“My dream is to be able to live freely”: this refugee is among the LGBTQ+ Afghans waiting for Canada

Growing up in western Afghanistan, Yama/Yalda Ahmadi was so ridiculed by her neighbors and classmates that her family had to send them to live in Kabul.

Ahmadi, born intersex with both male and female genitalia, was raised as a girl until the age of five, when her parents forced her to dress as a boy and changed her name.

“It’s a secret and I couldn’t tell anyone, because I was scared,” Ahmadi, 19, said.

As someone who identifies as LGBTQ+, Ahmadi says they knew their lives would be in danger when the Taliban made their comeback in 2021. Ahmadi fled to Turkey on a tourist visa.

Last month, a network of supporters connected Ahmadi with the Toronto Metropolitan Church’s LGBTQ+ Afghan Refugee Response Program.

The church had reached out to the Canadian government last August to ensure that persecuted LGBTQ+ people would be part of Canada’s resettlement of 40,000 internally displaced Afghans. The program aims to sponsor up to five Afghans, including Ahmadis, to Canada this year.

“My dream is to be able to live freely in Canada,” said Ahmadi, who now lives with a family in Turkey organized by the UN Refugee Agency.

Canada’s efforts to resettle the Afghans have been hampered by its own bureaucracy.

The Canadian government approved the movement of 41,000 Ukrainians under its emergency travel initiative launched in March; in contrast, only 11,165 Afghans have arrived in Canada since August. This week, the Veterans Transition Network announced that it would end its public funding activities and operations to bring Afghans to Canada who had previously served with the Canadian Armed Forces.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Taliban takeover was making the situation “incredibly difficult”.

“As you can imagine, the Taliban aren’t really helpful in getting people out of Afghanistan into Canada,” he said at a press briefing in Kitchener. “We continue to work with partners in the region and with allies around the world.”

Since December, the Metropolitan Community Church has received resettlement applications from more than 50 LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees who are now outside their home countries, mostly in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Ahmadi is among those who have been vetted and prioritized based on their vulnerability.

The Metropolitan Church, the only group with a private sponsorship deal with the federal government for LGBTQ+ refugees, held an information meeting in February to tell community members how they could help raise funds and team up to sponsor Afghans and support them in Canada. So far, only one sponsorship team has been formed.

“Your heart is in a place where you want to help everyone else. But the reality is that you are limited by your ability,” says Dave Kerr, director of the church’s LGBTQ+ refugee program.

Kerr thinks people are worried about the cost of committing to help with initial settlement — it’s about $18,250 for a year’s financial support for a refugee.

He said sponsors don’t have to be from the LGBTQ+ community but should be allies. His office will facilitate the sponsorship application process and provide the necessary advice and support; any group interested in sponsoring LGBTQ+ Afghans can email [email protected]

Ahmadi said that in Turkey they were not getting the medical help they needed – they had blood and bladder infections due to their physical condition.

Physiologically, Ahmadi still lives in a body with female and male organs. In the past, before the return of the Taliban, an American medical team based in North Carolina had flown Ahmadi for surgery and treatment.

“I need operations. I need treatment. In Turkey, people don’t accept me. They said bad things to me. When they know my conditions, they laugh at me. Even doctors laugh at me when I ask for help,” said Ahmadi, who lives on a small monthly stipend from the UN.

“I’m too scared to go out even to look for work. I’m afraid people will find out who and what I am. They don’t have an open mind to accept LGBTQ+ people. We are not safe here.

Kubra Zaifi, an Afghan settlement and trauma counselor in Toronto, said LGBTQ+ refugees face additional levels of challenges on their journey — most of their host countries are in the developing world. where traditional values ​​prevail.

“They have already been through a lot of oppression and trauma where they come from. They are discriminated against (against) even by the refugee community and don’t feel safe and included,” said Zaifi, who works for the Center. Canada for Victims of Torture and who volunteers to support the LGBTQ+ program for Afghan refugees.

“Everyone stuck in Afghanistan is in danger under the Taliban. No one has rights and freedom. But LGBTQ+ people are particularly at risk. They have no hope of getting any protection in Afghanistan.

Homosexuality was banned in 2018 by Ashraf Ghani, the since-deposed Afghan president, and a recent report by Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International interviewed 60 LGBTQ+ Afghans who said they had been assaulted, sexually assaulted or directly threatened by members of the Taliban.

These newcomers continue to face barriers in their settlement because they are often marginalized in both immigrant and LGBTQ+ communities. Zaifi has had clients turned away by landlords or fired at work, allegedly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Zaifi said it is a basic right for people to be who they are.

“This is what God made me and I just want to be who I am,” Ahmadi said. “I want to show people that we are something in this world and that we have rights and that we can be whoever we want. It’s possible.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based journalist who covers immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung