From Chechnya to Canada: the secret escape for young gay men

One of the gay Chechen men brought to Canada as a refugee under a program, which human rights organizations and the Canadian government worked together in secret until last week, is telling his story of why he needed asylum.

Man telling his story to thank those who brought him to safety

This Chechen gay man, too afraid to be identified, arrived in Canada as a refugee in July, after he says he was beaten and tortured. (CBC)

One of the gay Chechen men brought to Canada as a refugee under a program, which human rights organizations and the Canadian government worked together in secret until last week, is telling his story of why he needed asylum.

Human rights organizations, including the Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad, had raised the alarm that young gay men were being kidnapped, beaten and even killed under a program sponsored by the Chechen government.

The Canadian government got involved and over the past few months has offered asylum to 31 young men. Rainbow Railroad says so far 22 of them have landed in Canada.

A source has told CBC News this program bypassed normal procedure for refugees, allowing the men to be accepted as government-assisted refugees, meaning they will receive support for a year. The government is offering few details, citing security reasons.

'I'm afraid for my life and for my family'

The young man CBC interviews arrived in Canada in July. He insists his identity be hidden, nervous he could be recognized. He won't even allow his own clothes to be shown, pulling on someone else's baggy hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the word "Canada" on one sleeve and the maple leaf on his chest. He pulls the hood far over his head, worried someone could see the story and pick him out by the profile of his nose.

"I'm afraid for my life and for my family," he says, speaking through an interpreter.

Still, though, he wants to tell his story.

"I'm doing this interview because my soul aches," he says. "It aches for everyone who went through this ordeal, everyone who's going through it and also this is my way of saying thank you to everyone involved in getting us out."

This Chechen gay man, in his 20s, was so worried he might be recognized, he only agreed for his photo to be used wearing clothes that are not his own. He says he wanted to tell his story to raise awareness of those still experiencing torture and to thank those who helped him escape. (CBC)

His ordeal, he says, began when men in military garb arrived at his workplace. They grabbed him, stuffed him into the trunk of a car and took him to a secret police station where he was beaten and tortured. 

"You're beaten, sometimes kicked, sometimes objects are used but the last resort is always electroshock." 

He says every day he was confined in the corner of a dark room with other gay men, either he was shocked or he was forced to watch it happen to someone else. 

He calls himself "lucky" in that they attached electrodes to his fingers. Those worse off, he says, were shocked through electrodes attached to their ears.

The goal, he says, was information — for them to give up the names of other gay men. He says he lied and gave fake names, not wanting anyone else to go through the same torture. 

"Just experiencing the electroshock once is enough to realize, you don't want to go through this more than once. It is the most difficult thing to go through."

He says after three weeks, he was released, along with some of the other prisoners, surmising "we were already sufficiently shamed and our families were informed."

He won't talk about his family's reaction, in a republic where government officials have denied this practice and at the same time also denied there are gay people in Chechnya.

He connected with a human rights organization, fled to a safe house in Moscow and from there began his journey to Canada.

'When it's necessary, you act'

Rainbow Railroad helped alert the Canadian government about what was happening.

Executive director Kimahli Powell says helping grant asylum to gay men was a big undertaking for his small organization, founded in 2006.

Kimahli Powell, Rainbow Railroad executive director, says his organization secretly worked with Canadian government officials for months, ensuring asylum for gay Chechen men.

"We're small and mighty and we punch above our weight," Powell says. "When it's necessary, you act."

He says now that his group has helped bring the LGBT refugees here, they need help from settlement agencies to adjust to their new lives in Canada.

He says so far 70 gay Chechens have made it to safe houses, with half of them so far granted asylum in Canada and other countries. Powell expects that number will grow. 

"There are still reports of individuals being captured and tortured by authorities, so we expect even more individuals to try and find safe haven." 

The young man who agreed to be interviewed smiles when asked what his life is like now, after two months in the country.

"Really great. I love Canada," he says, explaining he feels free and looks forward to restarting his career, though he won't detail what type of work he did.

He has a message for others like him, still trying to leave Chechnya.

"We're here, we're safe and everything's fine," he says. "I'm certain that they're going to be happy here."


Lorenda Reddekopp

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Lorenda Reddekopp is a CBC News reporter based in Toronto. She's originally from Saskatchewan. She speaks Spanish and previously lived and reported in Latin America.