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Undone: A Newcomer’s Story

Farid was happiest when jotting down plans for his new life in Canada. Within a year of arriving, he was dead. A special report.

Katie Hyslop 1 Jul

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

On a winter day in early 2014, Farid* sat in an Istanbul café with his friend Araz* making a list of the things he would do, all the ways his life would change for the better once he moved to Canada.

Both were gay men from Middle Eastern countries where homosexuality was punishable by death. Both left their homelands for Turkey as a first refuge. Now they had been selected for resettlement in Canada — a place they had never visited and where they knew only a few people, other gay Middle Eastern men who had come as refugees or for an education.

“We wrote it down, I have the paper right now at home,” Araz, now in Vancouver, says about the list of hopes Farid made that day four years ago. “Come here. Get married. Having a big brown wooden house with two floors...”

Farid was ambitious. Trained in architecture in his home country, he planned to continue his education and enter the field in his new land. That is, if he and Araz’s idea of opening a gay club in Vancouver didn’t pan out.

When Farid was granted the first step in his list of dreams in the spring of 2016, he arrived in Vancouver to find barriers many refugees face. He already had housing with his boyfriend from Turkey who had arrived in the area before him, but he still needed to learn English, get into school, gain work experience and adapt to a new culture. All while defying common expectations of what a refugee might achieve.

But Farid faced an additional, isolating pressure because he was a gay man who grew up in a conservative religious family and community back home.

Compared to many other countries in the world, Canada is one of the safest places to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirited or any sexuality other than straight (LGBTQ2S+).

But for LGBTQ2S+ refugees like Farid, the very stigma they are escaping can haunt their lives in this country, shaping their chances of success.

That stigma and its largely hidden repercussions revealed themselves over the six months The Tyee spent uncovering Farid’s story. It is why we take a different approach to relating it. Because of the deadly prejudice against LGBTQ2S+ people in some parts of the Middle East, we aren’t using the real names of Farid and two of his friends. (In those instances we’ve marked the changed name with an asterisk the first time we use it.)

In many largely Muslim countries where homosexuals are persecuted, laws oppressing them were first imposed by British colonizers. Same-sex relations between consenting adults are criminalized in 70 countries, including those where conservative religions other than Islam are prevalent.

There are many people who are both proudly LGBTQ2S+ and Muslim — in the Middle East and around the world. And the Quran, the holy text of Islam, does not explicitly condemn same-sex attraction.

But Farid’s family and community did not see it that way, and as far as we know his parents remain unaware of their son’s sexuality. Although they are thousands of kilometres away from Canada, outing Farid on the Internet could put the safety of his friends and family at risk.

“We’re talking about a social network — somebody with friends who his family met, who might be equally queer but equally in the closet,” says Danny Ramadan, an author, advocate and gay former refugee who came to Canada from Syria in 2014.

Less than a year after Farid arrived in Vancouver, he began his second extended stay in Burnaby Hospital’s psychiatry unit, having checked in with dark thoughts he could not slip. As part of his treatment plan, he was allowed to leave the unit unsupervised a few hours a day. On one of those breaks, a warm spring afternoon in 2017, he left the hospital on his own. It was the last time anyone who knew Farid would see him alive.

This story is an attempt to trace the unravelling of Farid’s dreams and well-being in hopes of opening a conversation about how to prevent similar tragedies. The telling is guided by Danny Ramadan’s reminder:

“There are shames, and family-related traditions and social issues that might cause the family to disown the son even after his death. Or might cause the family itself to be targeted by other people within the society when they realize that their son was gay. Homophobia doesn’t expire when you die.”

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‘I don’t know what’s going to happen with my ticket.’ In Turkey, as refugee friends received their ‘tickets’ accepting them to Canada, Farid spent years waiting to find out if he’d follow. Illustration for The Tyee by Dasha Yildirim.

Farid had just turned 25 years old when he left his country for Turkey, the hub for refugee claimants coming from the Middle East and North Africa who are hoping to resettle in Europe or North America (see sidebar: Canada’s Approach to Gay Refugees).

Arsham Parsi, CEO and founder of Toronto-based International Railroad for Queer Refugees, estimates his charity has helped about 2,000 LGBTQ2S+ refugees register in Turkey since 2005 — and roughly 2,200 more in Turkey await resettlement.

Neither the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees nor the government of Turkey is willing to provide numbers for LGBTQ2S+ refugees in Turkey and how many Canada has accepted.

