Burden of proof
They once had to hide their sexuality. Now they are being forced to prove it. Gay refugees face unique challenges in their journey to Canada, Zosia Bielski reports.
When they reach Canadian soil, gay refugees fleeing repressive, homophobic regimes face a maddening challenge. Fearing being beaten, jailed, tortured or killed in their home countries, they hide their sexual orientation all their lives. In Canada, they face a 180: to secure status as a persecuted minority, they are asked to prove their sexuality on the spot.
This means furnishing refugee boards with detailed documentation of their same-sex relationships – intimate texts, letters, photographs and other romantic artifacts they may have erased, or never manufactured, for their own safety. Other gay refugees have no boyfriends or girlfriends to show at all, having remained single out of fear.
Without proof, gay refugee claimants' credibility is shot. How do they convince Canada to give them sanctuary?
On May 1, Canada will begin to address the unique circumstances that this highly vulnerable population faces with the country's first ever guidelines entirely devoted to LGBTQ refugee claimants. The guidelines set out best practices and expectations for decision makers sitting on refugee boards nationwide.
"Before this, we've had to rely on board members having good judgment, having good discretion," said Sharalyn Jordan, an organizer with Vancouver's Rainbow Refugee, which assists LGBTQ claimants. "This makes me very hopeful that we will start seeing more consistent, more just decisions."
The guidelines warn against stereotyping and against applying standards from Canada to claimants from other countries. They highlight the impact that trauma has on people's memories. And they urge decision makers to weigh evidence in the context of ongoing persecution: Would it be safe for a lesbian in a homophobic regime to walk back into the police station where she was jailed, without charge, to ask for her police records so Canadian officials could pore over them later?
"This is intended to promote a greater understanding of the diversity and complexity of the situation of sexual and gender minority individuals," Anna Pape, a spokesperson for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, said of the new guidelines, which involved consultations with LGBTQ advocates, researchers, refugee lawyers and social workers.
Around the world, sexual minorities face terrifying discrimination and threats to their lives. The latest horrific reports have come from Chechyna, where gay men have been rounded up in pogroms, tortured and killed, with Canada doing little so far to help them. Flouting human rights norms, approximately 73 countries and states worldwide outlaw gay sex, 13 of them with a death penalty, according to a 2016 report titled State-Sponsored Homophobia, authored by researcher Aengus Carroll and published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
"When someone comes to Canada and says, 'Don't send me back to my home country, I'm going to be persecuted, tortured or killed,' we need to take that very seriously. If we get the decisions wrong in these cases, we are not only breaching international law, we're exposing individuals to severe risk," said Sean Rehaag, a professor specializing in refugee law at Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School.
Some 2,234 refugees claimed asylum in Canada on the basis of their sexual orientation between 2013 and 2015, according to Prof. Rehaag. Of those claims, 70.5 per cent were successful – a figure higher than the overall grant rate to all refugees of 62.5 per cent. Fraudelent claims remain extremely rare: just 2.2 per cent of all refugee claims were declared to have no credible basis or to be fraudulent in 2013, Prof. Rehaag said.
Canada's new guidelines are a step in the right direction. Still, it remains incredibly difficult to fairly determine a person's sexual orientation. In other cases, the homophobic attacks are so gruesome that Canadian decision makers find them implausible – and the claimant not credible as a result.
"It is not a case of board members being overtly homophobic or transphobic but … of ethnocentric criteria being applied," said Rainbow Refugee's Prof. Jordan, who teaches psychology at Simon Fraser University. "Assumptions that Canadians have about lesbian, gay, bi, or trans identities and the 'coming out' model – that people will be in relationships and seek out community as soon as they arrive – these myths and stereotypes don't fit for somebody who is fleeing persecution."
The Globe spoke with five gay refugees from all over the world about being exiled and finding their way to Canada.
"They started beating me. I had to run for my life."
"They started beating me. I had to run for my life."
Chris, 31, Montego Bay, Jamaica
- In Jamaica, same-sex sexual acts are illegal and anal intercourse (described as an “abominable crime” in The Offences Against the Person Act) is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
- Filed for refugee protection in January 2015 and was granted permanent resident status March 2017; settled in Vancouver.
