LGBTQ refugees find support and community in The 519

Sponsored feature: presented by The 519

GREEN SPACE FESTIVAL. Pride month music festival, featuring world-class DJs, electronic and house legends, drag queen royalty and more. Jun 20-24, most events free (proceeds to The 519). Event details here.

It happened in September 2015. Princess, a trans woman of colour in Antigua and Barbuda, was pulled over by the police and attacked for no reason. She was hospitalized for two weeks and permanently lost sight in her right eye. The incident was part of a history of discrimination she faced on a daily basis, despite making impressive gains in her life.

“I had accomplished so much there as an openly transwoman of colour,” says Princess. “But if I had to stay there any longer, I would probably be dead now. There was too much for me to fear there.”

She came to Canada last year as a refugee and, with the help of a friend, found The 519 – a City of Toronto agency and registered charity that provides LGBTQ newcomers with essential services and in-depth knowledge of available resources. Staff at The 519 helped Princess prepare her documentation for a hearing on her refugee status, in addition to connecting her with volunteer opportunities that offer a crucial sense of community. 

Princess will be a team lead at this year’s Green Space Festival, an annual event during Pride that brings together DJ sets and community events over four days. Social support is a key part of what The 519 provides refugee claimants, says program coordinator Habibi Feliciano-Perez. 

“They’re experiencing a lot of social isolation from their families and communities. But their communities and their sexual identity, gender identity or gender expression sometimes intersect and contradict one another,” he says. “So the biggest thing is the social isolation and discrimination they’re facing.”

For people like Princess, The 519 represents a place where they can be themselves without fear of anything. “It’s a place of hope and freedom,” says Feliciano-Perez. 

There has been a sharp increase in the number of LGBTQ refugee claimants reaching out to 519 staff recently – about 84 per cent more visits than the previous year, according to Soofia Mahmood, manager of communications and fund development. 

Mahmood and Feliciano-Perez believe the cause for this increase could be attributed to Canada and Toronto being seen as potential “safe havens” in addition to the ongoing persecution of LGBTQ communities elsewhere in the world.

But Canada is not perfect, says Mahmood. While there are legal protections in place for refugees and vulnerable communities, she explains that there is still a very real difference in what LGBTQ people face when experiencing Canada’s refugee system. “We still have a long, long journey to make as a country.” 

The growing demand for 519 services also represents how tragically common Princess’ story is becoming. 

“Pretty much every one of our claimants coming here has experienced some form of violence,” says Feliciano-Perez. “It’s a story that I keep hearing from people coming from countries where a space like this couldn’t exist.”

Princess says that while she now feels much safer, it wasn’t like that initially when she had to rely on Toronto’s shelter system, which still struggles to adapt to meeting the needs of people experiencing gender-based discrimination.

Even with the support in finding housing, employment and rebuilding a social network, there are still many steps for LGBTQ refugees before Toronto can truly feel like home. 

“It’s an ongoing challenge,” says Feliciano-Perez. The 519 has structured its programs to factor in the unique demands of each stage of arrival and settlement in Canada – from initial refugee hearings all the way to obtaining permanent resident status. The organization’s relationships with individual claimants can last for years.

Donations, volunteering and public events like the Green Space Festival allow The 519 to continue growing to meet the increased demands of a community in need.

“We are able to respond quickly to emerging needs only because we are able to raise funds through events like Green Space Festival,” says Mahmood. While they receive some core funding from various institutional partners, a major portion of their programs relies on their donor base.

“Every person who comes through the door looking for our services, we respond,” she says. “To be able to do this, we need to increase our capacity and deliver that support.”

Find out more about the Green Space Festival and The 519 here.

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