Aug. 31, 2020

Werklund School researcher aims to build capacities, better serving LGBTQ2S+ refugees

Tonya Callaghan confronts the geo-politics of Pride in Sept. 1 webinar

Following her arrest, imprisonment and torture by Egyptian authorities, LGBTQ2S+ activist, Sarah Hegazi sought asylum in Canada but was unable to shake the trauma and loneliness caused by her separation from family and the recent loss of her mother to cancer. In June, Hegazi was found dead in her Toronto apartment; she had apparently died by suicide.

Hegazi’s life and death represent the struggles faced by LGBTQ2S+ individuals, forced to hide their sexual orientation as a means of survival, in more than 70 countries around the world. Still, even if they find refuge in a western country, their struggles, as Hegazi found, may feel insurmountable.

  • Photo above: Sarah Hegazi raises the rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo in 2017. Soon after the event she was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Egyptian authorities. Photo by Amr Magdi/Twitter

A Werklund School researcher intends to shed light on the challenges facing LGBTQ2S+ refugees who have fled oppression in their home countries but who, upon moving to Canada, continue to encounter obstacles. In collaboration with Calgary’s Centre for Newcomers, Dr. Tonya Callaghan, PhD, is working to build stronger supports for LGBTQ2S+ refugees.

“Many governmental and non-profit organizations involved in refugee settlement services do not prioritize or reflect an understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex newcomers,” says Callaghan, an associate professor at the Werklund School of Education. “We hope to nudge refugee settlement leaders to view and assess their organizational systemic barriers from an intersectional lens and start to address LGBTI+ issues.”

Tonya Callaghan

Tonya Callaghan specializes in anti-oppression education and critical social justice theories.

Werklund School of Education

Callaghan, who specializes in critical social justice theories and anti-oppression education, underscores the necessity of understanding how aspects of a refugee’s social and political identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sex, sexuality, religion, or disability) can combine to create unique forms of discrimination and/or privilege. In applying intersectionality to various social institutional practices, she says organizations can better examine how they might be perpetuating social inequality.

A multitude of challenges

“The main obstacles for LGBTQ2S+ refugees have to do with oversight, disregard, and neglect,” says the professor, who was awarded the 2020 UCalgary Diversity Award for her research, teaching, and community involvement. Callaghan points to underlying assumptions about needs that may meet the general majority of refugees, but don’t address the diversity needs reflected in minority groups. 

[People] overseeing refugee settlement services often do not imagine or prepare for the LGBTQ2S+ newcomer… They often do not creatively imagine diverse family configurations, romantic pairings, sexual orientations, or gender identities.

Boban Stojanovic, manager of LGBTQ+ programming at the Center for Newcomers, agrees. Since the inception of the centre’s program three years ago, they have assisted more than 500 clients. He sees the systemic gaps that leave many LGBTQ2S+ refugees without the assistance they require.

Most of his clients come from countries where being LGBTQ2S+ is criminalized or where there is no sustainable institutional protection. They are fleeing punishments ranging from a death sentence or imprisonment, torture or social exclusion. At least 90 per cent of LGBTQ2S+ refugee claimants have faced death threats and legal persecution, Stojanovic says. 

Many of these refugees arrive with a great deal of trauma and require significant mental health supports. But Canada’s system isn’t prepared.

“Quite often, the mental health system in Canada is not able to meet clients' needs,” Stojanovic explains. “The LGBTQ2S+ refugee experience is a very complex one. It is super complicated and intersectional, so far from the mainstream Canadian LGBTQ2S+ experience.”

Many individuals fleeing persecution in their home country will claim refugee status only upon safely reaching Canada, rather than applying for status from their homeland. For these refugees, full recognition of their refugee status may take up to two years. During that time, they lack full access to health care and cannot participate in the free Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes available to landed immigrants and other refugees who successfully applied for their status before arriving in Canada. While post-secondary educational institutions will recognize them as international students, exorbitant international fees remain restrictive.   

Stojovanic, who works in close collaboration with the End of the Rainbow Foundation, says that cultural barriers, too, can be a problem. “Most likely, [LGBTQ2S+ refugees] are not willing to access their cultural communities here. They are scared,” he says. “So, if someone doesn't speak English, can't take [language] classes, trauma prevents them from approaching the cultural community, and this person is not familiar with western LGBTQ2S+ culture — where to go?”

For Callaghan, a community-based collaboration with the Centre for Newcomers is key to both influencing policy and informing practice. Together they hope to improve procedures and outline success criteria for settlement practitioners, helping create safer and more sensitive services for LGBTQ2S+ newcomers. One potential outcome could be a train-the-trainer model for LGBTQ2S+ sensitivity training disseminated to various refugee settlement services.

The potential to save lives

Stojovanic acknowledges Canada’s refugee process is better than many western countries, but he emphasizes the need for improvement and welcomes this research opportunity with the University of Calgary, believing it will build awareness among future professionals and decision-makers, while improving the lives of LGBTQ2S+ refugees and their integration with Canadian society.

Three years ago…there was almost nothing for [LGBTQ2S+ refugees],” says Stojovanic. “It's an ongoing process, but we are on the right path. Even this conversation is part of the change we want to see.”  

While the Werklund School is currently seeking funding partners for this community-based research collaboration, for frontline workers the need to act is clear and present. For refugees who are living with the trauma of severe persecution, struggling with depression, and facing language and culture barriers of a new country, strong research could impact policies and programming in a way that transforms systems and lives.

“LGBTQ2S+ refugees all over the world see Canada as a safe haven and for good reason,” Callaghan notes. “Now, we have to make sure that Canadian refugee settlement services adequately support LGBTQ2S+ refugees once they arrive in Canada. This research has the potential to save lives.”

Webinar addresses exclusion of LGBTQ2S+ individuals and community

Learn more about the exclusion of LGBTQ2S+ individuals and community in tomorrow’s webinar Changing the Narrative of Exclusion, where panelists Dr. Tonya Callaghan, PhD, and Dr. Caley Shukalek, MD, will share their personal experiences and discuss their work and research, which is challenging systems of oppression and driving meaningful change toward a more inclusive society that truly supports all members equally. 

If you, or someone you know, needs help

Centre for Newcomers: LGBTQ+ newcomers settlement support program

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone); 45645 (text); chat

Explore more online events and news from UCalgary during Calgary Pride Week

As a Calgary Pride partner, the university is offering expert- and researcher-led webinars and lectures and various events as part of Pride Week 2020.

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