Toronto LGBT groups offer counselling, housing services for Syrian refugees

Among the most vulnerable refugees escaping the conflict in Syria are those in the LGBT community. That's led two Toronto LGBT youth organizations to start working with refugees who have arrived from the Middle East in the last few months.

Support centres help newcomers deal with trauma and find employment, executive director says

Youth counsellor Ronnie Ali says he provides a safe space for LGBT refugees to talk about the violence they've experienced overseas. (CBC News)

Among the most vulnerable refugees escaping the conflict in Syria are those in the LGBT community, as same-sex relationships are criminalized in their home country and in some of the nearby regions to where they have fled.

That's led two Toronto LGBT organizations to start working with refugees who have arrived from the Middle East in the last few months.

Many of those refugees are expected to arrive alone in Canada because of the widespread homophobia in Syria, according to Justin Taylor, the executive director of Rainbow Railroad.

There are numerous accounts relayed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about LGBT Syrians who face threats of violence and death from their own family members.

Fleeing persecution

The Toronto organization has helped cover the costs for 95 people relocating from countries where they faced persecution because of their sexual or gender orientation, Taylor told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"Unlike the rest of the Syrians that we often hear about who are travelling as families, the individuals we're helping are fleeing from their families in addition to fleeing violence from their government and ISIS," the executive director said.

Last year, Rainbow Railroad got about two requests for advice each month, Taylor noted. Now, he said they're seeing at least one each day.

It's the same situation at the Egale Youth OUTreach, whose executive director said they have provided settlement services for three Syrian refugees and one Egyptian refugee in the past two months.
The Egale Youth OUTreach Centre in Toronto says they're offering trauma counselling to LGBT refugees coming from Africa and the Middle East. (CBC News)

The support centre for homeless LGBT youth in Toronto has helped newcomers find housing, trauma counselling, English language classes and job training.

But the privately-funded organization will need more money and more staff in order to meet the needs of the refugees that will be arriving over the coming months, Kennedy said.

The two groups will meet with other Toronto settlement agencies this week to work out how to ensure that LGBT migrants know about gay-friendly organizations such as Egale.

It's unlikely LGBT refugees will seek help from agencies working with the general stream of migrants, Kennedy said, given the homophobia and transphobia that exists in their home country.

Treating trauma

Egale has begun preparing for the influx of refugees. It's already sought two Arabic translators in the LGBT community to facilitate counselling, the most critical part of resettlement after housing, according to Kennedy. 

Refugees can often experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the same way that veterans do after experiencing life in a conflict zone.

Those symptoms can include nightmares or flashbacks triggered during the day, and trust issues that make it difficult to form meaningful relationships, according to the youth counsellor at Egale.

"Not only are these folks fleeing political conflict, but they're also at the same time experiencing things like family rejection and social isolation," Ronnie Ali said. 

Not having that support system can intensify feelings of stress and isolation, the counsellor confirmed.

"We help them [by] having a witness listen to their story, completely and without interrupting, and also in a context of safety and acceptance that sometimes reminds them of what it would have been like to have an accepting family."

With files from CBC's Metro Morning


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