No doubt there is a backlog, says Saranaz Barforoush, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Through the school’s International Reporting Program, she and a team that included students reported on Turkey’s refugee crisis in 2017.

When they arrive in Turkey, registered refugees are assigned to a “satellite city,” the municipality where they must live until they are approved for resettlement in their new country.

The wait for Farid lasted three years, shadowed by the reality Barforoush encountered there when she interviewed LGBTQ2S+ refugees from Iran. Given that homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey as it is in Iran, she expected to hear relief from her sources. Instead, they told of being subjected to violence, kidnapping, and harassment.

“Most of them were saying, ‘We got out of a bad situation, and we left our families who didn’t want us to be gay or a country that could have persecuted us very severely. But still, we don’t feel accepted here,’” she says.

“There weren’t just men. I met a trans woman there. Her ID card was a man but her appearance was a woman. She would say, ‘Everywhere I go, I get harassed, beaten up. If I go to the hospital for treatment, they come and look at me like I’m a circus animal.’”

Some parts of Turkey are more welcoming to LGBTQ2S+ people than others. While Istanbul is not a designated satellite city for refugees, and refugees are not supposed to stray from their satellite cities, LGBTQ2S+ people from all over Turkey flock there for the queer-friendly nightlife.

While he would spend most of his time in Turkey living a 12-hour bus ride from Istanbul, Farid did reside for nine months in the country’s major metropolis. During that time, Farid was required to return to his satellite city to sign-in with the local authorities twice a week.

It is illegal for refugees to be employed in Turkey without a hard-to-secure work permit. Being caught working illegally could result in deportation, and being injured on the job can get you fired.

It’s even harder for LGBTQ2S+ people, adds Barforoush, as there is a perception that gay men don’t work as hard as straight ones.

But there is no other funding available for refugees, many of whom arrive with nothing. Many find themselves forced into dangerous situations to make money, including sex work, according to those interviewed by Barforoush and her students.

“I heard from more than one person saying, ‘At least in Iran we had some kind of stability. We had our families, we had money. Here we’re just jobless and stateless.’”

Farid did earn money under the table doing factory work and other labour in his satellite city, his shifts lasting up to 15 hours. But he did not work in Istanbul. Instead, he maintained the apartment he shared with a friend, cooking them traditional meals from their home country while his roommate worked to pay the bills.

In the evenings they would go to the gym. Or when friends from other parts of Turkey came for a visit, they would hit the clubs.

Before relocating to Istanbul, Farid had been waiting for his then boyfriend, still in their home country, to come to Turkey so they could be together as they had planned. But the boyfriend already had another man and never did come, something Araz says weighed heavily on Farid’s heart and mind in Istanbul.

“After two to three months, Farid said, ‘I don’t feel good emotionally, mentally.’”

Farid was thoughtful and quiet, but he didn’t seem very religious. In fact, Araz remembers being with Farid watching Shafaf Sazi’s videos on YouTube satirizing conservative politics and Islam. “That was the only time that he was laughing from the heart,” Araz recalls.

Farid wasn’t comfortable holding hands with a man in public. Still with his fit physique, wavy black hair, trimmed beard and pouty lips, he was popular in Istanbul’s queer community, Araz says, because he was so handsome and kind. “He was like a micro-celebrity. If you were with Farid, it means you’re a lucky boy.”

Waiting years to know where they might end up was nerve-wracking for the refugees she met, says Barforoush. “You can’t go back to your home country, but you can’t make a permanent life in Turkey, either.”

In 2014, Farid returned to his satellite city, and Araz was accepted to Canada. They kept in touch as Farid waited for the opportunity to join his friends in Canada. So many had left him behind that loneliness drained Farid’s spirit.

“He was very, very upset,” Araz recalls. “He said, ‘All my hair changed to grey now and I’m not good. I don’t feel good, I’m just working, and working, and working, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with my ticket.’”

Then, in the spring of 2016, Araz ran into a mutual acquaintance of Farid in downtown Vancouver who gave him some startling news. Farid would be arriving in the city that day.

Araz that evening went to a drag night at the Junction Pub on Davie Street in Vancouver’s gay district, and there was Farid sitting at a table with some friends.

“He had a pink shirt, and same as always his body was sporty and athletic,” Araz said. “He just stands up and hugs me. ‘How are you doing?’ ‘I’m good.’ We talked maybe for two to three minutes. And it was the last time I met him in Vancouver.”

