photos: Tamara Touma

Not Afraid to be Me

As a trans non-binary person fleeing to Canada from Syria via the United Arab Emirates, Tamara Touma says finally being safe has allowed them to connect to their true self.

Learn more and offer support at

Get on your megaphone

Share this:

In this third edition on the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, Megaphone focuses on the LGBTQI+ community resettling in Canada.

Prior to coming to Canada, Tamara Touma lived in fear.

Fleeing Syria to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2014 did little to allay anxiety and fear about their long-term safety.

A trans non-binary person, they have been given space since arriving in Canada to truly connect safely with themselves—without fear of harm or retribution.

“Being in Canada and in this community, and the safety of it all, [has] allowed me to connect with myself,” they said. “Because only after not having to be in survival mode, it allowed me to connect with my true self.”

Touma, now 30, arrived in Vancouver through the Canadian Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program in 2018.

Under Syrian or UAE law, Touma was not protected. Both countries persecute same-sex attracted and gender-diverse people to varying degrees, using jail terms and corporal punishment as options.

There are still 69 countries around the world that criminalize LGBTQI+ people, nine of which, according to Human Rights Watch, specifically target gender-non-conforming and transgender folks. Eleven countries still impose the death penalty for same-sex attracted people.

It wasn’t until 1969 that homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada. Prior to then, homosexual and transgender Canadians could be jailed for engaging in consensual sex with a same-sex partner.

Although there is much still to do in Canada to create equity and safety for LGBTQI+ people, especially trans and gender-diverse people of colour, the country is seen around the world as a safe haven for the queer community — within the Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program, there is a specific resettlement stream for queer people.

When Touma and their then-partner were looking for ways to leave Dubai, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia were all possible options.

However, it was when they were connected to their then partner’s friend, who had already immigrated to Vancouver through a local LGBTQI+ refugee advocacy organization, that they realized their best chance at resettlement was in Canada through the specific resettlement stream.

The process was not quick. After the introduction to Rainbow Refugee, it took another two years before they arrived in Canada.

However, Touma and their sponsorship group were in contact the entire time through the process, given the nature of the “power” the group had in determining Touma’s next steps.

“I think, both sides, we wanted to get to know each other, because they are very important people to me. And they tell me that I'm important to them now,” they said.

Touma’s experience with their sponsorship group was all the more important, as Touma hadn’t seen fully out, older queers before. With homosexuality being illegal in both Syria and Dubai, queerness is driven underground and does not exist in public places.

“It was just lovely to meet a 70-year-old lesbian and her partner — something that I never thought… I didn't know existed or is a possibility,” Touma said.

Able to have deep and insightful conversations about the queer community with their sponsors, Touma said it felt really special.

“Because of the history of the LGBT community, and you know, it wasn't that easy for them back in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s to be together or have any rights,” they said.

Touma’s first months were spent “submerged” in all that queer Vancouver could offer—including spending time on Davie Street and taking a lot of photos at the city’s rainbow crosswalk. 

Although Dubai has a small but thriving underground queer scene, being out in public in Vancouver was the first time Touma was able to be their complete authentic self, without fear of retribution.

“I loved going to drag shows at The Junction. I watched drag on TV before, but that was the first time also to see it in person,” they said, adding that one of their sponsor’s partners was a drag performer themself, who ended up dedicating a song to Touma.

“It put me in tears. I couldn't believe, like I'm crying at a nightclub at midnight,” Touma laughed.

But creating community in the longer term has been challenging for Touma. Not dissimilar to anyone who moves to another city, finding friendship in a place you haven’t grown up can be difficult.

“It's still is harder to be part of a group, within the community, or making friends that are more than just, like, acquaintances, or people you know to hang out with,” Touma said. “I think many of the people who are newcomers or immigrants that I've met, they say the same thing—if you didn't grow up here and in Vancouver, or in B.C., it’s really harder to make friends.”

The pioneers of queer immigration

When Touma arrived at Vancouver International Airport, the founder of Rainbow Refugee was waiting patiently for their arrival.

Chris Morrisey—heralded as a pioneer of queer immigration in Canada—ensured they were taken care of, immediately. 

“She even took us in the car and drove us to the place that we're staying at the time,” Touma said. “Which is just amazing.”

Founded in 2000, Rainbow Refugee is a community-led group that supports people seeking refugee protection in Canada, due to persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or HIV status.

Initially set up to support those already in Canada looking to apply for refugee status, in 2011 Rainbow Refugee was contacted by the federal government and told they were to spearhead a “pilot project,” the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Pilot.

According to Morrissey, before the formation of a dedicated resettlement stream for queer people seeking refugee status, some may have come to Canada but it would not have been on purpose.

“Before there was a specific program, some LGBTQ people might have been sponsored by the government or perhaps by a church that sponsored a family, and one of the members was queer,” she said. “But it was more of an accident—you were lucky.”

Essentially running outside of Sponsorship Agreement Holders annual quotas, Rainbow Refugee facilitates private sponsorship applications of queer refugee newcomers across the country. It also facilitates its own sponsorship groups, by working with MOSAIC (one of Canada’s largest settlement organizations).

