Manitoba

'Thank God I'm here': Gay Syrian finds refuge in Winnipeg

A gay Syrian man from Aleppo has found refuge in Winnipeg, but getting here was no easy journey.

A secret Facebook group, underground meetings and the fear of being killed

'Adam,' a gay 26-year-old man from Syria, arrived in Winnipeg in December. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

First, his friend was beheaded. Then a transgender woman was raped, burned and mutilated.

Adam knew he had to leave Turkey, the country that took him in after he had fled Syria.

"I think I will be next," he said when he phoned the United Nations in Istanbul, begging for help.

Adam, a gay Syrian man, recently arrived in Winnipeg.

Because he fears for his safety and reprisal for speaking out, CBC News is not using his real name.

The 26-year-old recalls celebrating when he arrived in Canada.

"It was like my dream happened," he said.

Adam left Aleppo in 2011 before starting what became a five-year journey in search of freedom that included relocating to Russia and Turkey.

"I'm gay, but this is not acceptable there," Adam said, speaking about Syria and Turkey.

Riot police use a water cannon to disperse LGBT rights activists before a Gay Pride Parade in central Istanbul, Turkey, on June 28, 2015. (Kemal Aslan/Reuters)

He and more than 500 other queer Syrians used a secret Facebook group and underground locations to communicate in Turkey after fleeing to the country from the war in Syria.

"From the beginning it was so amazing because we shared our problems, we shared everything."

Turkey has taken in many refugees from Syria, but LGBT people are far from free, Adam said.

Violence against members of the LGBT community is common in Turkey, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern about attacks on queer people in the country.

Gay man beheaded

Adam said when a person is outed in Syria, it can cause problems and become dangerous for the individual's family.

"They just will stay in home because they're afraid of the people … or maybe they hurt them because they will know that their son is gay," he said.

The violence hit home for Adam when Muhammed Wisam Sankari, a gay Syrian that he knew, was found beheaded and mutilated. Adam said the slaying happened after his friend was kidnapped.

"It was so scary," he said.

He added of his slain friend, "He was so young, so full of funny."

The slaying led Adam to apply for refugee status in Australia, based on the grounds that he was in danger because of his gay identity.

Transgender women in Turkey gather at an Istanbul bar in May 2013. (Nil Koksal/CBC )

The Australian government sent a letter dated June 29, refusing his request.

"There is no right of merits review for this decision," the letter concludes.

"I was crying a lot," Adam said while showing CBC News the letter.

Adam said the group stopped meeting after Sankari was killed because they feared for their lives, but eventually they resumed their Sunday meetings.

"It was kind of dangerous, but we don't care because we had to meet."

'Thank God I'm here'

Adam's search for safety became more serious after Hande Kader, a transgender woman, was found raped and burned in Turkey.

That prompted Adam's call to the UN. His plea was heard and a plane ticket was eventually booked four months later. After a last-minute change sent Adam from Ottawa to Winnipeg, he arrived on the Prairies.

His first thought when he arrived in Winnipeg was "thank God I'm here," he said.

Mike Tutthill, the executive director of Winnipeg's Rainbow Resource Centre, said LGBT refugees coming to Canada still need to be careful because they can be outed even though they're far from home.

"We do know of cases where folks have been outed at home based on the fact that they have … run into someone from [their] home country accessing settlement services here and lost property at home," he said.

Tutthill also said LGBT refugees have to cut through red tape to get asylum even after arriving in Canada.

"It's not something that is understood by the refugee system or sometimes from settlement folks that people encounter at settlement services," he said.

Adam's not sure what's next for him — he still needs to find a job and make friends — but he said he's feeling optimistic about his new life in Winnipeg. He wants to learn French and get into politics.

"I have this dream," he said.

"I want to say that's my home here and I want to continue my [studies], actually, have a job, have [a] family, live here in peace."

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

​Austin Grabish started reporting when he was young, landing his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

With files from Marcy Markusa