Farid hit the ground running in Canada. He already had a boyfriend with an apartment in Burnaby, saving him the struggle of finding an affordable rental on his monthly refugee assistance cheque of $809. He enrolled in English classes at Vancouver Community College and found work in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Vancouver. He was finally checking off boxes on his list of dreams.

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Davie Street, heart of Vancouver’s gay village. Photograph by Christopher Cheung.

Pedram Niakan remembers meeting a “handsome” Farid with “charisma and passion,” just arrived in the Vancouver area. “He was kind of perfect. The way he was talking, he was so full of life. It was lots of things that made him attractive on the first impression. But that’s a first impression.”

Niakan is gay and like Farid was attending Vancouver Community College. They met through mutual friends, immediately hit it off, and started spending a lot of time together.

“I remember I wanted to show him all of the city. I really enjoyed hanging out with him,” Niakan says. “He was talking about, ‘I’m so happy to be here. I want to do this! I want to do that!’”

Farid was determined to perfect his English, already fairly fluent. That would be a stepping stone, he told himself, to landing a job quickly.

“He was thinking too much, in my opinion,” Niakan says. “Sometimes you just have to let it happen. It’s a new country, a new culture, a new bank system, new education system. You can’t make a plan when you don’t know that.”

At least Farid had a stable place to live. He and his boyfriend, who’d met in Turkey as refugees, shared their Burnaby Metrotown neighbourhood apartment with another male recent immigrant about their age. That roommate took the bedroom, while Farid and his boyfriend slept on two single beds pushed together in the dining area.

The rent was just in their budget, $800 a month split among the three of them. But the building was slated to be demolished. The new owner wanted the land for a luxury condo tower.

When Farid wasn’t taking English lessons at Vancouver Community College, he worked over and under the table at a restaurant and later a construction site to supplement his government cheques, which were scheduled to stop after a year or when Farid found above board work, whichever came first.

The cheques paid for his rent and his food, but in one of North America’s most expensive locales, Farid constantly worried about his finances. He took no solace from the fact that his friends’ lives in Canada were much more established. They had jobs, knew English, clearly were advancing towards careers. Farid still wanted to practice architecture, but now he had to start over. A doubt crept into his mind and wouldn’t leave. Fewer than two years shy of turning 30, maybe he’d arrived too late in his promised land.

Niakan remembers one day in particular when Farid’s mood shifted dramatically. They were working out after class at a regular hangout, Steve Nash Fitness World on West Georgia. On this late summer day in 2016, Farid didn’t arrive with his workout clothes. He hit the free weights anyway, but after they were done, Farid didn’t want to shower.

For a man so meticulous — Farid once chided Niakan for not cleaning his nails properly — this was odd.

“Sometimes when there is lots going on in your mind, you can’t organize yourself,” says Niakan. He tried to make himself tell Farid, “‘Oh, you smell.’ I knew I had to tell him. But I was afraid maybe he would be offended.” So he said nothing.

On the walk back to Niakan’s West End apartment, Farid suddenly perked up and said he wanted to buy them both a treat. Niakan offered to pay for himself, but Farid insisted. “‘No, no, no, I want to get ice cream for you!’”

They got the same berry-flavoured frozen yogurt. What toppings did Niakan want? Farid asked. Surprise me, Niakan told his friend. Farid picked chocolate and dried fruits. The day was sunny, the moment fleetingly delicious.

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‘I’m so happy to be here,’ a friend remembers Farid telling him as together they explored Vancouver and the region. Illustration for The Tyee by Dasha Yildirim.

Sometime over the summer of 2016, Farid changed in ways that concerned those around him. Some say it began one evening when Farid smoked cannabis and had a paranoid reaction. Others point out Farid’s drive to succeed on a tight timeline was placing him under heavy stress.

Whatever the factors, Farid began to withdraw from his friends and boyfriend. He joined a local mosque, his faith in the Muslim religion of his family suddenly renewed.

Once glad for the freedom to be gay he’d found in Vancouver, now he seemed at war with his sexuality. He broke up with his boyfriend, who moved out. He started telling his friends they were sinners.

“He was talking, ‘Oh, I think we are not gay, we’re making a mistake,’” Niakan recalls.

At the time Niakan was reeling from the unexpected death of his father. He could not return to his home country for the funeral. He had no family nearby with whom he could grieve. Immersed in his own pain, he lost his patience with Farid, something he now regrets.

“I just freaked out and said, ‘What are you talking about? What’s the depression you’re talking about? You’re not me!’”

Get over your brooding, Niakan told Farid. “The things that you are having a problem with, they’re not a problem to me.”