But Morrissey didn’t start just with Rainbow Refugee. The organization as it is today was a natural progression after she started LEGIT (Lesbian and Gay Immigration Taskforce), a community-based immigration organization for same-sex partners.

It was in 1989 when Morrissey arrived back in Vancouver, after working in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship with her partner Bridget. As Bridget wasn’t a Canadian citizen, Morrissey worked with friends and organizers to change immigration laws, and eventually have the Family Class Sponsorship category include same-sex partners.

“Then we began to get lots of emails from people. So we invited people to come to a meeting because we wanted to see how we could answer some of these emails,” she said. “And then the people that showed up were mostly people who were in Canada, who were afraid to go back to their home country.”

And Rainbow Refugee was born.

Rainbow Refugee currently has about 20 active sponsorship groups working with refugees. From 2011-2019, the organization helped welcome more than 80 queer people through the pilot; however, in the years since the pilot program turned into a fully formed immigration stream in 2019, that number has rocketed to about 70 per year.

Morrissey believes there is an extra threat to being queer and seeking asylum. Even if one is able to flee their home country, they may end up in another country that has similar laws against LGBTQI+ people.

“If they're waiting for the government to do the sponsoring, they're going to wait a very, very long time, and they might not be picked. And the seriousness of the threats are in so many countries,” she said.

Frequently, when queer people flee and leave their home countries, they have to go through the process completely by themselves.

“As well as the police and the state, oftentimes their family are part of who persecutes them. Because of religion, because of wanting… forcing them to get married. And so when an LGBT person leaves their countries, they usually are alone,” she said.

Morrissey says it is also extremely important for there to be a dedicated queer resettlement stream, as some may not be able to find community support with ex-refugees from their home country.

“I think about some of the gay and trans Iranians that we have sponsored. They don't want to have contact with the Iranian community in the Lower Mainland as that's been the source of their persecution,” she said. “So it's really important for them to come here with people who are similar to them, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

While not everyone who signs on to be a sponsor has to be queer, Morrissey said, sponsorship groups are mainly made up of queer-identifying people and their allies.

“We provide the support for people who need to find a place to come that is safe, but it’s also an awareness building within the queer community.”

Morrissey says that even when she started LEGIT, she had no idea it would grow to be an organization that changed legislation, nor morph into the organization that Rainbow Refugee is now.

“People who have a real need of their own and can bring people together to organize around a specific issue, have power,” she said. “We do have power.”

Even after more than a decade of working with the community to sponsor refugees, Morrissey is still in awe of the support Rainbow Refugee receives.

“I've been extremely encouraged and amazed by the numbers of people that have responded and have formed circles… even during this pandemic,” she said.

Morrissey notes that with the current sponsorship groups, Rainbow Refugee has around 500 people supporting queer refugees at any one time.

“And then there's all the people that have contributed money, and contributed in other ways. So the response is amazing,” she said.

A Call to Action

Instagram personality Lauren Sundstrom received a direct message in early 2020, right before the pandemic hit.

“I couldn't in good conscience ignore it,” she said.

The message from Mo—a soon-to-be newcomer whom Rainbow Refugee refers to using a pseudonym, for safety and privacy reasons—was a call to action.

“There was definitely a level of desperation. He told me a little bit about his situation, I accepted the message and we got to chatting. And that's when I started to investigate what it would take to bring him over to Vancouver,” Sundstrom said.

“I've always been, from a moral standpoint, very supportive of refugees and immigration, but having this direct experience has just made me that much more passionate about it.”

Sundstrom and her fellow sponsorship group have had the unique experience of fundraising and supporting Mo fully online so far, thanks to the pandemic.

“This entire process, from being contacted by Mo, to gathering folks who would be interested in being part of my circle, to fundraising, especially during a pandemic, all of it has been digital,” she said.

With about 24,000 followers on Instagram, Sundstrom initially thought her value, or the reason why she would be a good fit to sponsor someone, would be her ability to raise money and funds to support Mo.

“But then I kind of realized that my value can lie in other places as well,” she said. “Each person in the sponsorship circle, I think, has found the value that they can provide.”

Being involved with Mo’s resettlement journey, and learning about refugee rights and immigraton, has made Sundstrom more aware of the challenges refugees face in fleeing persecution.

“The reality is, that there are tons of barriers in place. If we're considered on a global scale, one of the better nations for this, I can't imagine what it must be like for people trying to go to America or other other nations,” she said.

Although excited to finally get to see Mo once they arrive in Vancouver, Sundstrom has some nervousness about being able to provide Mo what he needs in resettlement.

“I'm sure I'm not the first person who has felt that way,” she said.

But Sundstrom needn't worry. Touma made clear that Rainbow Refugee had prepared their sponsors well for what would happen when they arrived, and beyond.

“I think the sponsors did a great job preparing themselves, and preparing for us,” they said. “And preparing to support us during the first year. I think we were lucky to have such a great group.”

In next month’s fourth and final edition on the Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program, we check in with a recent newcomer and their sponsor, share their hopes for the future

Get on your megaphone

Share this:
Showing 1 reaction
Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
312 Main St
Vancouver, BC
V6A 2T2