Since news broke at the start of the month, detailing how gay men in the Russian republic Chechnya were being detained, tortured and allegedly murdered by officials, activists across the world have directed their efforts into providing support for those horrifically persecuted.
One of them is Kimahli Powell, the executive director of Canada based LGBT charity Rainbow Railroad, who provide safe routes out for LGBTQ people in danger across the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East.
Because Chechnya is a largely Muslim republic, current immigration and refugee policies under Donald Trump makes it more difficult that those seeking refuge would be granted asylum in the US, which is where Kimahli believe Canada can take a “lead role in helping”.
Leading Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta alleged that up to 100 gay men had been detained and tortured in a secret prison. It has since been reported that there are up to six ‘camps’ torturing gay men by officials until their families pay police bribes.
Chechen leader Razman Kadyrov has denied claims made by Novaya Gazeta that gay men have been rounded up, tortured and murdered, stating that “you cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic.”
We caught up with Kimahli to discuss his and Rainbow Road’s valiant efforts to save LGBTQ Chechens and lead them to a dignified life:
Tell us a bit about more about Rainbow Railroad.
Rainbow Railroad is a Canadian charitable organisation whose mission is to find persecuted LGTBQ people internationally a pathway to safety. We receive hundreds of requests for help every year from countries where LGBTQ individuals are open targets of violence. Because the volume of requests is so high, we focus our efforts on assisting LGBTQ people who have faced physical violence or face an imminent threat of violence, imprisonment, or death.
How many people have Rainbow Road helped since launching?
We are proud to have helped 200+ LGBTQ people, including families, get to safety. 81 last year, and nearly 60 in process since January.
What do you think it is about Canada that makes it a leader in the protection of globally persecuted LGBTQ people?
Canada has a long and complex history of how we have supported the LGBTQ community. Inclusion and diversity seems to be a strong part of what we consider Canadian values. When Canadians see the type of injustice we are seeing in Chechnya, it naturally sparks people’s humanity to act.
Tell us about the work you’re commencing in Chechnya.
Rainbow Railroad has been involved as soon as reports in Chechnya were confirmed. We immediately began working with the Russian LGBT Network, to see how we could help. In addition to providing resources, we are actively seeking ways to bring LGBTQ Chechens to safety. As this situation evolves, we are committed to being responsive to help those in need.
How does Rainbow Railroad provide direct travel assistance for those who need it?
For us, we help identify safe and legal routes to places where LGBTQ people can re-settle and live their life with dignity. We provide support before travel arrangements are made and after resettlement. In many cases, it only costs between $5,000 to $10,000 to get a person to safety. For cases where we have no legal or viable options to travel, we provide information, referrals and resources, and do our best to identify new travel routes.
How many on the ground contacts in Chechnya do you have as of yet?
We are actively working with the Russian LGBT Network who has been doing heroic work supporting individuals who have fled. I’m heading to Moscow soon.
Have safe routes out of Chechnya been found?
Yes. We are working very hard to find safe viable routes. This is a priority for Rainbow Railroad.
Why do you feel it’s so important to do this work?
Every person deserves dignity and to feel safe. This is not the reality for every LGBTQ person in the world and we believe in a world where LGBTQ people have the freedom to live in a country where they can be free of persecution.
What are the most important things to you as a person?
I was very fortunate to be born in Canada and have an accepting family. Being from the Jamaican diaspora, I could very much be one of the people I’m currently trying to help. I just want to do my part.
What particular stories have touched you the most since starting at Rainbow Railroad?
There are so many cases. One particular case was someone we recently helped who I’ve learned is adapting really well and got a full-time job. Migration is traumatic. We travel for vacation or new work opportunities. So, to hear these success stories gives me hope that we’re doing the right thing.
There must be such a sense of achievement for every LGBT+ person you save, right?
We’re proud and relieved when we safely help someone travel. But then quickly move on to the next person who needs our help.
Outside of Chechnya, where do you get the most requests for help? Why do you think this is?
So far, we have helped people in the Caribbean, Middle East, Africa and South Asia. We receive hundreds of requests from all regions in the world where LGBTQ folks face persecution for their identity. The Caribbean has anti-gay laws on the books that help stigmatise individuals. Jamaica in particular is a very dangerous place for LGBTQ people.
You’ve been requesting humanitarian or refugee visas from the Canadian government for those in danger, has this yet been successful?
We are hopeful the Canadian government will show their leadership in supporting those facing persecution.
How can we, as the British public, help the efforts of Rainbow Road?
Donate, get the message out. Check out our website www.rainbowrailroad.ca and join our mailing list. We’d also like to see the British government facilitate visas.