Russian LGBT Network visits Chechens brought to Toronto by Rainbow Railroad

Operatives from a Russian organization that secretly sheltered gay Chechen men fleeing persecution are visiting Ontario to check in on those they helped save.

Dozens of gay men have taken refuge in Canada with many of them settling in Toronto

People hold up pink cardboard triangles and wave a rainbow flag during a gathering in support to the LGBT community in the Russian region of Chechnya, in Madrid, Tuesday, April 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco) (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Operatives from a Russian organization that secretly sheltered gay Chechen men fleeing persecution are visiting Ontario to check in on those they helped save.

A group called the Russian LGBT Network set up a series of safe houses in Moscow and other cities to help dozens escape the so-called 'gay-purge' by authorities in the province of Chechnya.

Canada accepted 32 of the refugees, many of whom say they were rounded up, taken to detention centres and tortured.

The Rainbow Railroad is a Toronto-based organization that helps LGBT people in countries where they are being persecuted.

Kimahli Powell is the newly appointed executive director of Rainbow Railroad. (Supplied)

Executive director Kimahli Powell says the group has helped bring 32 of about 70 refugees to Canada so far, and they have settled in Toronto and other Canadian cities.

"They are safe ... The issue now is they need housing as soon as possible," he said. "They need access to things like language training. Some are young, so they need basic things like financial literacy. Some have fled from their family homes to safe houses."

Powell says the Russian LGBT Network members are here to see how those they helped escape are fairing in Canada.

"They've been very close to these individuals in the safe houses, so gauging how they are adapting is part of [the visit]," he said.

One young man CBC Toronto recently spoke to arrived in Canada in July. He doesn't want to show his face or have his name used due to concerns about the safety of his family and friends back in Russia.

He spoke to CBC Toronto about what he enjoys most about his new home.

"It's the freedom," he said through an interpreter. "It's the freedom to be, and exist and be open about it and not be afraid."

He is hoping to continue the work he has been trained to do, but knows he needs to learn English first.

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)

"I look forward to a happy life. I see a happy future. I have a passion and a profession I hope to pursue and I'm very hopeful," he said.

Community groups and agencies have stepped forward to help the refugees.

"The 519 is indeed involved in the project," said Soofia Mahmood of The 519 Community Centre in the Gay Village.

The centre is providing settlement supports as part of its Refugee Support and Newcomer Settlement Programs, but due to some safety and other concerns, Mahmood could not be more specific.

"We are just waiting on some paperwork before we can make any media statements or announcements."

But checking up on the refugees is only part of what the Russian LGBT Network members are doing in Canada, says Powell of the Rainbow Railroad.

"[They are] communicating with officials. I can't get into specifics, but they are here to work with us on continuing our partnership," said Powell. "They have the most up-to-date information about the happening on the ground there."

LGBT activists say there's growing concern about what's happening in Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country bordering Russia.

There are reports that dozens of gay and transgender people there have been swept up in raids in the country's capital. 

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.