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Rainbow Refugee plans dance for lesbian Syrian couple

Organizer says many ways to locally assist newcomers seeking freedom

Naseem and Zeinah (who asked that their identities be protected) say they’ve been overwhelmed by their reception in Canada. Credit: Layla Cameron

Having spent years helping refugees through humanitarian organizations in the Middle East, Naseem and Zeinah met while working for the United Nations assisting Iraqi refugees who had made their way to Syria.

“Helping refugees is in our hearts,” Naseem says.

Today, the roles have reversed for Naseem and Zeinah, who asked that their real names not be published for their security. They have left their homes and families so that they can live openly as a couple, and are now living as refugees themselves in Vancouver.

“I didn’t know about my sexual orientation until I met her,” Zeinah says. Naseem, however, says she has known she was a lesbian since she was a child.

“I was hiding this because I know that it is taboo and it’s really not acceptable in Syria to be a lesbian, gay, or transgender, and that you would be targeted,” Naseem says. “I wasn’t open at all, and I was stressed all the time.”

The Rainbow Refugee Womyn’s Caucus is hosting a dance to raise funds for Naseem, Zeinah and other women like them, to support them through their first year in Canada. The dance will be held on June 19 at the WISE Hall.

“It matters to me that women are at risk because of their sexual choices, and it matters to me that we have to hide who we are, and it matters that we are unfortunately at times not able to get the support that we need to live life comfortably,” says Joan Harris, a volunteer with the Rainbow Refugee Womyn’s Caucus who immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean.

In Syria, Naseem and Zeinah were only able to see each other during working hours because the poor security conditions caused by the ongoing war meant that they were required to go directly home at the end of the day.  Naseem says she was constantly worried about Zeinah’s safety, but was unable to contact her because their relationship was a secret.

“I was stressed, traumatized, and worried,” Naseem says. “You have to live in two faces. You have to pretend to be another person. You introduce her as your friend. It’s really harmful for us and it doesn’t feel good.”

Four years later, the couple moved to Lebanon before making their way to Vancouver.

“Once we arrived in Lebanon, we started thinking about travelling to Canada,” Naseem says. “I was always trying to search on the internet on how to travel to a country where they can accept me as a homosexual where I can have rights and live safely.”

Naseem says she and Zeinah feel like they are living in a dream now that they are in Vancouver.

“When we started registering our documents with the government, he was addressing us as spouses, as partners. This was overwhelming in a positive way,” Naseem says.

Harris says the theme for the fundraiser, Hands Across The Rainbow, represents joining forces across borders and increasing the representation of people at local events.

Naseem and Zeinah emphasize the generosity and kindness they have received from Rainbow Refugee, and say they plan to “pay it forward” once they are settled.

Harris says there are many ways people from the Vancouver community can help welcome newcomers to Canada.

“It’s okay to just show people Vancouver. Take them on a bus tour, spend the day exploring simplistically with things that cost no money,” says Harris.

While financial donations are appreciated, Harris says people can also help by facilitating language courses, helping with the job-hunting process, or donating goods that can be used to help set up homes for recently landed refugees.