xtra by phone.
Morrissey says she receives about five emails per week from queer people abroad looking for sponsorship to Canada. Through email communication she creates a profile of them and, when possible, she matches them with a sponsorship circle.
With patience, guidance and a ton of hard work, the groups generally succeed, eventually, at bringing the sponsored refugee to Canada.
The coordination work Morrissey does is crucial to the process, and the sponsors she supports recognize her hard work. “Chris Morrissey at Rainbow Refugee, that woman ought to be sainted for what she has been able to achieve in supporting refugees coming to Canada,” Corren says. “She’s an incredible human being.”
For David Feuillatre, the journey has been full of challenges. His sponsorship circle, Hope for Syria, has been struggling to reach its fundraising goals. Unable to use the name or photos of the person they’re trying to sponsor, for fear of endangering him, Feuillatre says their online crowdfunding campaign was a flop. His group has also struggled to retain members, making the workload heavy for the circle’s core organizers.
When we meet on a park bench near city hall, Feuillatre has just arrived from another meeting by bike, and keeps his eye on the time so he’s not late for his next commitment. He tells me that he works several odd jobs to get by and doesn’t care about getting rich. He recently spent two years in the Middle East travelling and working as a photojournalist, an experience that influences his work with Rainbow Refugee.
“There’s only one thing to do, it’s saving lives, directly. You can talk here and say as much as you want blah blah blah blah, but it will never do anything in this world. Me, I’ve seen people get shot in front of me, so that I know what it is to take a life and save it,” he says.
Several times during our interview Feuillatre says he’s anti-elite. He has a strong anti-war stance and doesn’t care about making money because he disagrees with his tax dollars being spent on military missions.
Similar to O’Rourke and Simpson, Feuillatre says he’s doing the sponsorship work because it feels right.
“It’s the right thing to do . . . I sustain my energy because I’m very happy to, basically, to be able to save a life of someone,” he says.
Feuillatre believes passionately in what he’s doing. Political opinions aside, he tells me his awareness of the world and the issues at stake are significantly informed by his spiritual beliefs and meditation practice. He confides that he was upset when his group’s fundraising campaign failed. He had spent hours and hours working on the fundraising video. When it got picked up by the CBC and played on a Sunday evening, Feuillatre waited patiently, expecting donations to start pouring in, but they never came.
“I have to understand that I am more aware than normal people,” he says. “What I would wish to know was, yes, I will get a fucking slap in the face trying to do this [fundraising]. I wish I had known that because I did indeed [go] through a very, very deep dissolution of how good the people are,” he says.
Feuillatre’s experience sheds some light on the frustration and despair that can sometimes come with social justice work. In a world that’s often hostile to what’s required for social equality, it’s easy to feel troubled by the inaction of others.
But Feuillatre’s determination is visible to others. When I later interview Danny Ramadan, who’s been involved with forming several local sponsorship groups, he off-handedly mentions that Feuillatre is in involved with four groups.
“I salute him,” Ramadan says. “I have no idea how he has that energy.”
Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, Ramadan and his partner left their home, its war and its homophobia and moved to Lebanon as refugees, where they still couldn’t live safely as an openly as a gay couple.
While in Beirut, the couple received private sponsorship to immigrate to Canada. But it didn’t happen overnight. Ramadan tells Daily Xtra by phone that waiting for his application to be processed was “fucking horrible” because no one could tell him whether it would go through within a few weeks or take a whole year.
“Your life revolves around that phone call from the embassy,” he says.
When the acceptance call finally came, he was in the shower, he recalls. The running water in his rented apartment had just been fixed and taking a shower at home was a luxury. He remembers dashing out of the shower, dripping wet and naked when he heard his phone ring, only to miss the call. And with the embassy closed over the weekend, he couldn’t connect with the office until the following week.
As a recipient of private sponsorship, Ramadan’s life was changed forever. Now settled in Vancouver, he works as a volunteer coordinator at the queer resource centre Qmunity, is a columnist for Daily Xtra, and volunteers seemingly non-stop for Rainbow Refugee. He’s built an impressive support network, including a friend who checks in with him daily via text message, and another who drags him to the gym every morning.
Still, Ramadan’s life isn’t easy. He’s open about suffering from survivor’s guilt, but limits which parts of his past he will speak about publicly. Survivor’s guilt is sometimes understood as its own condition but since the mid-1990s psychologists have considered it as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ramadan has organized several sponsorship circles, communicates regularly with queer refugees abroad and regularly speaks publicly about his experiences at fundraising events. His sponsorship work fills him with purpose and joy and, he tells me, it helps him cope with the survivor’s guilt and make sense of his own experience.
“It’s not about saving all of humanity; it’s about saving your own humanity,” he says.
“It’s going to change you, going to make you better.”
Donna Wilkie is a 69-year-old retired social services worker who used to work for the Canadian Human Rights Commission. She’s measured, unassuming and exacting.
Wilkie’s push to get involved with sponsorship work came after hearing an interview on the radio with Canada’s immigration minister that, for her, brought to light the need to do more to help LGBT refugees.
Interviewed in my East Vancouver home, Wilkie says she started volunteering with Rainbow Refugee at a point where extra time had opened up in her life. After two close friends she had been supporting passed away, Wilkie says she was able to make time for sponsorship work.
“If we can bring some people here where life isn’t perfect, but hopefully they would feel safe, that would be a good start,” she says.
She’s adamant that not everyone has to contribute the same amount of time to sponsorship organizing. She’s the only retired person in the two circles she’s part of, she notes.
She encourages people who are interested in getting involved to attend a Rainbow Refugee meeting, rather than deciding based on information they find online.
Working with sponsorship circles has also helped her find new, unexpected connections within the queer community, she adds. “The benefit has been, which I wasn’t counting on, is that I met some really interesting people,” she says. “[It’s been] a wonderful side effect.”