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Politics LGBTQ Chechens struggle to find their footing after fleeing to Canada

Demonstrators protest over an alleged crackdown on gay men in Chechnya outside the Russian Embassy in London, on June 2, 2017.

He is gay and a refugee from Chechnya living in Toronto, and sometimes he feels lost. "I miss my old friends,” he says. "And of course, I miss my mom and my family,” even though they have condemned his sexuality.

The Globe and Mail has agreed not to identify him because doing so could put people back in Chechnya at risk, and because last autumn, after leaving a bar one evening, two young men came up to him and began hurling homophobic taunts, in Russian.

“I was afraid,” he admits. Who would not be?

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Fear softened by hope, confusion mixed with excitement. More than a year after arriving in Canada fleeing persecution in Russia, dozens of refugees from Chechnya, most of them young gay men, are still finding their footing – homesick, but also committed to making their way in their new home.

Meanwhile, a federal government that until now has refused to acknowledge that it spirited these refugees out of Russia says it would do it again.

“The persecution and torture LGBTQ2 people faced in Chechnya is abhorrent," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told The Globe in a statement. “When we first became aware of these crimes, we knew that we needed to act.”

The federal government took real risks to bring these young men and women - further straining already sour relations with Russia. How is it working?

“They have struggled to adapt, for sure,” says Kimahli Powell, head of Rainbow Railroad, which helps sexual minorities at risk overseas find places of safety as refugees. But “they are tremendously resilient.”

Some context: In the winter of 2017, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov launched a vicious pogrom against sexual minorities in Chechnya.

More than 100 people, mostly young gay men, were detained and tortured in an effort to extract the names of other gay men they knew. Several were killed, some by members of their own families.

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The beatings and detentions, or the fear of them, sent many gay Chechens and other sexual minorities in the North Caucasus region fleeing to Russian cities where they hid in precarious safe-houses.

Ms. Freeland ordered an airlift that brought 57 LGBTQ refugees to Canada. Most settled in Toronto. Several identify as women; the rest as men. Most are in their 20s; a few are in their 30s. Aid workers say adapting has been an uphill battle.

Their emotions when they arrived “were a combination of grief and excitement, if those two can co-exist,” said Soofia Mahmood, who speaks for The 519, which provides services to Toronto’s LGBTQ community.

Some required immediate medical or dental treatment as a result of beatings from Chechen security officials.

Others were emotionally scarred. One day they were living safely in their communities, or so they thought, often still at home with their parents. The next, they were in a cell being beaten on the soles of their feet or subjected to electric shocks and other forms of torture.

Then they were fleeing for their lives, at risk of discovery and punishment. And then, suddenly, they were living in a strange new land that, only weeks before, they had no intention of even visiting.

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Before most refugees arrive, “there’s time for circles and communities to be prepared, to provide bridges and support,” Mr. Powell said. “But in this case, it was literally overnight.”

For most, the past year has involved finding somewhere to live, navigating government bureaucracies and, most important, learning a new language – essential for finding a job or taking classes – while trying to live on the $730 a month they receive in social assistance.

Some members of the Russian diaspora in Toronto welcome and support them, but others are hostile. The Globe reported in 2017 that one young man was put in the back seat of a car and threatened by several men speaking Russian.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Ms. Mahmood said. And yet, she and others who have worked with the new arrivals believe they will make their way.

They are a tightly knit group and spend a lot of time with each other, and they are encouraged by the openness and support of Toronto’s LGBTQ community.

In the meantime, the international community has tried to get to the bottom of what is going on in Chechnya. In early November, Canada and 15 other member countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called for a fact-finding mission into, as the motion put it, “allegations of impunity for reported human rights violations and abuses in Chechnya from January 2017 to the present, including, but not limited to, violations and abuses against persons based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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The fact-finding mission has not yet reported.

The federal government will not comment further on the Russian airlift.

“Many LGBTQ2 people remain in Chechnya," Ms. Freeland’s statement said. "It is out of concern for their safety that we won’t be speaking further about the matter.”

In the meantime, the new arrivals continue to struggle, continue to cope, continue to plan ahead.

“All this year, I was trying to fight my fears,” the young man said. But he is determined to win. “I will live my life. I will try to become the person I want to be.”

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