"I had a different feeling toward men," Chris said, recalling his childhood. "In Jamaica, you have to speak like a man. You have to do things boys do: climb trees and play football, soccer and cricket. I, on the other hand, liked to chill with the girls and play with hair and dolls."
In high school, Chris's classmates bullied him, called him feminine names and pushed girls to ask him out on dates, as a test. Feeling unsafe, the young man stopped attending school. When Chris was 14, his father also grew suspicious, threatening to kill him if he found out he was gay. Chris moved out to his cousins' home, but eventually they began to harass him too. A high school teacher took him under her wing, inviting him home for dinner.
He had a particularly traumatizing encounter in 2006, when a group of men approached him at a bus stop on his commute home from work. "They said to me that 'I walk like a girl,'" Chris recalled. "They started beating me. I had to run for my life."
The same year, he lost his job at a chicken processing plant after his colleagues began intimidating him, suspecting he was gay. "It took a big toll on me," said Chris. "I loved that job so much I would get up and still put the uniform on every morning and just walk around the house. I was going crazy." He said he was unable to leave his home for two years.
A robbery at gunpoint in 2010 was the breaking point. Chris decided to move away, taking a job in the Cayman Islands. He began his first relationship with a man, only to face harassment here too: homophobic vandals smashed his windshield and carved "faggot" into his car.
Chris remained in the Cayman Islands for four years, though by 2014, the threats had intensified and his work permit was denied. Facing a forced return to Jamaica, Chris fled to Vancouver in Dec. 2014. Three months later, he got his refugee board hearing, which lasted 20 minutes: he secured permanent resident status last March.
The terrifying events he'd survived back home took hold in the form of severe depression. That's when Chris started to ride public transit buses. "I rode buses for eight hours a day and talked to bus drivers. I said, 'I want to be a bus driver.' I would ask questions about how to make the turns and what to expect."
In 2016, Chris got the job. "Even if I'm having a bad day, once I get my first passenger then I'm good," he said. "I'm a people person and for too long I've had my voice taken away from me. To see happiness on people's faces when I help them, that's what I want."
Bus driving in Canada hasn't been without incident. "I've been told by a passenger that I'm a monkey and that I should go back to Africa," Chris remembered through tears. Other passengers have spoken loudly about refugees being a burden on Canada. Chris's internal retort to this is, "You're being driven by a refugee right now."
With enough trauma in his life for several lifetimes, Chris has attempted suicide six times. Therapy and outreach groups in Canada have helped, though he is lonely. He still speaks to his mother, father and siblings, sending money back home. His sexuality is off the table: "If my mother finds out, it will break her heart really bad. But if my dad finds out, he'll swim here across the ocean and end it."
A small light flickered on when a cousin living in Canada reached out to Chris via Facebook recently. "He came to me and said, 'I know you're gay. It's our tendency to try and hide it. I know when you're lying.' My cousin and his wife are very accepting. He's been living here for 20 years."
Yvonne Niwahereza Jele, 30, Kabale, Uganda
- While a 2013 “anti-homosexuality act” that proposed jailing gay Ugandans for life was annulled in 2014, the country’s penal code continues to criminalize same-sex sexual activity, which remains punishable by a prison sentence.
- Refugee claim denied July 2016, granted a ministerial relief in October 2016. Now applying for asylum based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds; settled in Toronto.
Jele began a secret, lesbian relationship with her best friend when she was 13. "It was so not allowed," she said. "We were teenagers and we risked it anyway."
For years, the young women continued seeing each other furtively, until Jele was 20, when her father walked in on them kissing. He grew wild with rage. "He shoved me in one of the closets in the walkway of our house and left me there, bleeding and swollen," Jele said. There she would remain, starving and dehydrated, for six days.
After letting her out, her father delivered her to a man she'd never met before, a grocery store manager. The marriage was marked by brutality: "He would force himself on me, do whatever he wanted," she said.
Jele had two daughters, now 2 and 7. Against all odds, she continued seeing her girlfriend in clandestine meetings, often at hotels, never taking any receipts that would serve as a trail. "I just needed that little bit of me," Jele said. "I was scared but I thought we could pull it off."
Her husband discovered her affair in 2013 and called police. Jele was jailed for three days, stripped naked, beaten and doused in cold water to force her to stay awake. Having nowhere to go after being released, Yvonne returned to her husband, who grew more abusive. An escape route presented itself in March 2016: Jele worked in tourism and was asked to travel to Philadelphia. She decided to run.
