Even after escaping Syria, Basel Abou Hamrah was afraid to reveal who he really was.
Coming out as gay in his home country or in the Lebanon refugee camp where he spent two years was a dangerous, impossible prospect.
“I would be disowned by my community, by my father, by my family. If they figured out that I had a boyfriend, maybe I could go to jail.
“It’s tough to be part of the LGBTQ community back home. We lived secretly.”
Fear of persecution followed Abou Hamrah to Canada and hung over him as he sought assistance from refugee support workers in Edmonton, his new home.
“I came from a culture where LGBTQ people are a topic that no one discusses,” he told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.
“When I came here I was looking at how I could be connected, but I was too afraid to come out to anyone here to help me connect.”
For months following his arrival in 2015, Abou Hamrah was wary of stepping foot inside the Pride Centre of Edmonton or utter a word to any of his new acquaintances.
“I was going to the offices and seeing that rainbow flag on the door and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, they are welcoming.’ But I kept thinking, how will I tell them?”
Finally, he worked up the courage to come out to his caseworker.
In turn, she helped him connect with other LGBTQ refugees.
Now, he’s helping others build those same vital support networks. Abou Hamrah is a settlement counsellor with the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and the founder of a support group for LGBTQ newcomers.
Over the last two years, he’s helped 130 clients find their footing.
“When they meet me, they relate to my story. They relate to me as a person and that makes it easier for them to express themselves and to ask for support and engage within the community.”
The group, funded by the Edmonton Mennonite Centre and operated in partnership with the Pride Centre, gathers every Friday and participates in community events such as the Pride parade.
“If we go all as a community, they feel like, I can be who I am. I am free.”
‘An underground railroad’
LGBTQ newcomers are especially vulnerable and need immediate support through their settlement process, said Ricki Justice, deputy executive director for the Edmonton Mennonite Centre.
Of the thousands of refugees entering Canada every year, many are drawn to Edmonton by the promise of work.
But Alberta’s capital is also developing a reputation as a safe haven for refugees fleeing persecution based on their gender or sexual orientation, Justice said.
“There is almost an underground railroad,” Justice said.
“They know where the welcoming places are, they know where there is a good support network and Edmonton is known for that. Known as far as Ghana, Uganda, Jamaica. People know about Edmonton through word of mouth.
“They come here for the same reasons as anyone else does. For the support and the chance of good opportunities.”
This country and the Edmonton community, they saved my life– Basel Abou Hamrah
Abou Hamrah’s counselling with the support group is an extension of his ongoing community work.
He began volunteering a day after arriving in Canada five years ago. He feels indebted to this country.
“When I arrived here, I felt that this country and the Edmonton community saved my life and they brought me here so I have to give back,” he said.
“I did lots of volunteer work and I found my passion in this community work.”