The memory makes Niakan sad. “That is my regret. I still don’t know why I said that.”

Shortly before breaking up that summer, Farid and his boyfriend took a new roommate, Said*, who remained living with Farid until the following spring. Farid continued to sleep in the dining room while Said took the couch in the living room. Other than Farid’s bed, it was the only furniture they had.

Said didn’t know much about Farid before they met in August 2016, and Farid wasn’t eager to fill in the details. “He didn’t let me know that he was homosexual,” says Said, who is straight. “I asked him first. But he said no.”

Later Farid would tell Said he was gay, but that he didn’t want to be. That fall when he wasn’t in classes at Vancouver Community College or working at a construction site on weekends, Farid would stay inside the apartment and pray, much more than the five times a day required of practicing Muslims.

“His praying was not normal,” says Said, who decided Farid was depressed.

“I asked him why he prayed that way, and he just said that he was guilty and he had done many guilty behaviours. His behaviours had not been ‘normal’ and ‘usual,’ so he said that he needed to pray more to be forgiven by God.”

Saranaz Barforoush of UBC says that even after escaping persecution in their home country, many people feel homesick. While she hasn’t encountered any immigrants who returned to a religion they previously rejected, it doesn’t surprise her that Farid would turn to Islam for comfort.

“It might be out of loneliness, it might be out of wanting to belong to something,” she says.

It also could have come from the shame Farid had internalized from his upbringing. “Not just people from the Middle East, but a lot of LGBTQ2S+ people who come from religious backgrounds feel like they have to apologize for who they are.”

Alarmed by Farid’s behaviour, Said insisted on taking him to see a doctor, who prescribed antidepressants. But Farid worried about side effects, and soon stopped taking them.

As the demolition day for Farid’s apartment building drew closer, its manager became more adamant that he and Said move out well in advance. Farid was the one who paid the rent at the end of every month. As the fall of 2016 turned to winter of 2017, Farid twice asked the manager for a stay of eviction as he handed over his payment, Said recalls. But on the third month the manager wouldn’t budge.

“Demoviction” is what housing advocates were calling the wave of similar displacement sweeping across B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Now a new list lingered in Farid’s mind, a tally of worries.

Within six months his government aid would run out. But the depression gripping him made holding a job seem impossible. He could barely pay now for rent and food. How could he afford to move in a rental market so tight and costly? Over his head swung, literally, a wrecking ball.

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Apartments razed in 2017 in Burnaby’s Metrotown neighbourhood to be replaced by pricey high-rise condos. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

After classes ended in November, the only time Farid left the apartment, Said says, was to buy food.

About one out of six refugees arriving in Canada every year require a formal mental health intervention according to the Immigrant Services Society of BC.

As permanent residents, registered refugees are entitled to provincial health-care services, including mental health care. But Canada’s mental health system is widely regarded as insufficient for Canadian citizens, says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services* of ISS of BC, let alone newcomers from different cultures who don’t speak English or French.

“We’ve got a mental health system that’s predicated on middle class, Caucasian Canadians with very little expertise in dealing with trauma-informed interventions relating to refugee migration,” he says.

Every refugee experiences trauma of some kind, says Arsham Parsi of the International Railroad for Queer Refugees. But LGBTQ2S+ refugees are particularly traumatized.

“One hundred per cent of LGBT refugees when they come to Canada, they need a proper counsellor,” he says, adding most have post-traumatic stress disorder, either from the struggle of refugee life in Turkey or experiences while coming of age in places that are hostile to LGBTQ2S+ people.

“A lot of us were raped constantly,” Parsi says. Official protectors at home and in Turkey too often proved the opposite — some rapists were police, he says. After such torment, if LGBTQ2S+ refugees don’t receive counselling, Parsi explains, they are much less able to integrate into Canadian society.

When Farid’s friend from Turkey, Araz, arrived in Vancouver as a refugee in 2014, the mental health support he was offered was severely lacking, he recalls. “You have to be strong.”

Araz cried for two days before coming to Canada, where he knew only a few people. At the ISS of BC Welcome House where he stayed when he first arrived, he found staff advice less than helpful: “‘You might have some nightmares,’” And: “‘Don’t look at the homeless guys eye to eye, don’t make any eye contact.’”

Later he met with a psychologist — and 19 other refugees — in a group therapy session. “When you are talking about something that relates to your psychology, you cannot talk in a class of 20 people,” Araz says. “And it was just one hour.”

