Apt613’s volunteer contributor Sarp Kizir attended Rainbow New Beginning’s fundraiser screening of Mr. Gay Syria. Afterwards, he spoke with local LGBTQ+ sponsor Ariel Troster to hear her stories of sponsoring newcomers here in Ottawa.
When I sat down at the Ukrainian restaurant next door to the ByTowne Cinema before show time, I thought about what I could expect in a documentary called Mr. Gay Syria. I had watched the trailer that day, learned some things about the Turkish director, Ayse Toprak. I knew that it would deliver a perspective on the tragedy and triumph of human displacement that I have not witnessed yet. After all, it is a story about the struggle of gay Syrian refugees trying to flee a ravaged homeland, all while trying to put on a beauty pageant at the same time. I’m sure this is a combination of life stories that have never graced a cinematic screen or even received much coverage on this side of the world before. This is the kind of ground-breaking, un-sugarcoated realness with a twist of edgy grit in an independently produced documentary that I live for. I was so ready for it.
I don’t want to speak of this documentary as if it is a story about assimilation, or a fringe underground production that separates it from the mainstream.
So many of the gears that make our city work and move are all thanks to the presence and spirit of our Canadian immigrant and refugee community. This is why I don’t want to speak of this documentary as if it is a story about assimilation, or a fringe underground production that separates it from the mainstream. Rather, I will speak of Mr. Gay Syria and the story of the rainbow railroad in a way that will properly represent it as part of our collective story and identity, by highlighting that their story of survival is defined by strength, defiance of oppression and the love they have for people and life.
I have been, in a very small way, active with volunteering in Syrian refugee resettlement in Ottawa and have been following stories of LGBTQ+ refugees landing in Ottawa, but only catching the part where they come down the escalators in the arrivals area of the Ottawa International Airport. It is impossible to overstate the importance and beauty of seeing LGBTQ+ refugees from all around the world setting foot on the ground here with huge smiles on their faces and the hope of finally feeling some freedom brightly gleaming in their eyes.
Being the son of immigrants myself, I can appreciate that this is only one part of the equation and that the rest of that equation lies in the weight that is carried in the hearts of souls of newcomers that have left everything behind to start over again. You begin to understand the plight and struggles of being LGBTQ+ in a transcontinental attempt to escape persecution when one of the stars of the documentary, says “we should seek asylum on another planet.”
It is impossible to overstate the importance and beauty of seeing LGBTQ+ refugees from all around the world setting foot on the ground here with huge smiles on their faces and the hope of finally feeling some freedom brightly gleaming in their eyes.
As much as we learn about where the people in this documentary are headed, it is important to acknowledge where the story in this documentary will take you. Where it took me was to the front steps of Ottawa’s LGBTQ+ sponsorship community.
Moviegoers were greeted by members of Ottawa’s Rainbow New Beginnings, a volunteer organization who donates their time and efforts so that LGBTQ+ people may be given a new beginning in Ottawa. Before the documentary started, we were prefaced by an opening statement and introduction that emphasized that LGBTQ+ refugees are not here for anyone’s pity. Rather, they want to live normal lives just like everybody else.
Where the Mr. Gay Syria event and Rainbow New Beginnings organization intersects is in their shared purpose of creating inroads to freedom.
Where the Mr. Gay Syria event and Rainbow New Beginnings organization intersects is in their shared purpose of creating inroads to freedom. By participating onward from Mr. Gay Syria, you now have the ability to share the story of your journey with other people you come across along the way and you make sure that the legacy of the people you have shared your journey with is carried on with you.
Even though the core group of participants in Mr. Gay Syria is very small, they represent a larger community of hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ identifying individuals who are still under the crushing weight of persecution and oppression in their homelands. In that sense, it was described to us that the number of Mr. Gay Syria participants isn’t small but actually very significant and large. They are seen as heroes to many.
Following the documentary I interviewed a local LGBTQ+ sponsor by the name of Ariel Troster who I have been happily following on Twitter for quite some time as she shares her stories of sponsoring newcomers here in Ottawa.
Apt613: How did the opportunity for sponsorship arise?
Ariel Troster: A couple of friends of mine were already involved in a local sponsorship group focusing on LGBTQ refugees called Rainbow Haven. They asked me to join and I jumped in. The group had already sponsored a lesbian couple from the Middle East (who are now married and doing incredibly well). I joined at the point where we decided to sponsor a lesbian family (that process is still ongoing). But in the meantime, we sponsored a queer woman from The Gambia and a trans woman from Central America.
What was the moment like for you when you decided to become a sponsor? What did you factor in and was there a tipping point?
I really wanted to do something concrete to help refugees and asylum seekers in the face of the horrendous backlash by the US government. I grew up in a progressive Jewish family and learned about how Jews were turned away by Canada and many other countries during the Holocaust. I felt morally compelled to do something. For me, refugee sponsorship is not a charitable act: it is a profoundly political one. Citizenship is an accident of birth. People who need to escape war, violence and oppression deserve a soft place to fall and a group of people committed to helping them. Also, Canada is currently the only country in the world with a private sponsorship model. It is such a great opportunity! I think everyone should do it.
What is the biggest challenge facing LGBTQ+ refugees when adapting to life in Ottawa?
LGBTQ refugees have often been rejected by their families of origin and in many cases arrested and tortured by the police, the government, or drug cartels. When they arrive in Canada, their shoulders visibly drop, as they realize that they can dream of a future where they are literally not being hunted for who they are. But they have also survived tremendous trauma, and finding LGBTQ-competent mental health care that is affordable and culturally appropriate is a huge challenge. Still, if you ask them, they will probably tell you the hardest adjustment is getting used to the cold!
For more on how to become active in Ottawa’s LGBTQ+ refugee sponsorship community, reach out to some local organizations such as Rainbow Haven, Rainbow New Beginnings, Capital Rainbow Refuge, or Rainbow Railroad.