VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Danny Ramadan was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1984, a place where he could never be openly gay.
“My father, I think, knew that I was queer since I was five or six,” he says, describing his family life as “conservative and dysfunctional.”
Ramadan came to Canada as a refugee in 2014. The next year he started fundraising to bring more queer Syrians to Canada because he wanted others to have the same privilege and opportunity to be their authentic selves.
Earlier this month he found a photo of himself sitting on the edge of chair “looking super queer while I was doing it. Super femme,” he says, adding his father tried to change that.
“He engaged me in a lot of macho character building activities, he called them. I had boxing classes. I was an apprentice to a carpenter, to an electrician. They gave me a lot of skills actually, so I can build a bookshelf for you and my left hook is quite the strong thing. But I’m still gay.”
Proudly Syrian, happily engaged
Ramadan held the inaugural An Evening In Damascus in 2015 in the basement of a friend’s home.
More than a hundred people came, far exceeding any expectations Ramadan had for the fundraiser, which aimed to bring queer Syrians to Canada.
“There were 20, 30 people who were my friends and then [a lot of] people just found the event on social media and were like, let’s get to know the Syrians,” he says.
The gathering raised $9,000 that first year. In the following years the fundraiser has amassed more than $100,000 and taken place at more prestigious venues, including the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.
Likely the most memorable year will always be 2018 for Ramadan, the year he got down on one knee and asked the love of his life to marry him, while in traditional Syrian garb.
“I’m standing there wearing my Syrian outfit and being completely Syrian as well as being completely queer, on a stage in front of 300 people and then calling the love of my life to stand there. The idea that I can mix all of those identities together; this feeling that I am as Syrian as I can be and as Canadian as I can be and as queer as I can be and proposing to somebody who is so meaningful to me, it’s a privilege I wish everybody would have.”
Last year Ramadan and the team of Syrians that now work to put on the event raised more money than ever before.
Underground network in Damascus
When Ramadan arrived in Canada, he was struggling. He dealt with loneliness, PTSD and anxiety.
“I felt like I am the only person that is like me,” he says, explaining that he missed the community he had back home.
“Just because I have a complex relationship with my home doesn’t change that I love it for what it is and I hate it for how homophobic it is,” he says.
In fact, he had left behind important work and strong connections that inspired him to try to bring others like him from Syria to Canada.
Ramadan came out to his family at 17 years old. He was kicked out of his home and spent some time on the streets before being taken in by a trans woman who helped him get through college before he left for Egypt in 2003.
He returned to Syria in 2010, hoping to bear witness to what many thought would be a revolution, but which was violently crushed by the Assad regime in 2011.
He and a gay woman in Syria worked together to turn Ramadan’s apartment into an underground gay community centre.
They held gatherings, game nights, sharing circles and movie nights. At the beginning, it was just Danny and one other woman.
“A year-and-a-half later we were 150 people who knew about that house who got services from that house,” he says, comparing the centre to Vancouver’s Qmunity – only secret.
Ramadan was arrested by the Syrian government and held for six weeks under the condition he would leave the country.
Struggling in Syria
Syria has been under the control of the Assad regime for four decades. One of the consequences of living under a dictatorship, says Ramadan, is the controlled flow of information.
Not only do members of the Syrian LGBTQ+ community face violence, discrimination, losing family members and even jail for being gay, they have zero access to information about their sexuality.
“Part of the way the Assad regime continued it’s control over Syria is they built a virtual wall around the country in which information is always curated by the regime,” Ramadan says. “The regime is not interested in providing information about homosexuality and transgenderism and what that means for people.”
RELATED: 5th Annual “An Evening in Damascus”
He says the typical gay experience in Syria means feeling rejection from everyone around you if they find out.
“I experienced rejection from my family, from the religion I grew up with, from society, from the law,” he says. “It’s a very difficult fight to have. At the same time, it is very common for that suffering to create a community.”
RBC Presents An Evening In Damascus, featuring Syrian food, music, belly dancing and drag queens, will take place July 26, 2019 at Terminal City Club in Vancouver.
Tickets are on sale at EveningInDamascus.com.
For $40 you can donate a ticket to a queer refugee or attend yourself for $65 online or $75 at the door.
Editor’s note: NEWS 1130 is a media sponsor for An Evening in Damascus.