‘Any story you imagine’: Inside the Toronto-based charity helping new LGBTQ2S+ refugees and newcomers


More than ten years ago, Karlene Williams-Clarke was a well-known activist in Jamaica, a consistent voice on the radio fighting for the rights of LGBTQ2S+ people in her country.


But her work — and her very existence as an out and proud lesbian — put her life at risk in Jamaica.


In 2009, she came to Canada in search of a safer, more authentic life, which she kickstarted for herself with the help of The 519, a Toronto-based charity for LGBTQ2S+ refugees and newcomers.


Now, she’s part of the team itself, helping others going through what she once did to connect to lawyers, resources, community supports and more — all at a time when the demand for help for LGBTQ2S+ refugees is only increasing amid a resurgence in anti-LGBTQ2S+ hate across the globe.


“I feel like we’re going back in time, when we couldn’t move freely around. We have to crawl back into our shells,” Williams-Clarke told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “And I feel that we’re getting that more now from the the Western world and also in other parts of the world.”


In Canada, federal lawmakers called out increased harassment, hate crimes and violence against LGBTQ2S+ people in May, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarking that “people from the 2SLGBTQI+ community, particularly transgender people, are still facing a crisis of targeted violence in Canada and across the globe.”


Meanwhile, in some regions of the world, increasing anti-LGBQTQ2S+ sentiment means punitive laws criminalizing the existence, actions and acknowledgement of LGBTQ2S+ people, such as one of the harshest laws passed last month in Uganda which prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”.


Amid these developments, The 519 aims to bring hope to those who knock on their door.


“Within the walls of the 519, we can’t always say that we’re going to be safer,” Reenita Verma, LGBTQ newcomer settlement services coordinator, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.


“But we do have beautiful moments where we do have that safety. I work within a community that I’ve never worked with before where folks who identify as part of the community, trans non binary (…) they’re very much welcome.”


HELPING REFUGEES TAKE THEIR FIRST STEPS IN CANADA


When a person flees their country in the hopes of a safer life in Canada, the journey isn’t over the day they set foot here. Applying for refugee status and figuring out what to do next can be overwhelming and confusing — and that’s where The 519 come in.


“We run the largest 2SLGBTQ newcomer program’s refugee support program in Canada,” Williams-Clarke said. Clarke is Director of Operations, and is currently filling in as director of community programs and services.


Through the charity’s ‘New to Canada’ program, which people can register for online or during their twice a week in-person drop-in, refugees and newcomers are walked through the necessary steps to set up a life in Canada.


Currently, they’re servicing around 1,900 refugees hailing from more than 40 countries, Verma says — and more are on the waitlist.


Right now, it’s about a month to get off the waitlist, but this can change depending on the time of year, as Pride Month is a busier month for the charity.


“We do try our very best to get people through the process as fast as possible,” Williams-Clarke said. “Though we try, there’s always more coming and more coming.


Verma said many people who reach out to them have no idea what services they offer, but know they need help with their refugee claim.


“We go straight into getting them a lawyer, we try to figure out their housing situation, if they’re doing okay mentally, and then provide them the resources necessary,” she said.


Williams-Clarke added that they run other programs, “including programs for newcomers, refugees, older LGBTQ folks, early on center we run on the ground floor, we do drop ins, we support trans youth, people of color, trans youth mentorship programs that we run.”


The organization is physically based in Toronto, and primarily serves the surrounding area with in-person events and workshops at their community centre, but also runs virtual services, some of which were created to fill gaps in the pandemic.


“We have found that people have been moving out of the city because of the housing crisis,” Verma added. “A lot of folks have also left the program or the province and are finding a hard time connecting to folks that are going through the same process as them and so they still also participate in our online program.”


The ability to connect with other LGBTQ2S+ people who are going through the same process is incredibly helpful, Williams-Clarke said.


It’s something she knows from experience.


“Being in a space where it’s LGBTQ people, you know, and not feeling that kind of sense of fear of like, is anyone going to see me go into this building?” she said.


“I was at risk in Jamaica. I was the lesbian face in Jamaica.”


Before she left Jamaica, she was the co-chair of a local LBGTQ2S+ organization, spending years fighting for justice in a place and time when violent attacks on LGBTQ2S+ people were common. At one point, she became known as “the biggest lesbian in Jamaica,” she said, because of how often she would appear on radio shows to discuss LGBTQ2S+ rights, making her voice a recognizable one.


“It’s funny now, but that’s what I was called,” she said. “I couldn’t go anywhere without anyone identifying me.”


She started considering leaving the country for her own safety more seriously as her family’s fears ramped up. Her mother would call her anytime the media reported that an LGBTQ2S+ person had been attacked or killed, just to check on her.


“I really had to leave, so that I am safe, and she wouldn’t have to worry anymore that much,” Williams-Clarke said.


There is still serious discrimination and violence against LGBTQ2S+ people in Jamaica today, and sexual activity between men is still technically criminalized.


Williams-Clarke had already heard of The 519 through another co-chair of her activist group in Jamaica, so she got in contact with them right away when she came to Canada.


“I started attending the program, and then started volunteering,” she said. Eventually, she was offered a job at the charity itself.


