Escaping persecution: LGBTQ+ refugees share their challenging, yet inspiring, journeys towards empowerment and advocacy. Read the stories of 3 powerful individuals;
Born and raised in the Middle East, Norma Lize (she/her) started her advocacy with the LGBTQ+ community in Southwest Asia and North Africa region (SWANA) before fleeing to Vancouver in December 2018 to escape persecution because of her gender identity. This is her story;
“All I was thinking about was I just wanted to be safe, honestly, and to express my gender identity without being afraid all the time. To live my life just like everyone else.
I learned that we as individuals create our own safety. I did my best to create my own safe spaces, my own bubbles, and chosen families in the heart of Vancouver’s gay village, Davie Street. Saying I want to be safe is a good place to start but within two weeks of arriving in Canada, I experienced harassment and transphobia on the street.
The image of Canada is one that is supportive of the LGBTQ+ community as well as refugees, but we don’t talk about racism in Canada. There is tons of racism and homophobia. Yes, Canada is safer than a lot of other countries but now that you’re here, good luck finding a job without Canadian experience, good luck finding affordable housing, your tribe and people you can identify with, good luck changing your name, and having travel documents as a refugee.
When I first got to Canada it took me 5 months to get a working permit, so I had to be on welfare and it was just not enough for me to pay my rent, eat and transition at the same time.”
Norma Lize’s first Canadian job was in finance before moving to Rainbow Refugee in 2020, a non-profit organization in Vancouver with the mission to promote equitable migration and communities of belonging for anyone who is fleeing from persecution due to gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, sex characteristic, and HIV status. Norma Lize has won multiple awards for her work with LGBTQ+ refugees including the January Marie Lapuz award — named after January Marie Lapuz, a transgender Filipina woman who was murdered in New Westminster in 2012.
“While there is a lot to work on, I don’t want to sound like I am not grateful for the things I was able to accomplish here. I was able to transition, I was able to physically and medically live the life I have always dreamed of, I was able to connect with people I never imagined I would be able to connect with and I was able to find love.
Also, the nature in Vancouver is stunning. Every time I go on a road trip or to a different location in British Columbia, I am amazed by how beautiful this country is. It reminds me of how small we are, and all the problems we go through are nothing compared to nature and all the blessings this planet and this country has to offer.”
In 2019, Norma Lize marched in her first pride parade, “To see thousands of people I don’t know, and I will probably never meet in my life again just there to show support and solidarity… Just walking and absorbing all the love and realizing life is good, it’s a good feeling. If you want to be open, if you want to show love and support, you can do it, it’s not hard.
The one message I want to give to refugees reading this: don’t lose hope, there is always a way to get where you want to be. Don’t give up.”
Nouran El Gendy & Miral Mokhtar
Nouran and Miral are LGBTQ+ activists who fled to Canada in 2018 shortly after Mashrou’ Leila’s concert in 2017 when the Egyptian government started to crack down on queer folks. This is their story;
“Miral and I faced grave danger, not only from our own government but also from our families. Despite my family being aware of my lesbian identity, it was too risky for me to remain in the country, so I made the decision to escape with Miral. We spent a year navigating through different locations in Egypt before finally settling in Canada.” Nouran explained.
Miral added, “My family was also aware of my sexuality, but they went to the extent of making death threats. I knew I had no choice but to leave with Nouran. Unfortunately, there was a severe lack of support for LGBTQ+ people from organizations in Egypt. While some organizations claimed to help, they provided little help in real-life situations. Despite our tireless advocacy efforts, we found ourselves helpless and abandoned.”
Now that they’re in Canada, they were presented with a new set of challenges. Noran added, “However, adapting to life in Canada proved to be a challenging endeavor. Miral and I faced numerous obstacles, including discrimination, housing instability, financial hardship, and bureaucratic complexities. We had to move from one temporary place to another for three years. Our mental well-being suffered greatly, and the only thing that has really helped us is going back to studying.
It was not until we obtained permanent residency status that we were able to pursue higher education with the support of OSAP. After completing the Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor and Advocate course at George Brown College, Miral and I became counselors. We now offer support to individuals who have experienced assault and are fleeing violence, particularly refugees and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Our aim is to provide the help that we lacked when we first arrived.”
Miral explained, “By supporting other refugees and engaging in online activism, we feel that we are filling the void we encountered. Refugees face unique challenges upon arrival; refugees carry traumas, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder to Canada, leaving behind their roots and adapting to a completely foreign country. Navigating the new culture and language while attempting to assimilate can be an overwhelming experience.”
“There is also a lack of knowledge,” Nouran added. “We hear so many concerns about therapists who may not understand the layers of oppression that refugees bring with them, leading to further suffering. It is very important for therapists to follow anti-oppressive and anti-racist frameworks to provide effective support. As Miral and I approach our fifth anniversary in Canada, we firmly believe that our advocacy work is far from complete.”
Miral emphasized, “Our progress and current position are the results of our persistent efforts and courage to voice our needs and experiences, even when it was dangerous to do so. We continued to speak up, and with each word, we moved closer to where we wanted to be.”
When asked about what pride means to them, both shared passionately. Miral reflected, “Pride is a protest; I don’t go to pride to celebrate it in any way. We march for transformative justice and community-based interventions instead of relying on law enforcement.”
Nouran expressed, “For me, I see everyone putting the rainbow on bags, on Pepsi cans, or on bags of chips. It feels very rainbow washed. Because we care about pride when we care about queer communities around the world and what is happening to them. There are still countries where it is illegal for any queer persons to exist. If we think about pride, it started as a protest, and I think it should keep going as a protest until we are all free.”
For information about Jumpstart’s Refugee Talent Programs, visit https://jumpstartrefugee.ca/programs/