Once in the United States, with $500 in hand, she took a cab to Baltimore and then a 15-hour Greyhound bus ride to a refugee centre she'd read about in Detroit. "The whole time I was on the bus I was like, 'Does this place exist? What if you get there and there's nothing? You're in America. Nobody knows you. You don't know anybody,'" Jele recalled. "I told myself, 'Be brave.'"
Behind a nondescript door, the refugee centre did in fact exist. Here, Jele slept, ate and got advice from other refugees. They told her to head north to Canada, to her brother who lives here. The Canadian refugee board ultimately did not support her claim, taking issue with a dearth of evidence for her lesbian relationship. "There's no way that you can document your life in a scary country where you're not allowed to be who you are," Jele explained.
As Jele faced deportation to Uganda, the immigration minister granted her a relief. She now has one year to prove she is employable, can pay taxes and is in fact a gay woman. A girlfriend (and an affidavit from such a girlfriend) would help her case, though love is the last thing on her mind. "The hardest part is getting board members who actually understand how life in places besides Canada actually works," Jele said. "Canada, especially Toronto, it's like a piece of heaven for me. When I describe things that happened to me back home, even to my friends, it's like a movie to them. They think it's unbelievable but it's reality."
Since November, she's been developing programs for at-risk youth at a community health centre. She hopes to follow up her undegraduate degree in community psychology with a Master's in clinical psychology. Permanent resident status would allow her to sponsor her young daughters.
"It takes forever to leave that place," Jele says of Uganda. "I feel like I've been fighting forever. I hope I'm close to the end."
Justin Negara, 29, Bali, Indonesia
- It’s legal to be gay in most parts of Indonesia, but local decrees criminalize same-sex sexual relations in South Sumatra and Aceh Province. As well, federal health regulations stigmatize gay people by stipulating that a “healthy sexual life” is free from “sexual orientation dysfunction or deviance,” and STDs.
- Applied for permanent resident status in April 2015 and awaiting final outcome; settled in Vancouver.
Negara knew he was gay by the time he was 10 years old: "I didn't fit in with a lot of the boys," he said.
The bullies descended on him in junior high. One particularly bad memory is seared into Negara's brain: "They put me in front of the class and they started undressing me."
Negara distanced himself from friends and classmates, keeping what he knew to himself: a revelation of his sexuality would damage the family name. In 2006, while studying tourism and hotel administration an hour and a half away from home, Negara had sex with a man for the first time. "I had to admit to myself that I'm gay," he said.
That year, the young man came out to his family, a terrifying day he remembers vividly. His father grabbed a knife from the kitchen and began chasing him: "He said, 'No son of mine is gay. I prefer not to have one.'"
Negara escaped to the United States later that year, arriving to Canada in 2008 as a visitor. Here, he would meet his first husband, a partner who turned out to be abusive, Negara said. Nevertheless, he would remain in Canada illegally for another seven years, avoiding anyone in uniform.
In July 2014 came another blow: Negara learned that he was HIV positive. Now he knew returning to Indonesia was no longer an option. "It's unspoken censure," said Negara, referencing the stigma around homosexuality and HIV – and the Sharia law that reigns supreme in the country's Muslim regions. Another complication: employers he described in Bali who require blood tests, which would reveal his status. Negara noted that while Bali boasts gay tourism, it is a world intended for tourists, not locals with HIV: "You're shunned to death with no treatment."
At the Canadian walk-in clinic, Negara panicked, fearing he'd be sent back home to die. The nurse who delivered his diagnosis referred him to a social worker. She asked him why he wasn't applying for refugee status. He took her advice and applied in January 2015, just as he was divorcing his husband.
Today, Negara works with Vancouver's Rainbow Refugee, which assists LGBTQ newcomers. He listens to their stories, many of which are being spoken out loud for the first time. "I promised myself when I was touched by the social worker who literally saved my life that this is what I really want to do," he said.
Negara now attends hearings with gay refugees, helping them navigate the system. He believes immigration officials are slowly becoming more respectful of this cohort. Unlike in the past, Negara is hearing fewer invasive, unethical questions like, "Are you a top or bottom?" or "Are you a giver or receiver?"