Author and refugee advocate Danny Ramadan agrees. “There are no preparations in any way for anybody to be moving from one culture to a completely different culture, from one side of the world to the other.”

Everything is new and must be adapted to, from the climate to the language to the constructs of society, he says. For example, in Syria, talking about the weather is an indication you want to finish the conversation. But in Canada talking about the weather is not only a national pastime, it’s second only to the cost of housing as the most popular small talk subject in Vancouver.

“It’s funny right now, but for a good year everyone is talking to me about the weather and I’m like, ‘Nobody likes me in this city,’” he says.

Most refugees have a vital anchor for support — their own immigrant community who can offer sympathy, advice, knowing laughter. But for LGBTQ2S+ refugees, that door can feel shut.

“Many refugees come here and find support within the diaspora community. So a Syrian would stay in Surrey. Surrey has a lot of Syrian refugees settling there because that’s where the community decided to stay,” explains Ramadan.

“But because of my queerness, I wouldn’t engage with that community, fearing that they were going to bring their homophobia here.”

For some LGBTQ2S+ refugees, the internalized homophobia and transphobia remains after they arrive in Canada. This could be addressed through better social services, says Barforoush, “To help them realize that there’s no fault in being who they are and by providing specialized mental care for LGBTQ2S+ refugees after they arrive here so that they can thrive in their newfound homes. It’s not just enough to get them here.”

The 2019 federal budget pledged another $283 million over two years for the Interim Federal Health Program to deal with the increase in refugees arriving in Canada. But plenty of gaps in the services remain, says Friesen of ISS of BC.

“Every recommendation that’s come out,” he says, “all are saying the same thing: We need trauma-informed programming for refugees. And we’re arguing that it should come out of the federal government national settlement budget.” (See sidebar: Trauma, Shame and Refugee Mental Health.)

There is precedence for such a move in Australia, according to Friesen, who says he advocated for trauma-informed refugee care when he met with the province and federal governments this past January.

ISS of BC has been running a pilot trauma-informed mental health program for the past two years, funded by the private sector, where roughly 70 government-assisted refugees received 10 visits with a registered clinical counsellor in their first language. The program is considered lower cost because it involves clinical counsellors, not psychologists or psychiatrists. But the pilot expires this coming August.

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No longer was Farid attending class. He became a recluse, filling his days with prayer and dread. Illustration for The Tyee by Dasha Yildirim.

In December 2016, Said returned to his home country for winter break, leaving Farid by himself in their shared apartment for nearly a month.

Unlike some of the other walk-up apartment buildings in the Metrotown neighbourhood, the one where Farid lived was run down. Cockroach infestations would flare up. The exterminator would spray the unit, but the pests would be back within a month. Their unit had been doused twice already that fall. But after the apartment was sprayed again in January, it drove the roaches out of the kitchen and onto the walls of the dining and living rooms, into their beds.

Said returned to Burnaby in mid-January 2017 to find Farid living the life of a praying recluse, oblivious to the insects crawling the apartment.

Said reached out to S.U.C.C.E.S.S., a non-profit service provider for newcomers to Canada, and connected Farid with a support worker. Farid admitted that he was having suicidal thoughts, Said says, but refused to go to see a psychiatrist.

As winter set in, the rain and grey skies made the shortened days seem all the more bleak. And the apartment manager kept telling them they would have to move out.

Demoviction day finally came in the middle of March, 2017. Said had already packed their meagre belongings and secured a new one-bedroom apartment in North Vancouver for $1,100. But Farid would not be joining him.

Not because Said hadn’t offered. He had another roommate lined up, but says he repeatedly invited Farid to move in and split the rent three ways. It was cheaper than what each paid to live in Metrotown, and far more affordable than anything Farid could have rented on his own.

But Farid turned him down. By then his mind had become so clouded with anxiety that he’d been checked into the psychiatric unit at Burnaby Hospital for over a month.

On moving day, though, Farid received a hospital pass and showed up to help Said, who offered to hold onto Farid’s few belongings until he was discharged.

The fact that Farid was now receiving treatment seemed reason for hope. After Farid had rejected psychiatry in January, Said had become even more convinced his roommate needed medical attention. No longer was he attending class. Instead he was filling his days with prayer and existential dread.

It was early February when Said again called Farid’s support worker from S.U.C.C.E.S.S, who this time visited the apartment. He managed to bring Farid to the doctor who’d seen him in the fall. Said came along. The doctor needed only a brief conversation with Farid before advising Said and the support worker to bring Farid to Burnaby Hospital right away. There Farid finally saw a psychiatrist who admitted him that day.

