By Dale Smith
Buried inside the recent bill on reforming the Canadian refugee system was a provision to increase the number of spaces in Canada for refugee resettlement by 2,500 — but only 500 of those would be for government-sponsored refugees. The rest would be for private sponsorship.
Days later, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney publicly encouraged more queer groups to sponsor refugees, which came as a surprise to some of those organizations.
"Is he looking to create a two-tier system?" wonders Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada. "I don't quite get where he's coming from on this because he knows that we're already doing it. MCC is already doing it. Now we're not doing it to the extent of say, the Anglican Church or other churches across Canada because we don't have the resources."
The Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto is currently sponsoring two refugees under the Joint Assistance Sponsorship (JAS) program. While private sponsorships require a financial commitment of $10,000 a year for two years per refugee, JAS sees the government provide the financial assistance while the organization — the MCC in this case — provides the social support.
"The social support is crucial, because it's helping people set up a bank account, helping them find a place to say, helping them with the subway system, finding English as a second language courses — all the stuff that surrounds supporting a refugee," says Rev Brent Hawkes of MCC.
MCC's use of the JAS is part of a longer-term plan that will allow it to build up some expertise before it considers private sponsorships, along with giving it time to fundraise. But while money is always an issue for queer organizations dealing with refugees, one of the largest concerns is the current lack of capacity and expertise.
"It's one thing to sponsor a refugee, but you also need to make sure that the community supports are in place so that this person can live well and be comfortable, and that it's done ethically," says Sharalyn Jordan of the Rainbow Refugee Committee in Vancouver.
While many refugee organizations may be built around a heteronormative idea of families, existing queer organizations may not have the relevant experience necessary for dealing with refugees.
"Yes we've looked at the homophobia that we've dealt with, but do we look at the way that some of our organizations can reproduce racism?" Jordan asks. "There's some capacity building to be done there. Many of the refugees that will be coming will have experienced some fairly severe traumas, and mental health services need to be prepared to work with people who've experienced traumas around their sexuality or their gender identity, and that's not something that the refugee-serving organizations have."
"All of the supports that any refugee or newcomer needs, need to be done with a queer lens," Jordan says. "Language, healthcare, housings, safety and security, city orientations — often newcomer organizations will provide orientations to the city, but they don't talk about what neighbourhoods might be better for a transitioning queer person of colour. And that's a struggle that we've seen people have. Everything from how to take the bus, to how to land a job when you're an engineer needs to be given a queer twist."
"Our challenge is the staff support," Hawkes says. "You want these teams to do a good job, and they need to be supported and they have a million questions and every sponsorship is unique, so there's unique questions or issues that come up. So they need staff support."
Currently, MCC is seeking external funding to hire a staff person at either half-time or full-time to train support teams and provide supervision.
"The church is very willing to help train some teams if they're outside the church, but my personal feeling is there needs to be some accountability, supervision system so that these teams aren't just off independently on their own," Hawkes says. "If the church was able to find some funding to hire a staff person to help, we could be a central coordinating agency for other groups or organizations that want to do some sponsorship — we could bring them together, we could train them, we'd have the supervisor."
Hawkes points to the MCC's work in providing home hospice care during the AIDS crisis. The expertise MCC developed allowed it to train others to provide the same support for their own dying friends and family.
"We're prepared to play a similar kind of role in terms of providing training and support and accountability," Hawkes says. "But we've got to have staff capacity to do that, and that's the big thing that's holding it back."
While the refugees currently sponsored by the MCC have come through the Anglican-United Refugee Association (AURA), MCC hopes to become an independent agency once it has more experience and capacity.
"The value of that is we can promote ourselves as a [queer-] friendly location," Hawkes says. "Right now, that's not out there, so many of these refugees, if they're [queer], and they hear that a church is willing to sponsor them, they'll be nervous because of the traditional approach of churches. But if we're independent, and we can say that we're [queer] friendly, then that sends a signal that it's a safe space, so there's real value in that eventually happening."
Currently, many queer refugees are processed through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, but it can take years for their claims to be processed so they can be brought to Canada.
"The UNHCR is very, very informed about LGBTs, and actually they started helping refugees and a special process right after the 1979 [Iranian] Revolution," says Saghi Ghahraman, president of the Iranian Queer Organization. The Iranian Queer Organization provides social support for queer refugees in Canada, while also providing assistance to asylum-seekers in Iran and Turkey.
Ghahraman points to the way that Turkey takes in queer refugees from Iran, and notes that while general asylum seekers can wait six or seven years, queer refugees generally only wait three — but those three years can feel more like 15 because of the hostility that Turkish people feel toward queers.
"If they find out that one of these people who are refugees is gay or a transsexual, or lesbian, they beat them up in the streets, they attack their homes, they break their windows," Ghahraman says. "When they go to banks, or to the mayor's office, they are treated very badly. They insult them, they kick them out. They are very afraid when they speak to us — they say that we are afraid to leave our home, and inside our home we are not safe either. So those three years are very harsh."
Kennedy says that while there are some 70 Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey who need help, only about five have actually been approved by the UNHCR to come to Canada, and of those, it will take at least nine more months to get them on a flight.
"There's no shortage of people willing to help, but the problem seems to be a miscommunication between Mr Kenney and the community with respect to what the minister's obligations, and the Canadian government's obligations and responsibilities are, and how the queer community can step up and actually help," Kennedy says.
"The queer community has always been willing, and since Kenney made his announcement, we've had a number of emails and phone calls from people in the community wanting more information and where do they go for help, how can they help," Kennedy adds. "So there's no shortage of people within our community willing to help."
"Raising the quota for the number of privately sponsored refugees is one piece of a much larger picture," Jordan says. "It's very much in keeping with a conservative approach to ask the private sector to step up, and that's fine to do, but there often needs to be recognition of the amount of collective organizing that it takes for private sponsorship to happen."
"If it just stops with 'Come on queer community, step up to the plate,' we can't do it alone, and we can't do it with the existing infrastructure. There will need to be changes."