VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) — It’s not the language, the culture or weather that is hardest to adapt to.
For newly arrived Syrian refugees in British Columbia, who are queer, it’s the absence of fear and hatred toward their very existence.
As the annual An Evening in Damascus fundraiser approaches, we’re hearing from some of the people the Rainbow Refugee Society has brought to safety, including Masa, whose last name we are withholding for her safety.
After co-running an underground safe house for LGBTQ+ people in Damascus, Masa found it difficult to truly accept that she was no longer in danger of being outed, jailed or killed for her sexuality once she was in Canada.
“Even in my first few months here I was in survival mode. I always had my shield on, trying to test the waters,” she explains.
A week before she would march in her first Pride Parade with the Rainbow Refugee Society, Masa had an epiphany while watching a sunset in English Bay.
“It was that sunset where it all kind of got into my soul and it was like, I’m here. This is happening, this is not temporary. I’m here, this is my home and I can be me,” she recalls.
“It was the first time where I felt what freedom really feels like.”
Then came the parade and an even bigger sense of what that freedom would allow her to discover and experience.
“Throughout my life I had too many daydreams of marching my first Pride,” she says.
So she shouted as loud as she could; “HAPPY PRIDE!” to the crowd. As they shouted it back at her, it hit.
“You know those cries where you don’t have space in your lungs to take a breath and you’re just sobbing but usually out of sadness or pain? That was the first time in my life where I had that type of cry because of happiness.”
Half a lifetime in hiding
When the Kelowna Pride Society asked Anas Qartoumeh to marshal the 2018 Pride Parade it was a clear ‘no’ for the new Canadian who feared the inevitable backlash.
But members of the Pride society there convinced him he no longer needed to hide his sexuality and marshalling the event could help him reach other gay refugees who needed hope.
“It was a shock for everybody. I got a lot of hurtful messages. People cut me off. People started abusing me; All my previous colleagues and friends, they were very tough on me,” he says.
While he initially regretted being in such a public position he now says it made him stronger and helped him build a new community of people that are supportive of him.
But healing the damage to Qartoumeh’s spirit and mental health is an ongoing process.
For more than 30 years he was told by his family, friends, co-workers, Syrian media and the government that being gay was not only a sin and a crime but that all gay people were essentially villains. He was taught to hate himself.
Accepting that he is gay is getting easier but he still feels like he’s playing catch up.
“I see some people here that grew up in a liberal family and they came out when they were like 15, 16 and they lived all of this safely,” he explains.
“I feel like they have more experience than me even though they are younger because they have lived all of their experiences. They are mentally better than my status right now. I still feel like I lost a significant part of my life and I really need time to figure out what I want.”
Qartoumeh and Masa have focused their attention on helping others now that they are safe to do so.
Qartoumeh receives a constant stream of refugees like him, gay and afraid as he once was, looking to follow his path to Canada.
“A lot of LGBT send me private messages. They all wanted to follow the way that I came. Unfortunately you can’t help everybody but I try my best …. My sponsors now sponsored another two gays and one of them just arrived last week,” he says.
“But still, it’s two out of all of those people,” he laments. “They really are waiting and they are discriminated against and they are not happy.”
For Masa, co-organizing this year’s An Evening In Damascus, which raises money for the Rainbow Refugee society to bring more queer refugees to Canada, has been an outlet for her want to help.
The evening is entirely organized by Syrians. The food is provided by Tayyebeh (meaning “kind” and “delicious” in Arabic) which hires Syrian women to provide them with stable work and a connection to community.
“I volunteer my time and energy to support the queer community to the most of my capacity, whether abroad or in Canada,” she says.
Masa’s been working with the event’s founder, Danny Ramadan, who began holding the events back in 2015 and has since raised more than $100,000 to bring queer Syrians to Canada.
If you want to be a part of the work to bring more refugees to safety and freedom, set aside the evening of July 26th.
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.
NEWS 1130 is a media sponsor for An Evening in Damascus.
Editor’s note: NEWS 1130 has edited this article at the request of an interviewee to protect some personal information.