“I felt like this is a place that I belong to. And this is where I would like to give back.”


There are services that The 519 is able to offer now that weren’t available when Williams-Clarke first came to Canada, such as mock hearings to walk refugees through some of the legal processes they may have to go through.


Verma said they’ve been able to add more specific programs as time goes on to address the needs of specific communities.


“We have a queer Muslim drop-in, there is the Black mental health wellness program, I think they do that once a month,” she said. “We do social physical activity. So people go skating, there’s soccer, soccer is the biggest one, volleyball, Zumba. And it’s been able to bring people together in a different way. And a really wonderful, beautiful way for folks to build community.”


Being able to see the program grow has been hugely gratifying, Williams-Clarke said, as is being able to connect with those who are in the same situation she once was.


“I know firsthand what people were going through,” Williams-Clarke said. “I understood their experiences, their fear, wondering if going to the IRB, which is Immigration and Refugee Board, will this be a time when I get an opportunity to say ‘yes, you get to stay in Canada and be safe and have a better life while being myself, my true authentic self,’ right.”


After coming to Canada, she was still able to help her community back in Jamaica by getting them aid through Rainbow Railroad, a Canada-based LGBTQ2S+ refugee charity which she was on the board of.


Just this month, the federal government announced a partnership with Rainbow Railroad which will allow the charity to offer government-sponsored refugee resettlement, something Rainbow Railroad has been calling for for years.


“In many parts of the world, LGBTQI+ people face severe discrimination and are criminalized just for being who they are. This is why Canada continues to step up and do more to protect the rights and freedoms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people,” Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said in a press release announcing the partnership.


“This new partnership with Rainbow Railroad – making us one of the first countries to have such an arrangement with an LGBTQI+ organization – helps Canada continue to be a safe haven for LGBTQI+ people at risk around the world.”


Williams-Clarke said it’s exciting to see the government stepping up in such a partnership, but adds that support needs to continue in other ways as well.


“There is more that can be done, because when you bring them, where are they’re going to live?” She said. “So more needs to be done around housing support.”


THE RISING TIDE OF ANTI-LGBTQ2S+ HATE


The 519 has been fielding more and more requests for help, Williams-Clarke said. Since Uganda passed its anti-homosexuality law, which has been condemned by the Canadian government, they’ve seen more refugees or newcomers specifically from Uganda.


It’s common to see trends like that in the increase of demand over the years, but one thing that’s never changed is that there is always more people needing their help.


“Over the years, we have never seen a decrease,” she said.


Canada has historically been one of the safest countries for LGBTQ2S+ people. A 2021 study from UCLA listed Canada among the top five most accepting countries for LGBTQ2S+ people, while travel site Asher & Lyric lists Canada as the safest country for LGBTQ2S+ travellers in 2023.


While Canada’s global standing for LGBTQ2S+ safety hasn’t changed, we’re still seeing the impacts of anti-LGBTQ2S+ rhetoric creeping into our communities.


There have been protests over drag queen story-time events — events usually held at libraries in which drag queens read picture books to children — and Trudeau remarked during the Pride flag raising on Parliament Hill at the beginning of the month that he’s concerned to hear about some schools banning the flying of Pride flags.


Perhaps the biggest issue raised by speakers at that event was the situation unfolding in New Brunswick, where a battle is broiling over the government’s changes to a policy initially created to aid LGBTQ2S+ students. Under the new changes, teachers would be prohibited from referring to trans or non-binary students under the age of 16 by their chosen name or the pronouns they ask for, unless they had parental permission.


It’s a move which critics — including many in Premier Blaine Higgs’ own caucus — have slammed as a personal crusade unfairly targeting transgender youth.


“It feels to me (…) that this is more of a personal agenda than government policy, and so I really felt that we watered down a policy that was there to protect children,” Dorothy Shephard, former social development minister who quit cabinet in June, said on CTV’s PowerPlay on Tuesday.


Appearing on PowerPlay on Wednesday, Higgs framed it as bringing “parents back into the equation.”


The shift in rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ2S+ rights, both globally and at home, has had a visible effect on the community The 519 serves.


“People still feel that level of safety (in Canada), but are cautious,” Williams-Clarke said.


“We have to think about everything now when it comes to safety.”


However, they are still focused on making a positive space for refugees, Verma said, and ensuring Canada can be the safe haven that people fleeing more dangerous situations need it to be.


“The greater world might be against us, but within the walls that we have, we try our very best and I feel like we do we succeed more and create a caring community within the walls of The 519,” she said.


“We have to reassure people that there are safer spaces that they can be themselves. We don’t want to instil more fear. People have already gone through an incredible journey, with tons of experience, mostly negative, to already come to Canada, and we’re trying very hard to not allow that to be perpetrated when they are settling it here.”


The impact that their work makes on the lives of individuals is one of the things that keeps them dedicated every day.


“We have had people who have been at their worst, but come here, and (are able to) not just think about themselves as an LGBTQ person, but (…) also a human being who have needs and wants, like everyone else,” Williams-Clarke said. “Some, it’s a solid education. For some it’s just having a good job, where they can just live, and some just want to be gay and free.


“Any story you imagine, we’ve had folks who have those stories. Anything you can think of — the worst, the best, we have that.”

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