The next day, Farid called Said and asked him to come take him home. But Said said no, and Farid would end up spending a month and a half in the psychiatry unit.

It had taken Farid three long years after arriving in Turkey to land on the shores of Canada. In an Istanbul café he had written down his plan: get a higher education, a career, that big brown wooden house with two floors, a husband, a family. Now, having lived here for less than a year, Farid felt his aspirations were slipping beneath an ever receding horizon.

Sara Sagaii, who came to Canada from Iran as a student in 2009, crossed paths with Farid and Said while she worked as a housing advocate. Sagaii was angered to see some of Burnaby’s most affordable rental housing razed to make way for luxury real estate, particularly in the Metrotown neighbourhood. In the winter and spring of 2016-17 she and other advocates focused on two Metrotown apartment buildings in particular, investigating allegations the landlords were denying tenants their rights.

Some volunteers went door to door in the building, talking to tenants about their legal protections. Sagaii was reading the door knockers’ notes when she came across entries about two roommates from the Middle East: Farid and Said. About Farid, they had jotted down: “‘Refugee from—. Language barrier, recently moved in.’”

The notes, Sagaii recalls, also included “something about how his health isn’t well. It was just really alarming when I read that.”

Sagaii’s organizing connected her to those losing out in a fast-changing city — lower-income immigrant renters, clustered in the Metrotown neighbourhood (see sidebar: Knocking Down an Immigrant Enclave).

In 2010, the area’s residential units near Skytrain were up-zoned by Burnaby city council to nearly double the area’s density allowance, vastly increasing the profit-making potential of the land. In 2017, the up-zoned area expanded to include all the residential zones within the Metrotown neighbourhood.

Nearly 800 units of rental housing there were lost between 2011 and 2017 as developers snapped up, then tore down buildings to build highrise condo towers, according to the Burnaby chapter of BC ACORN, which advocates for low- and moderate-income families.

Many tenants — including Farid and Said — were demovicted without being given the one month’s rent in compensation stipulated by the Residential Tenancy Act at the time. (The required compensation now is three months’ rent for demovictions in Burnaby when renters are in place for less than a decade; 10 years or more qualifies you for four months’ rent.)

Sagaii suspected that Said and Farid were being cheated out of their compensation, and tried to follow up. But by then Said and Farid had already moved out, and the window of opportunity to file a grievance with the Residential Tenancy Branch, then 15 days, had passed.

Sagaii was not the first to try to help Said and Farid get their money back. At Burnaby Hospital, Farid’s social worker had made a deal with their building manager towards the end of February to give the men free rent for March.

But no one told Said the deal had been made before he paid the building manager the full rent. They would never see any compensation for their demoviction.

At one point Sagaii tried to get the local news media interested in the story of Said’s and Farid’s demoviction. She talked about it on the phone with Farid.

“He sounded like this really sweet person. He sounded like he’d given up, but also not wanting to give up,” she recalls. “He was open to being convinced. In the end he was like, ‘If you think it matters, I’ll do it.’”

The media never called Farid. But Sagaii can still hear his voice. “He said things like how he used to be so good at doing things, but now his brain wasn’t useful anymore. And feeling like he’s not himself anymore, he has no use, no value because he can’t be the person that he used to be.”

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The waiting room of the Burnaby Hospital in-patient psychiatry unit where Farid spent weeks in care. Photograph by David Beers.

Farid was discharged from the psychiatry unit in early spring 2017. Said again invited his former roommate to come stay with him in his new apartment. But Farid chose instead to stay in housing provided by the hospital for recently released patients. For less rent than the Burnaby apartment, he would be fed, housed and his medications monitored.

His time in the hospital seemed to have done Farid some good. He reconnected with old friends, visiting their apartments during the day, sometimes even joining them at the gay clubs at night. He even restarted English classes at Vancouver Community College.

One day Said and Farid visited a gym, but it became clear that Farid's mind was racing so fast his legs could not comply.

“He was not okay even to run,” Said says. “I tried to stand next to the treadmill. I just started talking with him to get distracted from his negative thoughts. He only could jog around 15 minutes.”

When they left the gym that afternoon it was raining. Said asked Farid to spend the night at his apartment, but Farid was nervous about getting back to his room at the transitional house in Burnaby.

Said lent Farid his umbrella and at the bus stop, before boarding to leave, Farid admitted to Said that he was having suicidal thoughts.

