Rainbow Railroad Station aims to bring persecuted LGBT refugees to Calgary

The Centre for Newcomers is hoping to settle more LGBT refugees in Calgary through a new program, assisted by a longtime gay rights activist who himself fled to safety in Alberta.

Longtime rights activist Boban Stojanovic says Alberta immigrants inspired new program

Adam Puskar, left, and Boban Stojanovic, right, attended the Belgrade Pride parade in 2016 shortly before they fled to Canada to escape death threats. (Vesna Lalic)

The Centre for Newcomers is hoping to settle more LGBT refugees in Calgary through a new program, assisted by a longtime gay rights activist who himself fled to safety in Alberta.

The Rainbow Railroad Station will raise money to sponsor people fleeing persecution for their sexual orientation and gender expression around the world. Once they've arrived in Canada, the organization will support the newcomers to settle in Calgary.

The station was formed with support from Rainbow Railroad, an international organization headquartered in Toronto, but will operate independently in Calgary. The Toronto-based group will refer cases of LGBT people, who have escaped life-threatening situations, to the Calgary station.

Being gay, transgender, bisexual or lesbian is criminalized in various ways in more than 70 countries worldwide. Other places lack protections for LGBT people, leaving them to face harassment, discrimination and threats.

"Those people were completely invisible, so we were motivated with their stories and with their lives and everything they're going through," LGBT+ settlement services manager Boban Stojanovic told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

"So we came up to this wonderful idea, and I really hope we'll find a lot of support among Calgarians."

From 2013 to September 2017, roughly 375 people made refugee claims on sexual orientation grounds in Alberta, according to Immigration and Refugee Board data. Just under 230 of those where accepted by the federal board.

Stojanovic arrived in Calgary in 2016 after fleeing persecution in Serbia, where being gay is legal. He and his partner were prominent activists, and they had become targets for violence.

So he knows first hand the difficulty LGBT people face in finding a safe home in Canada. 

Beyond the difficulty of fleeing their situations, LGBT refugee cases can be challenging to build once they've arrived. People must prove their sexual orientation and that they faced danger because of it.

Riot police gathered as a gay pride parade moved along a street in Belgrade. Even in countries where being gay is legal, people still face threats to their safety. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

That can be nearly impossible in many cases where any kind of documentation to that effect would be risky in their home countries.

In Stojanovic's case, he and his partner had considerable documentation. They were quoted in the media and involved with founding the Pride parade in Belgrade, Serbia.

"Our basis of claim also included around 3,000 death threats, two attacks on our apartment and I don't know how many physical attacks on me and my partner," Stojanovic said.

Boban Stojanovic and Adam Puskar shared the first gay kiss in Serbian Parliament. This photo circulated online and resulted in the couple receiving several dozen death threats. (Boban Stojanovic)

In 2016, they fled the country after police failed to bring the attackers to justice.

"There is no system [that] will protect you, so that is also reason why people move here," he said. "We find a lot of people who are really, really, really willing to help and we found this city, Calgary, maybe even more open than some other cities."

'This world is a little bit cruel'

Stojanovic said he hopes the warm welcome he received in Calgary is a sign that the Rainbow Railroad will find support. The group is hosting a launch party on Saturday, the first, he said, of many fundraisers to come to help sponsor refugees.

"It's not like a short-term project," Stojanovic said. "Any time when we have enough money, we will bring somebody because, unfortunately, this world is a little bit cruel and the waiting list is so long."

Calgary's Rainbow Railroad Station will try to raise money and use that to sponsor the refugees. Once here, they'll be supported through the centre's LGBT refugee services, which include English classes and career guidance, as well as case preparation.

Last year, Toronto's Rainbow Railroad and the federal government helped more than 30 people flee Chechnya, which was condemned by Canada for allegations of torture, kidnapping and killings of LGBT men.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with CBC Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.