Donna Subran says the last two years have been the best years of her life.
“Because I get to be Donna,” she told the Star in an interview.
The 51-year-old, who identifies as a lesbian, is now a permanent resident of Canada, having escaped homophobia in her native Jamaica two years ago.
She was soon connected with The 519, a community and advocacy centre in Toronto’s Gay Village that has been helping thousands of queer newcomers and refugees settle into their new home.
The 519 offers an array of services to LGBTQ refugee claimants, including trauma-informed counselling, housing support, referrals to other services and volunteer opportunities.
The agency says it provided one-on-one settlement support to more than 1,500 refugee claimants in 2017-18, an increase of 13 per cent compared to the previous year.
“When they tell me their stories, their stories are just so really painful, I have to sometimes fight back tears,” said Sebastian Commock, newcomer services program assistant.
Commock himself started out at The 519 as a program participant in 2015 after leaving Jamaica, and has worked there for the past three years.
Compounding the barriers faced by LGBTQ refugee claimants in Ontario this year were provincial government cuts to the legal aid program, which initially meant that Legal Aid Ontario would no longer pay for lawyers to represent claimants before the Immigration and Refugee Board.
In early August, after the Star spoke with Subran and Commock, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in Toronto a one-time sum of $26.8 million to make up for provincial cuts to immigration and refugee legal aid.
The 519 says its refugee support program has referred more than 95 per cent of its LGBTQ refugee clients last year to legal aid in order to navigate the refugee claim process.
Subran was one of them.
“I’m sure there are a lot of things that I would miss if I tried to go through the process on my own,” she said. That process includes the applicant having to prove their sexual orientation.
In Subran’s case, she had to gather photographs and letters from people who knew her, including an ex-partner. She found the process lengthy, and not necessarily difficult but said she could envision problems for people who don’t have a firm grasp of English.
Subran spoke in her interview with the Star about being called a “sodomite” on the street from moving cars back in Jamaica, and of a man who once tried to break into her house, “telling us what he was he was going to do when he’d get in there.”
The police didn’t treat it as a hate crime, she said, but rather an attempted break-in.
“The police don’t acknowledge that there’s an issue, you go to them and say ‘I’m having a problem,’ they treat it within whatever laws they have there,” she said.
“If you’re hit, they’ll just treat it as an assault, they wouldn’t put it as a hate crime that you were assaulted because you were gay. They’d say ‘personal altercation.’ It’s crazy.”
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Commock was also assisted by a lawyer in his refugee hearing. He said he had been receiving messages from claimants confused as to what to do in the wake of the provincial cuts in the spring.
“They’re so lost,” he said. “A lot of people have very negative experiences with the justice system back home, and so to come here and to go before the board to represent yourself, it’s just like rehashing all this trauma.
“I know that had it not been for legal representation, I would be sent back home, and I would be dead right now.”