Persecuted LGBTQ refugees will soon have a place in Winnipeg, advocate says

Freedom of expression and identity is a protected right in Canada, but not in all other countries — especially for members of the LGBTQ community, who often face persecution.

Winnipeg is set to accept its first LGBTQ refugee next spring

Mark Kelly, co-chair of Rainbow Railroad in Winnipeg, is hoping to make the city a sanctuary for LGBTQ refugees. (Submitted by Mark Kelly)

Freedom of expression and identity is a protected right in Canada, but not in all other countries — especially for members of the LGBTQ community, who often face persecution.

Over the past decade, more than 500 people who are LGBTQ have been resettled by Rainbow Railroad, an organization helping LGBTQ people find safety in Canada.

In the organization's 13 years, refugees have been resettled in Vancouver and Toronto, with Winnipeg set to become a resettlement location as of spring 2020.

"The fact we can now offer safety to have refugees come here and be sponsored and supported by a local group of people, I couldn't be more proud of that," said Mark Kelly, co-chair of Rainbow Road Winnipeg.

The sixth annual Rainbow Railroad event will take place in Winnipeg on Thursday with a fundraising goal of $125,000.

In past years, the fundraiser has brought in a total of $1.17 million to support the organization's fight for LGBTQ rights across the world.

Kelly feels the city and its people will continue to throw their support behind the organization once they begin to see them in their community on a daily basis.

"We've been pushing for it because Winnipeggers are a very generous group, but they also like to see something happen locally," Kelly said.

Kelly is aware that even in Canada members of the LGBTQ community still face discriminatory behaviour, but when compared to some of the situations in Chechyna and other countries, they're still in a place of privilege.

"What we have here in Canada is actually rare, [it's] not the norm ... there are people out in the world who are dying and being killed and jailed ... so we're just bringing awareness and raising money to help get some people out of these countries," he said.

Dayon Monson is a LGBTQ refugee from Tanzania who has been resettled in Calgary with help from Rainbow Railroad. (Submitted by Dayon Monson)

The keynote speaker at the event is a 25-year-old trans woman named Dayon Monson. 

She was forced to flee her home country of Tanzania after being jailed for public indecency and unnatural offences. Monson was one of 14 people jailed for identifying as LGBTQ.

"I was threatened twice, then I reported it, and the police man did not take any action. A week later, they arrested me," she said.

While living in Tanzania, Monson had to hide her reality; while at work, she would dress and act as a man, rather than who she actually is.

"Back in Tanzania it's really difficult living in the society, being a man who dresses like a woman and identifies as a woman, it's really hard back there," she said.

A few days before her trial, Rainbow Railroad and the Canadian High Commission flew Monson out of the country and began facilitating her move to Canada.

Monson arrived in Toronto in July, where she spent a month before moving to Calgary, where she has started her new life.

"Sincerely speaking. It's okay. It's like unique actually [having] a freedom. It's different for the first time in my life. I feel accepted and feel protected and safe here," said Monson.

The safety felt in cities like Toronto and Vanoucver and Calgary in Monson's case are what Kelly wants to replicate in Winnipeg by making it a sanctuary for LGBTQ refugees.

"[We] can make a difference in saving these people and letting them enjoy these same types of freedoms, it's our obligation," said Kelly. "Winnipeg alone has saved over 100 people."

The cost of getting a refugee out of their country can be upwards of $10,000, and to help them get on their feet is at least another $20,000, according to Kelly.

Meeting with refugees and hearing them speak about the atrocities and bigotry they've encountered can be a gutting and surreal experience, Kelly said. 

"Until you see it, touch it, feel it and it's just standing in front of you, I don't think it's real. We get so bombarded with events around the world that we kind of come off a little numb," he said.

Monson is hopeful that once people hear her story and others like hers, they'll welcome LGBTQ refugees with open arms and allow them to live as they please.