Queer Syrian refugees find freedom and hope in Canada

posted on July 14, 2019

By City News 1130 |

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 marshall 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 esentially villians. He was taught to hate himself.

Qartoumeh now sees a mental health professional who has helped him begin the process of accepting himself.

Not long ago, he asked her if there was any way to change his sexuality, to become straight.

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