“I asked him to let his counsellor know about that,” Said says.

Three days later, Farid called Said. He was back in the psychiatric unit at Burnaby Hospital. Soon after, Said visited him there. Farid was deeply depressed, fretting that his plans for education, a career, and stability kept getting derailed. And in just a few days his federal cheques were scheduled to end.

Said tried to buoy his friend’s spirits. He invited Farid to live with him rent-free. As for his English, Said would help Farid practice to make up for the classes he had missed due to his depression.

“I told him that I could buy a car and that we can, together, do some deliveries to earn money. I told him that even we could work during the weekdays, and on the weekends we could go to nature or we could travel,” Said says.

They began to make a list.

“He was so happy. I was just noting down what I was talking about on a piece of paper in front of me. When I finished my talk, Farid asked me to keep the piece of paper.”

The next few days, Said was ill with the flu. He texted Farid to explain why he couldn’t visit again right away, but Farid didn’t have regular access to his phone in the hospital, and never responded.

At the time, Farid was allowed to leave the hospital unsupervised for several hours a day as part of his treatment plan. He used those outings to visit friends. But on this day the friend he wanted to see didn’t answer his call. Farid set forth anyway, winding through beige corridors to the hospital’s main doors, stepping into the city that just a year before had seemed to offer its liberating embrace.

This day Vancouver felt empty of possibility as Farid roamed its streets. His wandering led to a particular spot where a newcomer might marvel at the panoramic beauty of the mountains, the skyline, the sea, the glittering horizon. There, Farid took his own life.

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‘This fabricated image of Canada’ causes some refugees to feel their struggles are ‘their fault, their failure,’ says an advocate who knew Farid. Illustration for The Tyee by Dasha Yildirim.

What little research does exist on the suicide rates of recent immigrants to Canada shows that they are half as likely to kill themselves as those born and raised here. They’re also more likely to be much older than Canadian-born suicide victims, who typically skew younger. Farid, who was 29 when he died, is an exception.

Sara Sagaii believes decisions made by politicians helped contribute to Farid’s death, as well as the struggles of many others demovicted. For anyone in a fragile emotional state, being jettisoned from one’s home can prove a tipping point.

Most housing activists place the blame for Metrotown’s demovictions on then-NDP mayor Derek Corrigan and his council as well as the B.C. government.

But it was Kennedy Stewart, then the NDP member of parliament who represented parts of Burnaby, and who was running for mayor of Vancouver, who Sagaii openly confronted in June of 2018. The setting was the nomination conference of the Coalition of Progressive Electors municipal party.

When questions were opened to the floor, Sagaii stood at the microphone in the middle of the room and addressed Stewart directly.

“I have organized with the tenants in Metrotown, and I’ve lived with the horrors that they’re facing. They’re seniors, immigrants, refugees, low-income people who are living with the constant horror of demovictions. They’re being kicked out of their homes with absolutely no option,” she said.

“And I just want to say, someone I know — I can’t go into it, but Kennedy you are complicit in what is happening — I know someone who committed suicide after getting evicted.”

Stewart responded by thanking Sagaii for her “passion” in advocacy, slammed the Trudeau government for “not doing a single thing” to create more affordable housing in Burnaby, and claimed to have preserved 200 units of co-op housing in the area by extending their leases.

Stewart admitted the three levels of government — municipal, provincial, and federal — had “done badly on this file,” but stressed that as a federal politician his hands were tied regarding demovictions.

Was it fair for Sagaii to level such an accusation at an MP, given that zoning and other decisions affecting housing largely are made at the local or provincial level?

Murray Martin, current member of BC ACORN’s Burnaby chapter and former president of the New Westminster-Burnaby NDP riding association, said Stewart called his cellphone** during the 12-day occupation of 5025 Imperial Street, a low-rise apartment building whose tenants had all been evicted in order to demolish the building and erect a condo tower. Kennedy was upset that citizens, spurred by BC ACORN, were demanding he take action, Martin claims.

“He said he was getting like 10 contacts a day: walk-ins, emails, phone calls. And he estimated that for every person who contacts the office, there’s another hundred out there who were pissed off about the issue,” Martin says.

Martin had been posting publicly to Facebook about the “Imperial squat,” as the occupation was known, taking to task the NDP council and MLAs in the region for the loss of affordable housing in Metrotown.

On the phone, Martin says, Kennedy asked him: “‘What would it take for you to stop?’”

Speak out against Corrigan, Martin replied.

When Stewart said no, Martin suggested he publicly state that demovictions are wrong, without attaching blame to anyone.

