3.E A sponsoring organization that welcomes members of the LGBTQ community to Canada
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Name of Sponsoring Group: Capital Rainbow Refuge
Type of Sponsoring Group: Constituent Group of a Sponsorship Agreement Holder
Number of Sponsors in Group: Approximately 20
Sponsoring Since: 2010
Sponsoring Group Description: Primarily LGBTQ members of the Ottawa community including professionals, lawyers, and law students.
Number of Refugees Sponsored: Approximately 40
Interviewee: Lisa Hébert
Did you sponsor someone you know (e.g. friend, family) or did not previously know?
Many of the individuals, couples, and families that we sponsor are referred to us by NGOs or allies overseas. We are also approached directly by LGBTQ peoples who are on the run and are requesting assistance. None have started as a [Canadian] family connection.
The bulk of our sponsorships are through the named private sponsorship process. Some have also come as Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) refugees or Government-Assisted Refugees, and we have organized support groups for them. With the named private sponsorships, we first get to know the refugees through lengthy Skype sessions to prepare their application. Then the group also connects with them through social media. We become their lifeline and the relationship gets strong quite quickly.
How do sponsors of vulnerable groups work together with governments?
Most of our sponsorships are through a program called the Rainbow Resettlement Assistance Program (Rainbow RAP). We are honoured to have been the first group in Canada to have sponsored under the Rainbow RAP in 2011, when we welcomed a lesbian couple from South East Asia.
What is the Rainbow Resettlement Assistance Program?
The Rainbow RAP provides some seed funding that represents a lump sum for settlement and three months of income support for the sponsored refugees. It encourages groups to engage in sponsorship because the fundraising obligations are a little less daunting. The program requires us to apply through a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH), but does not impact the SAH’s quota; in other words, doesn’t reduce the SAH’s ability to sponsor other cases. The Rainbow RAP allows us to sponsor from any visa post, which is very helpful as LGBTQ refugees do not present from the same war zones that tend to produce other refugees. The Rainbow RAP also provides some starter furniture and linens, which is appreciated.
How is sponsorship of LGBTQ refugees different from sponsoring non-LGBTQ refugees?
LGBTQ refugees have more potential places of persecution: State, militarized groups or gangs, community, and their own family. When they have to run, they are often at great risk because the only countries they can flee to also have persecutory laws, and they cannot seek support from their own ethnic communities because they could also harm them.
Because of the tremendous dangers and harm that we have witnessed from the community we have sponsored, we have adopted higher levels of confidentiality. We don’t identify the newcomers by country, and instead leave it up to them. For people who have left everything behind, defining their own identity is the beginning of empowerment. We also don’t even suggest media interviews or speaking engagements in the first year of arrival.
On arrival, many tell us they are reluctant to engage with their own diaspora. We recommend that their first housing is with a group member, and this is an ideal period for the group to engage intensively with orientation and settlement. The temporary housing lasts between six weeks to six months. We tend to get to know people as we engage with them for their sponsorship and the bonds we form can be very close. Many are quick to refer to us as their “family,” and though this is not something we propose, we have to work hard to live up to that trust.
What does the community do to support the sponsorship of LGBTQ refugees?
Capital Rainbow Refuge has developed four workshops for new groups, and each workshop runs between 2-3 hours. We start with the Settlement Plan, talk about everything involved in settlement, and the more challenging issues which involve managing expectations, ethics, and power imbalance. We don’t work with groups unless their members attend our four workshops, and show that they have the capacity to take on a sponsorship.
Even Canadian-born sexual minorities can have a harder time being accepted, and discrimination persists. It can take time for a lesbian or gay person to come to terms with their own identity, and to find the strength to manage occasional situations that are not always welcoming, so it is beneficial that the Rainbow RAP is able to bring together members of the LGBTQ community to support sexual minority newcomers. It is important that they not be alone as they try to find their way in our country.
Our groups have a great deal of experience navigating our country and have a wealth of knowledge to share. We think it is important that a group have the resources to support the newcomer, for instance a trans newcomer should be supported by a group with trans expertise, and someone with HIV should find expertise on this issue in his or her group. We’re proud of the strides some have made. To stay with the HIV example, our groups have been able to turn around individuals who thought their life was over, and to help them transition to healthy people who envision dying eventually of something else.
What is the experience of arrival and refugees’ first weeks like?
Coming down the escalator at the airport to be greeted by a group that has committed to support them is a magical experience for both the newcomer and group members. The first few weeks are busy with social events where they form bonds. The newcomers also are quickly introduced to their new community, assisted in getting ID, registered for school, trained in how to use public transportation, and settlement begins!
How did you find accessing settlement services in your community?
We have accessed some services, like the language schools, some courses like workplace prep, doing taxes and what the different levels of government do, credentials recognition, and employment postings. Counselling is also very valuable, though funding in these areas has been precarious. The settlement agencies don’t tend to have services that are specialized for our community, but they are working hard to become more welcoming.
What has been the best part of your sponsorship experience?
It is incredibly rewarding to help people build new lives. Their hope for the future is uplifting for everyone involved. That hope and sense of future is an incredible gift to the sponsorship group members, giving our lives renewed meaning and purpose. It is very meaningful to be part of a community of people who are linked by love and caring.
How are the refugees you have sponsored doing today?
We are proud to say that they are all engaged in school or working. There are undoubtedly challenges in transferring careers or a life in another language to the Canadian experience, and there are ups and downs. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress, which has interfered with learning our language. On balance, though, their lives are moving forward and are continually blooming.
Our group recently attended a graduation at Adult High School, and it felt like our whole group was graduating, and sharing in our graduate’s award for a high GPA and most promising future, with its next chapter at university. When another man got a promotion at work, or another woman got her first job, we feel those life milestones and achievements together. We are very lucky to be able to participate in this program that allows us to work with vulnerable newcomers. Some of our group members are motivated to get involved because they look forward to the opportunity to save a life, and throughout the process, they realize that they themselves are the ones whose lives were also saved.