They fled Ukraine, fearing gay persecution. Now they're finding community in N.L.
5-year research project looking at service gaps for LGBTQ newcomers
Alex Bezer says the past year has been tough.
Bezer and his partner were forced to flee their home after Russia's war in Ukraine began. He said they spent time in a refugee camp before moving to Newfoundland and Labrador about six months ago.
In an interview with CBC News, Bezer said the threat of homophobic violence compounded that already-difficult journey — and when they got to this province, they knew they needed help.
"I wasn't feeling emotionally stable," he said in an interview with CBC News. "We didn't feel safe and we needed some supports."
One day, Bezer said he saw a poster outside the Association for New Canadians office, advertising a peer support program for gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-diverse newcomers. He got in touch with program co-ordinator Kimberly Offspring.
Offspring answered their questions about life for members of the LGBTQ community in St. John's, and within weeks, Bezer and his partner attended their first meeting.
"We feel like, a bit, we've got our chosen family," he said.
Bezer said members talk about coming out, family situations and more. He said he's become more comfortable since joining the group — and now volunteers helping others from Ukraine and Russia navigate life in this province.
The program is part of a five-year joint research project from the YWCA St. John's and Memorial University looking at service gaps for LGBTQ newcomers. Offspring leads the project in collaboration with Memorial University social work professor Sulaimon Giwa.
"LGBTQ+ newcomers often face a combination of homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia," Offspring said. "We really wanted to get a better understanding of the experiences that folks are having."
A safe space
The project has been in the works since 2020, but direct support for newcomers — a monthly peer support group and an individual mentorship program — began last year.
"[The peer support group is] confidential, it's a non-judgmental space where people can get together and discuss shared experiences and support each other," she said.
Offspring said the group includes Afghan refugees, Ukrainians and others. Participants share experiences of coming out, navigating identity and settlement issues, said Offspring.
"We often hear from folks that, before attending our group, they've never been in a space where they felt truly safe and comfortable to be themselves," she said.
Giwa, who also serves as the dean of MUN's social work faculty, said research about LGBTQ newcomers is still in its infancy, and the research project is meant to give a baseline understanding of the challenges individuals face.
He said there are issues of safety which cause LGBTQ newcomers to flee their country of origin — but newcomers still face problems in Canada.
"In mainstream Canadian society there's still homophobia," he said.
Giwa said he's heard about problems accessing health care, barriers caused by institutional racism and a lack of community connection — and for LGBTQ+ newcomers, those issues are interconnected.
"That's why it's really important that we are doing this research, that we're trying to understand some of the challenges that people are facing and how can we best intervene to support individuals," he said.
'I am there for them'
Melissandra Groza recently volunteered to be a mentor for LGBTQ newcomers. She said the role includes everything from providing emotional support to helping newcomers navigate the bus system or get groceries.
Groza said she remembers feeling lonely when she arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador from Bangladesh in 2018.
"I was disconnected in many ways," she said. "I did not have a community. I did not know the community, the queer community here. It took me about two years to fully get in touch."
Groza, a transgender woman, said she fled a part of the world where she wasn't accepted — and trying to build a new life by herself was painful.
"I always wished — only if I had someone who taught me, you know, how to do stuff," she said.
Now, as a mentor, Groza said she hopes to provide the support she wishes she received when she moved to the province — and she's benefiting from the role too.
"I am there for them — I find my own healing helping others."