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Refugee celebrates first Pride in Vancouver as legal resident

A year after fleeing Montenegro, Zdravko Cimbaljevic wants to help other gay refugees

Nearly a year after fleeing persecution, Zdravko Cimbaljevic is grateful for the support he received from his “Canadian uncles,” who took him in, gave him a place to stay and stood by him through a year of adjustments. Credit: Shimon Karmel

It’s been eight months since 30-year-old Zdravko Cimbaljevic started his new life.

Originally from the small Balkan state of Montenegro, where he faced continual death threats as a prominent gay activist, Cimbaljevic was granted asylum in Vancouver last fall and has been trying, successfully, to adapt. But building a new life, however welcome, is not without its challenges.

“It’s hard when you start life from zero, and it seems like you never existed and you have to prove yourself again,” he says. “It’s like having to jump into a new circle and you don’t have family. You don’t have anyone.”

Cimbaljevic is thankful for the support he has received from the men he calls his “Canadian uncles” — men who took him in, gave him a place to stay and stood by him through a year of adjustments.

“I’ve been lucky for those people who have supported me,” he says. Others fleeing persecution often aren’t so lucky, he notes.

Cimbaljevic’s public efforts to host his country’s first Pride parade and to create a gay rights forum, though dangerous, made it easier for him to prove to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board that he is gay and was in jeopardy. But, he says, people living outside the international spotlight often have a more difficult time proving their sexuality when seeking refugee status.

He believes more can be done locally to help potential gay refugees struggling around the world. “Vancouver Pride is actually a gateway to raise an issue,” says Cimbaljevic, who helped lead last year’s parade as its international grand marshal. “As a refugee, I want to bring up the issue that refugees who are trying to come to Canada are faced with in their countries. Being grand marshal opened the door for me.”

Despite its annual call for nominations, the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) received no suggestions this year for an international grand marshal to help lead the parade. (Local community pioneer ted northe will be honoured posthumously, along with WinterPride co-founder Dean Nelson and trans filmmaker Gwen Haworth.)

As much as Cimbaljevic appreciates the warm reception he received here last year, he says he wishes “our Pride could be more community-based and more about raising issues around us. We need to give others hope that they can do it — hope like the VPS gave me.”

He would like to see the VPS organize an international human rights conference for Pride, similar to what was held in Toronto during WorldPride.

“That sounds like a fantastic idea,” says VPS general manager Ray Lam.

“A lot of people see Pride as a big celebration and a party, but it’s really about a focus on our issues,” Lam says. “The VPS has produced conferences in the past and will continue to do so again if the conditions were right,” he says, remembering the national Fierté Canada Pride conference in 2007 and the InterPride conference the VPS hosted in 2008, in addition to the more local BC Prides Summit in 2011.

“So long as we’re not competing with the other conferences within our network, because we all essentially attract the same groups of people,” he adds.

Cimbaljevic recently returned from WorldPride in Toronto, where he marched in the nearly six-hour parade and participated in the human rights conference. “It was amazing!” he says.

“It was a really good experience. I saw friends and fellow activists that I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I met so many connections and so many people that can help me and other refugees,” he says. “It’s not only important to gather refugees together for support. It’s important to get all Canadians on board to help with the issue because we need the help.”

Having been granted his own asylum, Cimbaljevic is now determined to assist others seeking asylum. “I’m trying to give back and help those who come to Canada and must go through the same process that I did,” he says. “There are so many other [refugees] that come here and have a language barrier and who are not activists. They are regular people who are trying to escape persecution, and they don’t have the treatment that I did because people don’t know about them.”

For his part, Cimbaljevic is looking forward to his first Vancouver Pride as a legal resident of the city. “It’s a very strange feeling for me to have been a guest last year at Pride and now, a year later, to be a refugee in the same city,” he says.

“I feel more a part of society. I feel more settled, but I’m still lost in regard to my professional career,” he admits. “It’s very hard for refugees, even ones like me who finish university, to start a life here because many of us need to go through education again, and we need to start with basic jobs.”

He says he plans to continue his education and has applied for permanent residency, a decision he hopes to hear this fall. 

Zdravko’s Pride picks

Asked which Pride events he’s most looking forward to attending this year, Zdravko Cimbaljevic starts with the official Pride Week launch at city hall on Mon, July 28.

He also recommends the Queer Arts Festival, and particularly its refugee mural, which runs until Sat, Aug 9. And, he says, he’s planning to attend the Davie Street Block Party on Fri, Aug 1, then the Untoxicated party, presented by the Last Door Recovery Society, and Reset, at Heaven’s Door, both on Sun, Aug 3.

More Pride Picks

For the art lovers
By Greg Armstrong-Morris
If you want to know what Pride means to me, go see The Normal Heart, running until Sat, Aug 16 at the Jericho Arts Centre, staged by the Ensemble Theatre Company. Did you see the HBO film? Good. Now go see the play. This is the kind of script that was meant to be seen live. It’s a powerful, not-so-distant history lesson. See it, then cover yourself in glitter and dance your queer ass off for Pride Week.

Wed, July 30
Queer Arts Festival With an always surprising array of visual and performing arts, Vancouver’s three-week Queer Arts Festival, which runs until Sat, Aug 9, is one of my favourite summer dos.

Thurs, July 31
Alien Sex I’ll go to anything David Bloom concocts. This time it’s a mix of whimsy, savage poetry, heartbreaking vulnerability and B-movie joy that fearlessly explores the strange, beautiful and sometimes inexplicable territory of human sexuality. Alien sex? Bring it! One night only at the Queer Arts Festival.