“And he said that that’s not going to ever happen,” Martin remembers.

Stewart, who went on to be elected mayor of Vancouver, refused to be interviewed for this article. A representative from the mayor’s office said Stewart did not recall such a conversation with Martin.

“I also touched base with former staff from his MP office and they don’t recall getting the level of contact about the occupation described, so we’re not sure what to make of Murray’s comment to you,” reads the statement.

“The issue of Metrotown development,” it continues, “was something that came up a few times during the campaign and at that time we noted that Kennedy’s work as an MP didn’t afford him the ability to influence land use decisions or housing assistance programs.”

The demovictions that ousted Farid and hundreds of others in Metrotown are one reason Burnaby’s long-time incumbent mayor Corrigan was defeated by Mike Hurley last year. There is now a moratorium on redevelopments in the neighbourhood, a campaign promise made by Hurley.

But whether the brakes are really applied remains to be seen, notes Martin. Between 2017 and 2018, redevelopment applications were submitted for 893 units, greater than the number of units demolished between 2011 and 2017.

There’s anger in Sara Sagaii’s voice as she tries to make sense of the short arc of Farid’s life.

“People in certain countries are sold this fabricated image of Canada that it’s this perfect place. This is what it does to people. If it wasn’t for the lie that Canada is great, then people wouldn’t so much feel like it’s their fault, their failure.”

Araz, who knew Farid in Turkey, sees a broad and urgent lesson in his friend’s suicide.

“The pain of immigration, mentally,” he says, comes second only to the pain of losing a loved one. “It’s really heavy.”

Canada’s system should be more attuned to the suffering so many newcomers have experienced. Without such support in place, the system, he says, is setting people up for failure.

Araz believes Farid, with the right guidance, could have made it. “I am sure that if he had someone as a good advisor to talk about the education, right now Farid would be in university.”

Farid just needed someone who had gone through the process to explain to him that he wasn’t too late, that starting over again — and again and again, if necessary — was okay and normal. Without that, Farid burned out and gave up. “He felt like he’s alone,” says Araz. “It’s late. His friends have cars, they have lives. He doesn’t have anything.”

Pedram Niakan, another of Farid’s friends, says government, if it can’t find more money to help refugees, should give less of it to non-profits and more directly to immigrants and refugees, including funding for housing. Such money can buy time, something Farid believed he’d used up. “He was a refugee. He has to have time to make it.”

Danny Ramadan draws on his experience as a Syrian refugee, and his activism for queer refugees in Vancouver, when he says it is naive for anyone — including the Canadian government — to expect charities and non-governmental organizations to cover all the needs refugees have when they come to Canada. In his advocacy he sees this shortfall, and its human cost.

“How many of them are still relying on food banks? On government support to rent houses? How many have managed to learn the English language? How many need mental health help?” he asks. Government needs to do more to track each refugee’s successes and failures on the path to integration, in order to catch and help those failing to thrive in their new home.

As well as the wider society, the queer community needs to step up in welcoming LGBTQ2S+ refugees, he says.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done in the mainstream queer community in Canada.” Refugees are “not to be pitied” for where they come from. They “are not to be seen as lesser than.” Nor is it fair to expect “this new wave of queer folks” to educate Canada’s established queer community to be more accepting.

“It is sad to say that within the queer community here there is a lot of racism that happens. There is a lot of shaming for body image, for age, for different preferences, and all of that affects, quite a lot, newcomers who are just trying to find a community.”

Where Farid came of age, there was no above ground queer community. If he were to be openly gay, he would have put himself in grave danger. When he fled to Turkey, there he faced homophobic violence. Even after his death in Canada, the risks of simply acknowledging Farid’s sexuality persist.

If it became known in the religiously conservative town where Farid grew up that he suffered and died as a gay person seeking escape from persecution, his family and associates could face repercussions simply for who he chose to love. This we were told by a number of sources familiar with the reality in Farid’s homeland, and so we have changed his name and others’, and have hidden or blurred some key details of his story — a story which nevertheless needs to be told and shared.

That story is not the one we tell immigrants and refugees who make lists of hopes and dreams for a new life in Canada. It’s not the story Canada tells itself.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there is help. Contact Crisis Services Canada anytime 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566 or online at

The Tyee reached out to community members about the issues raised in this article. Here is the resulting follow-up: ‘Undone: A Newcomer’s Story’ Had a Tragic End. We Asked How Things Could Have Been Different.  [Tyee]

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