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A gay Venezuelan refugee on why he fled and adjusting to life in Canada

He was regularly threatened in his job as a doctor and because of his sexual identity. Four years after making a refugee claim, he reflects on the challenges of the settlement process.

By Amy van den Berg

Diego, a doctor from Venezuela, arrived in Toronto in September 2014 with his partner. Both were fleeing violence and hate because they were gay men, as well as government corruption and a broken justice system. For refugees seeking asylum in Canada, also known as refugee claimants, starting a new life in a foreign place can be difficult and the process to permanent residency long and stressful. As a refugee who is LGBTQ, there are even more barriers. I sat down with Diego, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, to ask him how his settlement process is going, and if he feels safe and welcome in Canada.

A: Tell me about your life in Venezuela.

D: Four years ago, it was very difficult to live there in general. Venezuela is a very religious country, very Catholic, and there is no respect for gay people. They won’t kill you but they won’t take you seriously. I was practicing medicine in Venezuela for almost two years after I finished medical school. I was working in the emergency room in a very dangerous area. The hospital didn’t always have the right medications so I was buying my own supplies for my patients. I did this to help them but also to protect myself. Sometimes armed people would come in and say, “My brother was shot, you have to save him or we will kill you.” I had to be able to do that. These gangs are very common in Venezuela, and some of them are supported by the government. They also knew that I was gay, which makes the situation worse because they were always personally threatening me. The management at the hospital didn’t offer me any protection. In the whole country, not only in my workplace, there is no guarantee you will be safe.

A: What was your immediate fear? Was it related to your sexuality or general violence in the area?

D: Both, because of my political situation plus my sexual orientation. At the hospital, I was always telling the truth and was outspoken about corruption. I would say “People are dying here, how come you are not giving them the right equipment, when you have the money to?” But it got really bad one day. My boyfriend picked me up at work and three guys on motorcycles were following the car. When we stopped at a traffic light, they showed us their guns and called me a f****t. My best friend had moved to Toronto with his family, so I came here for the the first time in 2013 just to stay for a holiday for a month. When I was flying back to Venezuela, I was crying, I was thinking I don’t want to go back. I want to stay in Canada.

A: What made you decide to leave Venezuela for good?

D: One day in 2014, there were a lot of protests. Students were protesting and the national guard and police were shooting at them. One of them came into the emergency room during my shift. He was shot and I was trying to save him. There is a gang that is sponsored by the Venezuelan government, they have guns and at that time they were always around the area near the emergency room. They came into the room where I was with my patient and they pointed at me with a gun to my head. They didn’t want me to help him because he was protesting against the government. They were saying to me “You f****t, you have to let him die.” And that was when I realized, OK, they will kill me. That was the last straw. I had to stop because I didn’t want to die, and then they hit me with the gun. I don’t know what happened. After that situation, they came around my house a couple times and I had to move to a different place. I quit my job, and in the meantime I was doing the paperwork to move to Canada. My boyfriend’s family just found out he was gay and he was having issues. At that point we knew we would not be safe in Venezuela and we won’t be able to make a life there.

A: What was your experience arriving in Canada?

D: When we arrived, I didn’t speak any English, so I had to use social assistance for eight months. English as a second language school is free for refugee claimants, so at first, I was going to school and learning. In the school, there were a lot of immigrants from countries that are very conservative and religious. I was with my boyfriend but I would say he’s my cousin because we didn’t feel like the environment was friendly to deal with a couple of gay guys. During that time we were also getting money for welfare. But you have to work a cash job as well because the money for welfare is not enough. As a couple, we received $1,000 a month. That included rent, transportation, food, everything. I started to work cleaning washrooms in night clubs every weekend in order to make us more money. I did my application in November 2014 and my refugee hearing was in February 2015. I was approved the same day. Then I got my permanent residency in August 2016 and am now doing the paperwork to apply for my citizenship.

A: What was the most difficult part of coming to Canada?

D: Learning the language. It has been tough. I still struggle but my English has become a lot better compared to two or three years ago. It is isolating at first to not know English. I was always with my boyfriend and we were always speaking Spanish. All my friends from that time were from Venezuela, because my best friend from high school lived here with his family, who all speak Spanish.

Right now, I am in the middle of being Venezuelan and being Canadian. So that’s why it’s hard for me to identify as a refugee because people will ask more questions and I don’t always want to talk about it.

A: How did you overcome that?

D: My boyfriend and I broke up but we’re still living together—don’t worry, he’s now my best friend. So I was single for about two years and would meet guys on Tinder, Grindr, whatever, and that actually helped me improve my English! (Laughs) I made new friends. It’s hard to believe but Tinder helped me a lot. I met my new boyfriend that way, and he’s Canadian, so from him I am also learning a lot.

A: After coming to Canada, have you ever hidden your sexuality?

D: No. since I moved here no. Never. That was one of the first things my ex-boyfriend and I decided. We said “OK, from now on, we won’t hide our sexuality anymore. If we meet new people, we are going to introduce ourselves as a couple.” Since we moved here, I am very open. That was new for me. I was always hiding in Venezuela, thinking, I don’t want people to know that I am gay because I could lose my job. But since I moved here there is no problem at all. When I got a job at a health food store, I told all my colleagues and it didn’t matter. Now I work at a sexual health clinic. Many of my coworkers are part of the LGBTQ community.

A: Is being a refugee also part of your identity?

D: I don’t like telling my story to everybody because people won’t understand. So when someone asks me if I am a refugee, I just say “I’m a PR.” Right now, I am in the middle of being Venezuelan and being Canadian. So that’s why it’s hard for me to identify as a refugee because people will ask more questions and I don’t always want to talk about it. There’s a stigma. They might assume I’m on welfare and judge me. I was, but now I pay taxes, and you know, I’m so happy paying my taxes. I benefited from it.

A: Do you ever miss Venezuela?

D: I miss the food! (Laughs) But yes and no. It’s just not safe for me there. And now it’s worse than it was four years ago. I miss my family but I don’t miss the mentality of the Venezuelan people in general. I don’t miss that situation when if you are gay, they will always push you out or you will be considered less than straight people. I didn’t ever feel like I belonged. The second I moved here I was like, OK, this is my place.

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

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(Photo: cuatrok77/Flickr via Creative Commons)

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