To Zdravko Cimbaljevic, the choice came down to being dead in Montenegro or alive in Canada.
So the 30-year-old activist referred to as the first openly gay man in the southeastern European nation of about 680,000 people came to Canada last month and is seeking refugee status, driven out of Montenegro by what he describes as harassment and the authorities’ failure to prosecute his persecutors.
“I am still in depression that I left,” he said on Tuesday in Vancouver. “But I know this is what I needed to do to save my life. I am still feeling that I abandoned everyone.”
He said he is a bit sad to have walked away from a fight, and feels a bittersweet sense that he has abandoned the beloved country of his birth.
“It was really hard to leave. I was feeling my heart stayed there, and my body left,” he said, his voice thick with the pain of standing up for issues he believes in but having to take the steps to ensure he can continue to do so.
He said he still has a profile in Montenegro, and social media allow him to connect with the struggles there to eliminate harassment. “I will say that everything I have done until now will speak for itself.”
In 2011, his status as the first person to come out as gay in Montenegro prompted an invitation to be an international grand marshal for the Vancouver Pride parade.
He says the experience of being in Vancouver – his first trip to a country he knew of as welcoming – was one of the high points of his life. “You wanted to cry and laugh at the same time because you could not believe there were so many people supporting you in one place. I would never think this kind of thing could happen in my country [given] the hatred present at the moment.”
Even in Vancouver, though, he says he still received death threats from home via social media.
Montenegro has been torn by violence against gay rights activists, and the country is now trying to show an embrace of human rights to bolster its application to join the European Union. Montenegro has adopted laws barring discrimination against gays, but Mr. Cimbaljevic said more could be done to enforce them.
On the weekend, a gay-rights march with 150 people guarded by 2,000 police officers prompted scuffles between police and anti-gay demonstrators.
Things have not been peaceful for Mr. Cimbaljevic either. Printed death threats with his photo on them were posted after he organized the country’s first pride rally earlier this year. People yelled at him on the street and attacked him, although he said he suffered only “surface” injuries.
He remembered Canada when he was back home, faced with official indifference about continuing death threats and other harassment linked to his activism for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. He was assured he would have police protection, but he said he was left to fend for himself.
So the former social worker cashed in his air miles and headed back to Canada, arriving on Sept. 11. Most of his family has disowned him. He has a key hearing for his refugee claim on Nov. 22.
His lawyer is optimistic, citing a generally supportive trend in Canada in cases involving a credible fear of persecution based on sexual orientation.
“He’s somebody who has been fairly high-profile as an LGBT rights activist in his own country and has received credible death threats, and it appears he’s not receiving adequate state protection,” Rob Hughes said in an interview.
“Initially, he was promised police protection. When he returned from Canada, where he had come to march in the Vancouver Pride, those promises proved to be empty.”
Mr. Cimbaljevic is on welfare and living with friends, but eager to work and support himself. “I really want to be useful.”