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Gender + Sexuality

‘Undone: A Newcomer’s Story’ Had a Tragic End. We Asked How Things Could Have Been Different

In the wake of reporting on the suicide of a gay refugee, we sought expert suggestions for improving LGBTQ2S+ newcomers’ supports.

Katie Hyslop 2 Aug

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

Tomorrow marks the start of Pride weekend in Vancouver. There will be corporate-sponsored pink parade floats, rainbow everything (from clothing to food to dollar store beer koozies), fearless displays of a variety of sexualities and genders and a long-weekend street party.

But what’s often lost is the fact Pride is first and foremost a protest against societies that still enforce heterosexuality.

Often brutally. Statistics Canada found that of the hate crimes committed between 2010 and 2017, those directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, two spirited and other marginalized sexualities (LGBTQ2S+) were the most likely to be violent, narrowly surpassing the violence inflicted against those of South Asian, Arab and West Asian descent.

The hate is only amplified when an LGBTQ2S+ person’s sexuality intersects with other identities subjected to hate in Canada — like members of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, women, racialized people, low-income people, and differently abled people.

The violence inflicted upon LGBTQ2S+ people in Canada is sometimes random and physical.

But other times it’s bureaucratic, and takes the form of a systemic failure to provide people, particularly those who are recent immigrants and refugees, with the supports and services they need to thrive here.

That’s what happened to Farid.

Last month The Tyee feature Undone: A Newcomer’s Story reported on the life and untimely death of Farid, a 29-year-old gay Middle Eastern man who came to Canada as a refugee in 2016.

Farid is not his real name; we hid his identity to ensure safety of friends and family in his homeland.

But it is Canada that ultimately failed Farid. Despite the best efforts of his friends, he slipped through the cracks of Canada’s mental health care, housing and resettlement services, and died by suicide just days short of the first anniversary of his arrival in the country.

His downward spiral into mental illness was compounded by the pressure placed on government-assisted refugees to be self-sufficient within a year. This despite the fact that many refugees and immigrants face language, cultural and work experience barriers.

582px version of JennyKwan.jpg
NDP critic Jenny Kwan said she’s proposed improvements to the system. What’s needed is action. Photo from NDP.

Jenny Kwan, NDP critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship and Vancouver East MP, said Farid’s story highlighted broad problems.

“All of this adds up, and speaks to, in my view, a systemic issue,” said Kwan.

“Our approach to supporting LGBTQ2+ members to successfully resettle here in Canada is wholly inadequate. And I think your story really exposes the depth of that inadequacy.”

Kwan is just one of 14 individuals and organizations whose work brings them in touch with LGBTQ2S+ immigrants and refugees that The Tyee reached out to after publishing Farid’s story.

The original report offered several solutions that could have prevented Farid from feeling so hopeless in Canada, including trauma-aware and culturally relevant mental health supports for all Canadians; mandatory mental health assessments for refugees; stronger protections for existing low-income housing; and a faster process for bringing LGBTQ2S+ refugees to Canada.

Still we felt there were perspectives we were missing, and wanted to know what these 14 experts — politicians, academics, resettlement services, LGBTQ2S+ refugee and immigrant advocates — think would have helped Farid long before he made the decision to kill himself. Their advice could still help the LGBTQ2S+ immigrants and refugees who continue to arrive in Canada every year.

However, we only heard back from six — two of which were unable to participate. Of the four who were able to respond, only Kwan granted an interview.

Daniel Drennan ElAwar, an assistant professor of illustration at Emily Carr University, shared a critique of the article titled “Parsing and decolonizing the mediation of Canadian immigration narratives.” He questioned the entire framing of the original article.

“For the tragedy of this article is not the suicide of someone new to the ‘West’ unable to come to terms with aspects of identity that imply a former nightmare of original family, faith, and culture,” he wrote. “The tragedy is that of the alienation, extirpation, and annihilation of said family, community, culture, faith, and identity — the very essence and being of this man — via what amounts to societal and cultural warfare. The tragedy is a place historically and structurally devoted to displacement, dispossession, and disinheritance feigning multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion. The vaunted promises of belonging to this place willfully and knowingly deliver instead a slow-motion death sentence, often meted out over generations.”

You can read his full critique here.

Sharalyn Jordan* is an assistant professor in the education faculty at Simon Fraser University and research-practitioner in counselling psychology who studies the impact of homophobia, transphobia and trauma on refugees protection, resettlement and mental health. She is also board chair of Rainbow Refugees, a Vancouver-based organization that supports LGBTQ2S+ refugees in resettling in the Lower Mainland.

In an email to The Tyee, Jordan called on the province to work with the federal government to improve mental health supports for LGBTQ2S+ refugees coming to B.C.

“B.C. now has a Ministry of Mental Health and this is a step in the right direction,” Jordan wrote. “I would like to see minister Judy Darcy reach out to federal counterparts to advocate for better federal-provincial collaboration.”

“The governments should jointly allocate resources to strengthen and build on some of the excellent community-based supports that exist — like Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, I Belong, Rainbow Refugee and the Immigrant Services Society of BC’s trauma-informed mental health pilot program,” she wrote.

“We have promising programs in B.C., but none of them are securely or adequately funded.”

Supports also need to recognize the impact intersecting identities can have on LGBTQ2S+ refugees.

