The suicide this summer of a trans Iranian woman refugee in Toronto may have been a shock to her friends but is sadly not uncommon among trans refugees.
The woman, who called herself Sayeh, arrived in Canada a little more than a year ago as the first, and so far only, refugee sponsored by the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT). Arsham Parsi, who runs the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization, says he knew her well.
“We were good friends,” he says. “She was one of our cases. We worked with her to come to Canada. I was shocked when I heard the news. She would come to our house sometimes for dinner, sometimes for lunch. She came to our house about three days before I got this sad news. She said she was okay.”
But in an interview Parsi did with her in March 2007 when she was in Turkey waiting to come to Canada, Sayeh sounded frequently despairing.
“Every night that I go to sleep I feel that all those incidents are happening to me again,” she said. “I scream and wake up in sweats. Rape, maybe someone would bother you today, push you or arrest you or call you bad names. But when these incidents happen often, when they start happening every day and every hour, you will not have a life.
“I hope to get to Canada alive,” she told Parsi. “My biggest dream is to have someone erase all my memories. I like to forget who I am and what nationality I belong to. When I forget all my past, I would like to get the sex change operation. I would like to go to work and live a normal life like everyone else. I don’t care about all the things that have happened to me in the past 26 years. But even if it is for one year, I would like to be for myself and live without needing to pretend to anyone that I’m a poor and helpless person and without needing to beg them not to belittle me. I don’t want to feel the need to explain to people that I am not a dirty and inferior person.
“Like all of you, I am a human being. I have to explain this to my dad, to my mom. I don’t want to do this anymore. I like to live. I might be able to live like other people. I don’t know what the world of normal people is like. They’ve made so many borders and I’m tired of always being pushed to the other side of them. I hope in Canada I won’t be forced to explain everything.”
But according to Diego Macias, a trans male refugee who runs the queer refugee support group at the 519 Community Centre, refugees do have to explain everything for years.
“The claims process takes a year to a year and a half,” he says. “If it’s unsuccessful, the appeal can take another year and a half. The system is made to beat people down. I would have given up if I had to tell my story over and over.”
Macias says many trans refugees see Canada as the promised land, but their illusions are quickly shattered when they end up in housing where their trans status may endanger them.
“There’s this myth that once your claim is accepted, your sex reassignment surgery is covered,” he says. “You have two suitcases, $100 in your pocket and they send you to a shelter.”
Macias says refugees may be granted a work permit after a few months, although he says for a trans refugee, often with poor English, chances of getting a decent job are slim. Ontario social assistance will cover some costs, but will only occasionally cover the cost of hormone treatments.
“If you get stuck with a transphobic social worker who doesn’t care, you’re stuck,” he says. “Language also plays a huge role. It’s a huge problem with practitioners like doctors. You have to bring a translator, which is hugely expensive. You start using street hormones, sharing needles, you’re at higher risk for HIV.”
Macias says even within the queer community trans refugees may not find the welcome they expect.
“When you dig down trans brutality still exists,” he says. “Oppression of trans folks still exists within our community. And the LGBT community in Toronto is very white, very Canadian. It’s not very welcoming.”
The result, he says, is that many trans women refugees turn to sex work, where they can make money under the table, especially if they’ve given up on their refugee claim or have been refused and are facing deportation.
“It’s extremely hard to navigate the disillusion,” says Macias, “especially when you’re being tortured and brutalized by clients.”
Parsi says Sayeh was not working in the sex trade.
“It’s not easy for someone who does not even have a place to sleep, to pay for the high price of counselling sessions,” she told Parsi in 2007, talking of life in Iran. “When a normal person can hardly afford to pay for everyday expenses, how can we transsexuals possibly pay for these expenses plus the cost of hormones? I don’t claim that I’m the Virgin Mary, but I was never a prostitute. Even people who do prostitution, how much money do you think they make?”
Macias says he raises the question of suicide in his support group, but he says he meets with trans refugees one on one. He says gay, lesbian and bi members of the group need education before trans refugees join the group.
“I would guess there’s quite a lot of suicides,” he says. “It’s something I try to talk about. It’s something that could happen in a moment of despair.”
In a sad twist immigration lawyers say that if they can stick it out, trans refugees might have a better chance of success than gay or lesbian claimants.
“I’ve been doing this for eight years and there have been many transgender clients,” says Toronto lawyer Lani Gozlan. “I don’t think I’ve lost a single case. In general the transgender claimants have a higher acceptance rate.”
Immigration lawyer Michael Battista says he hasn’t had many trans clients, but agrees the Immigration and Refugee Board might be more receptive to their claims than to those of gays or lesbians.
“It all comes down to evidence and credibility,” he says. “In some ways trans people have an easier time because it’s obvious to the naked eye. I think decision-makers at the board have a higher level of comfort with that. It’s easier to get documentation from doctors.”
Brent Hawkes, the reverend at MCCT, won’t talk about Sayeh’s life or death specifically, but says the church sees a gap when it comes to sponsoring queer refugees, especially trans people.
“We thought it would be good for us to apply for a trans refugee,” he says. “To our knowledge there is no agency that specifically says they sponsor LGBT individuals. There have been LGB individuals sponsored. I’m not sure about trans.”
Hawkes says the church is learning more about the system in Canada and the best way to support queer claimants before sponsoring another refugee.
“The refugee immigration program is going to be our priority,” he says.
Hawkes says he doesn’t think MCCT was unprepared to offer Sayeh the help she needed.
“The church was really blessed to have the opportunity to participate in someone’s journey, to give that person an opportunity at freedom,” he says. “Few refugees have been given the kind of support that has been given in this case.”For more on the 519’s LGBT refugee support group visit The519.org