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Gay Refugee from Central America Finds Safety in Canada

Marco, 26, visits Ottawa for the first time since he settled in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Marco, 26, visits Ottawa for the first time since settling in Sherbrooke, Quebec in early 2018. ©UNHCR/Erla Cabrera

Forced to leave everything behind, Marco fled from gangs in Honduras

By Erla Cabrera in Ottawa, Canada

“I left home at an early age because my family didn’t support who I was,” explains 26-year-old Marco. “It was hard for us to get along, for them not to judge me. Sadly I think it’s more of a country-wide problem. The lack of education and efforts to build awareness about the LGBTI community is what leads to misunderstanding and prejudice, which then leads to a lack of protection for people like me since discrimination is part of what is generally accepted.”

In Honduras, Marco was never open about his sexual orientation. While he was not ashamed of being gay and believes that most people around him knew, he always lived with the fear of being shunned or physically attacked if he were to open up about his sexual orientation.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, collectively known as LGBTI, face particular and often extreme vulnerability in many parts of the world. In addition to severe discrimination and violence in their home countries – including sexual abuse, lack of legal protection, lack of access to basic services, detention, social and familial ostracism and exclusion – LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees are frequently subjected to continued harm while in forced displacement.

In June 2016, after some years of living on his own, Marco’s worst fears came true as he began to be targeted by local gang members in Honduras.

“I was harassed, threatened and almost assaulted on several occasions. I tried moving in with my sister who lived in another city, but they found me there as well and I didn’t want to put her in danger. So I decided I had to leave Honduras.”

The North of Central America (NCA), made up of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, is facing chronic high levels of violence from gangs and drug cartels that are forcibly recruiting children, kidnapping to extort money from small business owners, sexually abusing women and girls, and threatening LGBTI individuals, among others. For thousands of people from the region, fear, trauma and horrific violence have become a part of their daily lives. This is especially true for those who are LGBTI.

Marco, top centre, shared his story on World Refugee Day in Ottawa, to help shed light on the crisis facing the North of Central America due to gang violence. ©UNHCR/Erla Cabrera

Marco, top centre, shared his story on World Refugee Day in Ottawa, to help shed light on the crisis facing the North of Central America due to gang violence. ©UNHCR/Erla Cabrera

Marco fled to Mexico having little to no knowledge about the asylum process or what it meant to be a refugee. Upon reaching the southern border he was stopped by immigration officials and placed in detention while he awaited a decision to be made about his case. “It was overcrowded and unbearable. I was terrified and alone, I didn’t know what my rights were and cried at the thought of this being the end of my journey to safety since I would see people being deported daily.”

The number of asylum-seekers and refugees from the NCA reached more than 294,000 as of the end of 2017, an increase of 58 per cent from a year earlier. In Mexico, the number of asylum claims has increased from 2,137 in 2014 to 14,596 in 2017.

After about a month, Marco was finally connected with UNHCR and brought to a shelter in the town of Tenosique. The shelter was a safe space for LGBTI people, and UNHCR staff reassured him that his rights would be protected. He stayed at the shelter for about 10 months, opting out of living on his own since he felt protected and liked having people he knew around.

But on a hot summer day, Marco was attacked by a group of men along the road to a local river. “I thought I was going to die that day. I was so ashamed and wanted no one to know what happened,” recalls Marco.

After some hesitation, Marco confided in someone at the shelter who convinced him to see a doctor and speak to a lawyer. From there, a police report was filed and UNHCR worked to have him transferred as quickly as possible to another shelter in Mexico City to keep him safe.

Marco at school in Sherbrooke, studying to soon become fluent in French. ©UNHCR/Marco

Marco at school in Sherbrooke, studying to soon become fluent in French. © Photo courtesy of Marco

In Mexico City, Marco once again saw more doctors, including a therapist, to make sure he received adequate support for the trauma he endured. It was there that Marco was finally able to find a job thanks to local NGO Casa Arco Iris, Rainbow House, which often came by the UNHCR-supported shelter to give talks to LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers about services available and job opportunities.

“Within weeks I became one of the top sellers at the store I was hired at,” shares Marco, proudly. “I was thrilled to have been given an opportunity and to see how accepting people could be. Not only was I given a Christmas bonus, but I found out at the same time that Canada was interested in my case and that I might be moving there.”

In January 2018, Marco was resettled to Canada through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and UNHCR. It was the day after his birthday, which he says was the perfect gift. It was his first plane ride, his first taste of winter, and his first time hearing French. Now at home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he is excited to be attending French classes and hopes to become a police officer one day. He is also already volunteering with the local LGBTI community in hopes that his story can help others.

“Now I go to class with people from different backgrounds, with different reasons for fleeing, but all with the hope of building a new life in safety. I want to say thank you to Canada. Thank you for welcoming all of me.”