“LGBTQ2S+ refugees are recovering from a very stigmatizing form of trauma and at the same time routinely encounter exclusions or micro-aggressions based on racism, sexuality and gender, or xenophobia,” Jordan wrote.

“Putting culturally and sexual orientation and gender-identity responsive, flexible psychosocial supports in place in community settings would save lives and enable newcomers to become connected, participating community members,” she added.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel — whose leader, Andrew Scheer, is the only federal party leader to decline to participate in any Canadian Pride parades this year — did not respond to our interview request.

In an emailed statement, Shannon Ker, communications spokesperson for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada, restated the support currently available in Canada for refugees, who become permanent residents once they arrive here.

These include the Resettlement Assistance Program and the Settlement Program, which funds resettlement and service organizations that assess newcomers needs and point them in the direction of various resources.

Some settlement program organizations, the department noted, do provide LGBTQ2S+ specific supports. The department is funding one organization to develop and deliver youth and LGBTQ2S+ orientation and settlement resources in collaboration with other settlement organizations across the country.

Immigrants and refugees have access to the same mental health supports as every other person. For the first year they are in the country, privately sponsored and government-assisted refugees have access to additional mental health supports through the Interim Federal Health Program, including prescription drug coverage for mental-health treatment, and appointments with psychologists, psychotherapists, counselling therapists and licensed social workers.

The department statement said it has also partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association and Centre for Addictions and Mental Health to help.

NDP critic Kwan offered suggestions for improved services.

As vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, Kwan has offered many of these suggestions in the form of dissenting opinions on the committee’s examinations of resettlement services and the resettlement specifically of Syrian and Yazidi refugees.

“One of the recommendations that I call for was for [Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Canada] to allocate funding to increase access and availability for mental health assessments, and support for newcomers, and provide timely referrals to facilitate a durable solution for the long term,” Kwan said.

Kwan added she knows refugees who have participated in conversion therapy in Canada, a debunked and dangerous practice that aims to “turn” LGBTQ2S+ people straight. The federal government is considering a ban on the practice through changes to the Criminal Code.

Kwan has called on the federal government to meet with provincial and territorial leaders to discuss the mental health needs of immigrants and refugees and increased transfer payments with dedicated funding to cover mental health supports for all residents of Canada.

“We have yet to do — in my view — an in-depth study on the shortfalls in resettlement services,” Kwan said. “We hear glimpses of it here and there... but there’s never been a real focus on what are the shortfalls with specific sets of newcomers.”

That’s despite the fact that every LGBTQ2S+ refugee case that has landed on Kwan’s desk includes reports of refugees experiencing depression or other mental health issues, she said. Those are related to the trauma of hiding their identities, the stress of escaping a dangerous home country and the wrenching pain of leaving your family, friends, and homeland, likely for good, she said.

“If you are a government-assisted refugee, you have one year after you arrive in Canada to have the support of the government. And then after that, you're supposed to be self-sufficient,” said Kwan, whose own family immigrated to Canada when she was a child. “If they don’t reach those expectations within that year, a person might be left to think that they are a failure,” she said.

Her father, a tailor with his own business in Hong Kong, spent 40 years in menial jobs before he was able to re-establish his career in Canada, Kwan said. For others the lack of recognition of their academic credentials and work experiences in their own countries leads to PhDs and medical doctors driving cabs or using the food bank every week to scrape by here.

Kwan would like to see that year extended, particularly for refugees who, faced with the unavailability of affordable housing, are stuck living in hotels for months. The countdown to supports ending shouldn’t start until they have actual housing, she said.

Kwan also wants to see care put into where LGBTQ2S+ newcomers are placed. The goal should be to find housing for them close enough to others in the same situation to build community, she said. Newcomers can’t necessarily afford apartments in areas like Vancouver’s gay village, she said, or may fear their own diasporic communities will not welcome them.

Services for LGBTQ2S+ people — both those born here and recent immigrants — must be more inclusive and knowledgeable about the racism and Islamophobia directed at racialized LGBTQ2S+ people, Kwan noted.

The federal government should also waive repayment of travel loans for all refugees, Kwan added. Currently government-assisted refugees are billed for the cost of their travel to Canada and some resettlement services, with payments starting 12 months after they arrive in Canada. The loans were waived as part of the Syrian resettlement initiative that brought over 40,000 refugees to Canada, but remained in place for all other refugees.

Ultimately, Kwan said, it’s not governments that make the most difference for LGBTQ2S+ newcomers in Canada. While they fund and facilitate services, it’s the advocates and organizations on the ground — often LGBTQ2S+ newcomers themselves — who do the hard work of delivering services in the various LGBTQ2S+ communities.

“What government needs to do is to ensure that we listen to them say how we can achieve the goals of ensuring that the LGBTQ2+ refugee communities are supported, so that they have every chance to succeed. So that we can all realize our hopes and dreams,” she said.

In the spirit of Pride, Kwan added a message for all LGBTQ2S+ newcomers

“We are your allies, I am your ally, to walk with you, and to advocate for you. You are not alone to fight this fight: there are many, many people here in Canada, who want to help, who want to support you, to ensure that your hopes and dreams become reality,” she said.

“Welcome to Canada.”

* Story updated on Aug. 2, 2019 at 4 p.m. to include comments from Sharalyn Jordan.

UBC Graduate School of Journalism student Hina Imam, while doing a practicum at The Tyee, assisted in gathering information for this piece.  [Tyee]

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