"It's too personal," he said.
Negara's sexuality remains unspoken when he chats online with his brother or calls his mother back home. Even though he and his mother are close (Negara refers to her as "my best friend" and "my guardian angel"), he senses that conservative family members disapprove. As for his father, he passed away last year, taking the anger with him. Negara is philosophical about his family's intolerance, saying, "Your experience is limited to what you know."
In British Columbia, Negara is moving forward. Wedding plans are afoot with a new partner of two years. "At the end of the day," he said, "we all want to be treated as humans."
Evan Murtadha, 34, and Samar Al Busiri, 33, Basra, Iraq
- While Iraq’s penal code does not prohibit same-sex sexual relations, a repressive regime effectively outlaws such unions: Militias, police, local courts and local Sharia judges have been known to threaten gay women and men, punishing same-sex sexual relations with severe penalties – including execution – according to ILGA.
- Received refugee status from the UNHCR in February 2015 and permanent resident status in Canada in May 2016. Settled in Ottawa in May 2016, moving to Toronto in September 2016.
It is impossible to be openly gay in Iraq, so Murtadha and Al Busiri circumvented the rules, meeting in 2013 through a private Facebook group intended for LGBTQ Iraqis looking for relationships and friendships. Since neither woman was single, they remained friends for three years.
Before the two began dating, each was outed as gay to family, with Murtadha's father threatening to kill her. The women fled separately to Lebanon in 2015.
Here, they began a relationship in earnest. They applied for refugee status from the UNHCR and the agency rigorously vetted their stories, cross-referencing intimate details with each woman to determine whether they were both telling the truth. Each was asked about the other's strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. "What does she mean to you?" officials interrogated, before accepting their stories.
The women moved in together, to a single room in all-women student housing. They hid their union, pretending to be sisters waiting for visas to join their husbands in Canada.
"We were something weird and odd: two Iraqi girls without their families and they are not wearing hijab and are living alone," said Al Busiri. "We were scared somebody was watching, somebody was listening. We had to be careful not to call each other 'honey' or 'baby' or not to hold each other's hands."
The lies didn't protect them from men who'd hit on them in the street for sex. The worst night came in December 2015, when the women stepped out to buy a loaf of bread. Four men on motorcycles encircled them – grabbing and beating them, tearing their clothes and dragging them by their hair. "More than 20 people surrounded us, watching and laughing," Murtadha recalled.
The situation had become dangerous: the women sent photos of their injuries to LGBTQ advocates in Canada, who forwarded the material to the Canadian embassy in a bid to speed through their application. It would be another five months till they got a flight date to Ottawa, in May 2016.
Private sponsors from a group called Rainbow Haven met them at the airport. "They were holding balloons and signs that said 'Welcome,' so we cried. They hugged us. So many of them, they were crying also," said Murtadha.
Their private sponsors found them an apartment, helped them with government documents, English language and job training, set up bank accounts and doctors' and pro-bono or at-cost dental appointments.
The integration also involved translating particular Canadianisms, "teaching them that in Canada people say 'bless you' when you sneeze, and that they say 'sorry' all the time and that it doesn't mean they're apologizing but that it's a way of speaking. Also, what is a 'double double'?" said Patti Lenard, a University of Ottawa associate professor of moral and political philosophy, who helped sponsor the women.
The most important part of sponsorship, Lenard said, is making gay refugees feel that they are normal, that they can say they're gay in self-description rather than in shame, and that nobody in Canada will care.
"Our families, our friends, our society didn't see us like this," said Al Busiri. "Living there made us feel, 'Are we good? Maybe we born in the wrong way.' All of these things make you think life isn't worth to be lived. But [the sponsors], they introduced us to their families and children, they put us in their houses. We felt loved, respected. We felt that we have new family here."
The two are now estranged from their families in Iraq. "They don't accept our choice," Murtadha said. "Their traditions and religion are more important than the happiness of their sons and daughters."
Today, she works as a proposal co-ordinator and Al Busiri in information technology. The women are learning things they were forbidden to do in Iraq, pleasures like driving, biking and swimming.
They go out for dinner, drink cocktails and hold hands at the table – "simple activities, yes," said Murtadha, "but they are representing the meaning of freedom."
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