June 22, 2017
The ESL teacher asked the class, ‘what is your happiest memory?’ Most class participants reminisced about their childhood. Alex simply said, ‘now’. Because now is the first time in Alex’s life when he feels safe and included as a gay man.
Alex left Ukraine and arrived in Canada in 2016 seeking a life of freedom and full participation. He had done some online research about supports available for LGBTQ refugees, which led him to The 519. With support from our Among Friends program, Alex made his refugee claim and is now awaiting the decision.
His life story is full of pain, but he is full of hope and determination.
He always knew he was different, even when he did not have access to much information. Since young age, he was subjected to bullying, harassment, violence and rejection by his family, society and the systems that were meant to protect him as a citizen. At 16, he was physically attacked for the first time by kids from his school. They beat him – scarring him emotionally and physically. But his continued success as a student and later as an engineer in the face of constant bullying and harassment is a testament to Alex’s strength and determination.
It took him another 10 years to come out to his family, after which he was reproached, insulted and thrown out on the street. Even when he started interacting with the family again after some time, he was constantly subjected to homophobic slurs and attitudes.
Although he was a high performer in his profession, he also faced harassment and blackmail by some of his colleagues. He had to move apartments frequently due to repeated incidents of vandalism. Imagine always living in fear – tormented in your workplace, at home and in your neighbourhood. Imagine having no safe space to be yourself. That was Alex’s life every day.
He finally reached his breaking point when he was attacked again– this time injured badly. Law enforcement and medical staff discriminated against him and publically humiliated him for being a gay man. He could not take it anymore.
He had two choices – either to end his life or to begin a new one. He chose the latter.
With the help of a friend, Alex tried to find a safe place – and came to Canada. His refugee claim is still awaiting decision but he has found a place to live and made many friends.
Alex was very new to the country when he found The 519. He could barely speak any English and did not have enough information about the new systems for resettlement. Through our newcomer program, we were able to provide the guidance and referrals Alex needed. Our Among Friends weekly support program for refugee claimants was not only a source of information for him but also a way to find friends and the emotional peer support that he needed.
In 2017, The 519 has seen a dramatic increase in the number of LGBTQ refugees seeking support. In the first three months alone the demand for our settlement services has grown by more than 70% over the same period last year. With the support of donors and other fundraising activities, The 519 was able to provide group support to 5,076 newcomers, and one-on-one supports to 1,238 refugee claimants in 2016 – and is continuing to be responsive to the rising need. Of all the participants provided support through the program, 20% were from Eastern Europe – a region where the community, especially the gay community, has been facing violence and abuse from authorities. Alex was one of them.
Alex is now looking for work as he continues to improve his English. His health has improved drastically and he is leading a wholesome life. He is also volunteering for an organization that supports people living with HIV/AIDS.
Although he lives far from the gay village, he never misses a single session of Among Friends at The 519.
For the first time in his life, Alex feels like a human being.
This new life is helping Alex deal with the trauma of last 40 years. To cope, he resolved never to follow any negative news about the atrocities being committed against the LGBTQ communities across the globe – especially from the part of the world he once called home. But in one year, he has gained so much confidence and strength that now he wants to do something for others who are facing similar or worse situations than his own.
“When I started meeting the LGBTQ communities and their allies in Canada, I realized how this country is not indifferent to the plight of LGBTQ folks around the world. This has motivated me to also give back. I want to offer my Russian language skills to help other refugees coming to Canada from Eastern European countries. Everyone deserves to be themselves – to be safe and happy.”
We agree with Alex – everyone deserves a safe space. As Canada continues to be that safe haven for many LGBTQ refugees facing persecution, the need for on-ground settlement support is increasing. The 519 is committed to providing such supports to all LGBTQ newcomers through a wide range of settlement services and programs. And we hope that the Canadian public will also provide the support needed to continue and expand those programs and services.
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