Five LGBTQ refugees describe why they came to Canada
To commemorate this year’s Pride, 17 student photographers from across Toronto spent a day shooting portraits of 20 LGBTQ refugees, who described what it’s like to be queer in their home countries and why they had to seek refuge in Canada. The portraits are currently on display as part of Am I Wrong to Love, an exhibit at the Daniels Spectrum.
The photographers are members of iAM, a program run by human rights charity JAYU that teaches youth from around Toronto about social justice through the arts. “We wanted to show the subject in powerful ways, and flip the script about what we think a refugee might be,” says Gilad Cohen, one of the curators of the exhibit. The show runs to July 31. Here’s a preview.
Biko Beauttah, originally from Kenya
“Growing up, I had no reference to any kind of sexuality that wasn’t heteronormative. It was hard to understand what it meant to be trans because there was no language around it, and there were no trans people out in the open. I travelled to the U.S. for college and during Halloween, I dressed up like a woman. For the first time, I finally felt like I was in my own skin. I knew I couldn’t go back to Kenya, where I could be killed for being trans, so I applied for asylum in Canada in 2006. I still experience transphobia here in Canada, just like every trans person anywhere in the world. At the end of the day, no matter where you live, there’s still fear and anxiety.”
Carlos Idibouo, originally from the Ivory Coast
“It took me years to start identifying as gender-non-conforming. The Ivory Coast relatively tolerant of the LBGTQ community, but it’s still quite homophobic. When I was 19, I started getting into advocacy work. At first, everything felt like it was going well. When the media got involved, things started to change. One newspaper outed a bunch of the organizers from our group, and many of them disappeared or went into hiding, but I kept at it. Eventually, the advocacy started to affect my mental health. I knew the time had come to leave. Life for me is much more open in Canada. Perhaps I’m lucky—I know that’s not the case for everyone here.”
Dalia, originally from St. Lucia
“I didn’t really know what sexuality was when I was younger—there was no language for it. I began to feel like I was a lesbian around the age of 10. Most of the time I was learning about it on my own because I didn’t know who to trust or who to tell. I eventually decided to leave St. Lucia because I realized my family would never accept me and I wouldn’t be able to live a free life. I arrived here in 2005, and my family doesn’t talk to me anymore. I am married to a woman I met in Toronto, who’s also a refugee from St. Lucia.”
Nouran Hussein, originally from Egypt
“I met my partner on Instagram while I was living in Egypt. When I was in college, my family looked through my phone and found messages between us. They couldn’t accept it, and they beat me. They even admitted me to a mental health hospital for one week. My partner and I knew we were in danger and so we escaped. We hid around Egypt until we could finally get a visa to leave as refugees, thanks to the support of the Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBT people escape state-sponsored violence. We came to Toronto in June 2018. When we first arrived, we were so happy that we cried. We both received refugee status and are currently applying for our permanent residency. Neither of us have relationships with our families.”
Dennis Wamala, originally from Uganda
“I discovered I was bisexual around the age of 13, but I was always in denial. When I was in university, I started to have more open conversations with my friends. I eventually developed the courage to be open about my feelings and became an out activist. I started doing interviews for TV, radio and newspapers. Being so visible in my community landed me in a lot of trouble with the police, and eventually, I became seriously concerned for my safety and decided to leave immediately. I arrived in Toronto on January 12, 2019 and am awaiting my refugee hearing.”