At 4 pm I zipped up my briefcase, grabbed my bag and headed for the door, down the elevator, and into the rainy street. I had said I would help set up at 6 pm, with the evening starting at 7 pm. I was worried that the door prizes I’d picked up wouldn’t be enough incentive for people to spend money but my partner reassured me that people weren’t there to win prizes, they were there to listen to the refugee’s stories. I reminded myself of that as I made my way through the door and sought out a familiar face.
By the mic stood T, practicing his singing. He was one of the speakers and would end his story with a song. I had heard him practice it two weeks earlier, and at that time he was unable to choke back the tears enough to get the notes out, still overwhelmed with the memories of what he’d been through. He had been practicing, clearly. His voice was clear and confident.
I introduced myself to the other volunteers and proceeded to unpack the brochures I’d had printed and the one-pager explaining to attendees the dire situation LGBT refugees face around the world. Another volunteer, S, brought colourful pieces of art, one for each speaker, for the audience to sign and leave messages of hope. The speakers would take these home with them as gifts.
By 6:50 the café was still pretty empty. The few people there were already members of the refugee organization that organized the event or were speakers and I had a sinking feeling that no one at all would show up and the night would be a disaster. But people slowly trickled in, one by one, two by two, donated, bought raffle tickets and made their way to a table. Two of my friends and my partner showed up as well. It was nice to see faces I knew, and I felt grateful for their presence.
Having heard two of the speakers during a practice session, I knew the night was well worth it. If nothing else, it would allow these refugees to verbalize in a public, safe space, what they felt, what they had been through. Through our supportive presence they would, I hoped, feel validated. And through them, we would have the opportunity to gain insight, in a direct way, on a different way of life, the different cultural realities LGBT people exist in around the world.
The night started late as one of the speakers, C, hadn’t arrived yet, and because, as my friend L quipped, we were running on queer time. Everyone knows queer time always runs slow, she said. I tried to put aside my impatience — not an easy task for me. Eventually the MC, a refugee from Jordan, approached the mic and the night begun.
First up was A, a refugee who fled Mexico, lived as an illegal alien in the USA for 15 years, and then had to flee once more, this time to Canada, where he would have to start over one more time with no possessions at all. During the practice run, we had encouraged him to speak about his own experiences, to make it personal, because that is how he would connect with the audience.
He had taken our advice to heart. His talk was beautiful. He likened his journey to a kind of suicide. A leaving behind of one life to start another again. And then one more time. He talked about how hard it was to write his tale, how he struggled to find the right words to describe his feelings. He talked about seeing beauty in the rain in Vancouver, because it was far away from the brutality he faced in sunny Mexico.
After A, it was L’s turn. Her talk was brief, moving, and described being rejected by her family, abused, thrown into an African prison. In her broken English, tinged with a French accent, she made an empassioned call for acceptance.
T was third to speak. He was perhaps the most eloquent. He spoke about being approached by international media in his native Pakistan, how they promised to conceal his identity and then posted images of him, unaltered, online. The resulting backlash from his community caused him to flee Pakistan for the relative safety of Afghanistan – where he was further abused and mistreated. When he finally made it to Canada, he knew no one. He had left his friends and family and probably would never see them again. He described how much more difficult it was for LGBT refugees than for other kinds of refugees, because of the rejection from close relatives that compounds their isolation.
After him, a representative from the refugee organization stepped forward to explain what we in the community could do to help.
The fourth speaker, C, finally arrived – very late, but ready to share his story. He started by describing his struggle to make it to the event this evening and how he faced homophobia on the Skytrain ride in. His sad eyes with the long eyelashes peered out at us as he told us about the woman on the Skytrain who defended him, told him not to mind the bigotry from the old man who kept calling him a “faggot”. He described how he had lived in constant fear in his country of origin and was raped (“I know, I’m sorry,” he said, apologizing, I presume, for the darkness of others’ behaviour).
The following day, some of the refugees sent thank you emails to the organizers, calling the evening “transformational”. One refugee claimant who struggled to speak English wrote a heartfelt email in French describing how she felt she could only be herself in the safety of our organization.
It occurs to me again how brave these people are. And how glad I am to have had a small part in organizing this event. I had hoped for a better turnout but the people there were engaged and touched, I think, by the stories they heard.
Stories. They do have power. They help us see our world more clearly. And when we do, we can start to do the important work of fixing the parts that are broken, making it a place that welcomes difference, instead of abhorring it.