Syrian man arrives in Canada thanks to the Rainbow Railroad

Bassel Mcleash came to Canada by way of railroad. Not on a real train, but an underground one called the Rainbow Railroad.

Refugee Bassel Mcleash will be in Winnipeg on Dec. 10 to share his story of survival

Bassel Mcleash at the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade, five weeks after arriving in Canada. (Rob Easton)

Bassel Mcleash came to Canada by way of railroad. Not on a real train, but an underground one called the Rainbow Railroad.

The 29-year-old is gay, which is illegal in his home country of Syria.

"Most of the people who get arrested for the first time, after getting out of the jail, they just disappear," said Mcleash.

He said in Damascus there was a safe circle of LGBT people, but they still had to hide their true selves. He said if people were caught they would lose many of their rights, including getting married, getting a passport or working for the government.

"At the same time if someone kills you, you are the same as a bug or an ant," he said. "You're an ant who has a name."

'Akin to the underground railroad'

Mcleash will be in Winnipeg on Dec. 10 to share his story of survival at a fundraiser for Rainbow Railroad. 

"They call themselves the ambulance," said Carmyn Aleshka, who is organizing the fundraiser through her non-profit, called Upside Down Tree.

"There is a crisis, they come, they help."

Kimahli Powell is the newly appointed executive director of Rainbow Railroad. (Supplied)
Rainbow Railroad received its charitable status in 2013. In 2015 it received 235 requests for help. The charity was able to provide 29 people with emergency travel and assisted one more with resettlement in Canada. 

"Our mandate is akin to the underground railroad," said Railroad executive director Kimahli Powell.

On average the charity spends $8,000 to $10,000 on flights and documents to get a LGBT person out of their home country. Once there, they they are connected with resettlement organizations, which help them start their new life.

"We recently found safe haven for someone from Uganda to Argentina," said Powell.

Rainbow Railroad is mostly volunteer-run, except for two employees, and relies on donations. 

Aleshka said the 2015 event raised $400,000. 

The fundraiser on Dec. 10 will feature a dramatization of the Railroad's efforts. 

"Five actors will portray five stories of lives we are trying to save," said Aleshka.

Other entertainment includes a cabaret singer from New York, an artist from Montreal who is commissioned to do a piece for auction at the event and guest speakers, including Mcleash.

Carmyn Aleshka at the 2015 Rainbow Railway fundraiser, which raised $400,000. (Upside Down Tree)

Finding safety

Work took Mcleash to Egypt in 2012, where he was able to be out because it is not illegal to be gay.

However, when the regime changed, things took a turn for the worse.

"When they started 'cleaning the country,' they started with the LGBT community," he said, adding there were raids at parties, houses and cafes. 

He said his home became a gathering place for the LGBT community.

"I got some information that even my place was under surveillance after a while," said Mcleash. "I moved out immediately."

In 2014, he found out he was HIV positive and his work permit was cancelled by the government. He said he knew it was time to get out and he couldn't go back to war-torn Syria.

That is when he found Rainbow Railroad. He arrived in Toronto as a permanent resident in May. 

"I just want to be in peace and enjoy my life and that is what the Canadian government and society is offering, which is amazing," he said.

Five weeks after arriving he marched in his first Pride parade alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves a flag as he takes part in the annual Pride Parade in Toronto on Sunday, July 3, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch (Canadian Press)