Gay Agenda After the intergalactic weirdness of Alien Sex, I’m heading for Eastside sex and a little Gay Agenda at The Cobalt! Eager Cobalt boys will be going bare as they dare in a dick-a-licious tourney for the title of Mr Pride RainBro!

Fri, Aug 1
Davie Street Block Party As much as I hate to be caged when I drink, I’ll go. Pride organizers can’t be blamed for archaic liquor laws, but could we please, please do something about the lacklustre selection of beers on offer? Granville Island Brewing Company is, like, right there!

Sat, Aug 2
Queer Bash Pride Edition I’ll be returning to The Cobalt in search of my dignity, which I will have undoubtedly left at the sneakered feet of some lithe,
boy-toy cum stripper the night before.

Sun, Aug 3
Pride parade Brunch and too many mimosas will lead to the parade and too many snide comments, for which I will be punished with my annual bout of Pride sunstroke.

Big Gay Sing If the sunstroke hasn’t knocked me flat, I’ll be on my feet for the Vancouver Men’s Chorus’s maxi-gay sing-along. After all, “I am what I am.” Hosted by humpy Jamie Foster and adorkable Mok Escueta.

Mon, Aug 4
Corona Recovery Patio Party I’m glad The PumpJack has expanded — I’m gonna wanna let it all hang out and then spread it around some.

For the ladies
By Alexandra Chuba
Trying to find a Pride lesbian event in Vancouver is like trying to locate your G-spot. You know it exists, you’ve heard the stories, seen the pictures, but no one has correct documentation or instructions. Here are my top tips to help you hit the spot:

Wed, July 30
For the cultured queer Pride starts for me on July 23 when the Queer Arts Festival opens. My iCal is synched until the festival’s closing party on Sat, Aug 9.

Fri, Aug 1
For the sailors Whether you choose Flygirl’s Chicks Ahoy boat cruise or Crema’s Hot & Wet boat cruise on Fri, Aug 1, I’ve got a few tips to share. Ladies, though you look really hot in your stilettos, please don’t wear them on the damn boat. I am still pissed at the girl in the white go-go boots who took me out two years ago. It’s a small, wet boat with usually one working toilet 20 minutes in, so leave the heels at home and bring tons of cash, because the only thing included are the hot chicks who can’t run away from you.

Sat, Aug 2
For the dykes Sat, Aug 2 is our day. Hot dykes on bikes, women marching together, tiny tank tops, freshly spiked hair . . . I can smell the BO and vegan hotdogs already! Join the sea of beauties at the Vancouver Dyke March and Festival as we walk down Commercial Drive to Grandview Park, starting at noon. This is the day where you can bring your fur children and snuggle out all the guilt you’re likely to build up as the weekend wears on. Tip: Bring sunscreen, a blanket and tofu jerky. All three will help you meet new friends.

Sun, Aug 3
For the laid-back partier After sitting in the sun all day swatting away the screaming idiots trying to steal a corner of your flannel blanket, count down the minutes until Chicas, the infamous lesbian midday dance party on Sun, Aug 3. Sure, you decide every year after Pride that you’re done going to Chicas, but really, are we ever? It is the top party of the weekend. Plus, you get to duck out of the parade early to get your money’s worth at Chicas because you spent your rent on tickets.

For the hardcore partier If you are still standing and have not passed out during the three hours of dead time since Chicas ended, head down to Hershe at the Plaza of Nations, where Flygirl will wrap up Pride with a full-on club scene. Not for the old at heart.

For the shameless
By Raziel Reid
From the West End to East Van to Blood Alley to my toilet bowl, I’ll be celebrating my Pride all over this town! And because I’m always a step ahead of the shame, I’ve written down where I’ll be so that post-Pride, I can remember where I lost my dignity.

Thurs, July 31
Alien Sex Artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians and other multidimensional creatures will be coming down to earth for some Alien Sex and creation. I always say I like a little culture during Pride, and I don’t just mean sleeping with tourists. The Queer Arts Festival presents a night of “tentacles wrestling the status quo.” I’m not sure what to expect — octopus porn?

Fri, Aug 1
Davie Street Block Party I fill with rage every time the Vancouver Pride Society promotes Pride events as being for “families.” Pride is for my vodka bottle more than for your chillun. Got it? Luckily, those snotty-nosed brats (and no, I’m not talking about drag queens) won’t be able to get near me in the 19-plus beer garden.

Papa Party World Tour I joined this event page before I read the description. Papa party? Hello. Then I discovered it’s even better than a bunch of daddies. Big Roger is introducing Tel Aviv’s Eliad Cohen to Vancouver. His show has toured the world, with Cohen’s pecs leaving quite the impression.

Sat, Aug 2
El Hangover If getting day-drunk in an East Van parking lot is an expression of Pride, I celebrate year-round.

BassMassage Surprising to no one I’m sure, I’ll be dragging myself from a parking lot to an alley for BassMassage, which promises to be thick and jackin’. I hope they’re not just talking about the house beats by DJs Nancy Dru and Taffi Louis! The party is being held in Gastown’s Blood Alley Square, named, according to local legend, for all the blood spilled on the cobblestones by butchers at the turn of the 20th century. But after Pride, it might just have to be renamed Glitter Alley. Get ready to drain!

Sun, Aug 3
Pride parade Come find me on Denman Street, where I’ll be with a crew filming the parade (aka holding it up as I sexually harass police officers). If you’re as naked and drunk as I intend to be, I may just put you in front of the camera.

PumpJack on Water One of the best aspects of Vancouver Pride is the chance to get out on the ocean. My yacht of choice is the PumpJack on Water, a cruise in more ways than one. It’s finally time to fulfill that fantasy of fucking a boat full of harnessed sailors! Who says you can’t be productive during Pride?