January 5, 2017
In Vienna, traffic lights can be gay too!
The city has changed its own traffic lights to reflect the diverse community of commuters that roams it. Some of the green lights display a sketch of two men walking hand in hand, with a floating heart above their heads, red lights display two women standing and holding hands, warning you not to cross the street; or deny them their right of public display of affection.
In the European Agency for Human Rights, I looked around me for a bathroom. I found one tucked away in a corner with a clear sign that it was an all gender bathroom; and that everyone was welcomed to use it.
I couldn’t help but wonder, while I walked around the cold windy city, how an LGBTQ-identified newcomer or refugee would feel in Vienna, walking around and seeing those signs that welcomed their sexual orientation and gender identity.
I was invited to Vienna to speak on behalf of QMUNITY on the differences of experiences between LGBTQ-identifying newcomers and refugees arriving in Canada to their counterparts arriving in Europe, and more specifically in Vienna.
The invitation, coming from both the Canadian Embassy in Vienna and the European Union’s Agency for Human Rights, landed in my inbox in an early afternoon in late October. Within weeks, I was sitting in front of a crowd of social workers, government officials and non-profit staff speaking about my personal experience as a former refugee myself, and the work we do at QMUNITY supporting newcomers and refugees.
The panel, titled “When Coming Out Drives You Out”, included personal storytelling from both myself and Mercy, an African refugee who had recently arrived in Vienna after a tremendously heartbreaking escape to safety.
On the other side of the panel, Marty Huber, a local LGBTQ-identifying refugee activist, shared her experience supporting LGBTQ-refugees in QueerBase, a local organization in Vienna building safe spaces for queer and trans refugees. In attendance was Mark Bailey, the Canadian ambassador to Austria.
Between the telling of my own personal story as a gay Syrian refugee who arrived in Vancouver in 2014, and Mercy’s journey from Uganda to Vienna, the audience was captivated. They asked questions about her journey leaving her homeland, and the abusive husband she was forced to marry, and asked me about my experience landing in Canada, and the challenges we face.
“It’s not the end of a fairytale,” Mercy and I echoed, “when a queer or trans refugee arrives to the land of safety, their lives have just begun, their struggles – financially, professionally and emotionally – will continue until they build that sense of belonging to their new home.”
The next day, Jonathan Sauvé, who is one of the Canadian staff at the embassy, and myself paid a visit to QueerBase. We walked into this small pink building, which reminded me of our offices at QMUNITY, and sat together in a small library with a dozen queer and trans refugees.
I listened to the processes of how refugees gain support from QueerBase, as Marty introduced me to her fellow staff members, and explained that QueerBase had just managed to find enough funds to hire her, after years of her doing this work on a volunteer basis.
The organization, just like QMUNITY, offers counselling services, support in booking doctor’s appointments for trans folks, and helps to integrate the newly arriving refugees into Austrian society.
“Our biggest challenge is housing,” Marty explained, “Vienna is an expensive city, and finding affordable housing for newcomers and refugees remains our most difficult challenge.”
“You have no idea how similar that is to what I say back in Vancouver,” I replied.
I was happy to share some of the ways we do our work back in Vancouver with folks. I took the lead on creating a Community Contract around Safe(r) Spaces, and facilitated a conversation about what that means for all of those attending. We then talked about pronouns and respecting them. “Pronouns were new to me too before I started working at QMUNITY,” I said with a smile, seeing some confusion in the eyes of other refugees, “but we learn how to show respect and be accountable to it for our communities we navigate.”
As I took the evening off, and went around with the other Syrian refugees looking for a good Shawarma place, I enjoyed speaking to others in a language I missed, and using Syrian jokes that I haven’t told for almost two years.
I’m thankful for the Canadian embassy and the UN Agency for Human Rights for offering me this opportunity, and I’m thankful for my work here at QMUNITY that allowed me to share this knowledge across the ocean with other activists who wholeheartedly believe in the work we all do.