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Photo exhibit turns lens on LGBTQI refugees in Canada

Miral Mokhtar, a refugee from Egypt, is photographed by young photographer Ibtehaj Asif, aided by his mentor Sam Engelking, at the offices of Toronto based charity JAYU as part of their “Am I Wrong To Love?” portrait series featuring LGBTQI refugees.
©UNHCR/Chris Young

“Am I Wrong to Love?” shares powerful experiences of individuals forced to flee

By Lauren La Rose in Toronto, Canada

Many years before they met by chance on social media and fell in love, Nouran Hussein and Miral Mokhtar were bonded by a common truth about who they really were – a truth they felt forced to keep silenced in their native country of Egypt.

As featured subjects in a new Toronto photo exhibit showcasing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) refugees, they are helping to cast a light on people often marginalized and compelled to live in the shadows.

“Am I Wrong To Love?” explores persecution, displacement and migration through the powerful testimonies of LGBTQI refugees and refugee claimants in Canada.

Growing up separately in Egypt, both Nouran and Miral realized early on that their childhood crushes and romantic feelings for their female classmates weren’t just a passing phase. By their teen years, the women, now both 23 years old, had privately acknowledged to themselves the truth about their sexual identities. But neither felt they would be accepted if they made their declarations public. They feared potential backlash – or worse.

“When I first knew that I’m a lesbian, I was struggling because I felt like that I’m alone,” recalls Nouran. “I didn’t know that there is a LGBT community and there’s people like me.”

Eighteen other individuals are featured in the exhibit, part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Their images were captured by participants in a photography program spearheaded by Toronto-based organization JAYU. The social justice charity is dedicated to using the arts as a platform to create and share human rights stories.

Through JAYU’s iAM program, underserved youth from communities around the city attend eight-week sessions held throughout the year. There, they develop and hone photography skills under the guidance of industry professionals who serve as mentors. All proceeds from artwork sales of “Am I Wrong to Love?” will go directly to the youth participants and local organizations helping resettle LGBTQI individuals.

“It can be easy to overlook that there are LGBTQI people all around the world living in incredible danger, violence, and secrecy,” says JAYU founder and executive director Gilad Cohen.

These are grim realities Nouran and Miral know all too well.

Prior to meeting Miral on Instagram in 2015, Nouran’s family discovered messages she had exchanged with a previous partner. She says her family beat her and had her admitted to a mental health hospital for a week. “This was so hard,” she recalls, brushing away tears. “I’m the same person, but I only love this woman.”

After her family discovered she was a lesbian, Miral says her father wanted her to get a virginity test “and threatened to kill me.”

“I knew my life was in danger and I ran away from my family.” she recalls in the testimony that accompanies her portrait in the exhibit. “The only things I took with me were my paintings.”

Fearing for their lives, the couple tried to escape, travelling and hiding around Egypt until they could secure visas to leave the country.

Nouran and Miral arrived in Toronto in June 2018 and had their refugee status granted in February 2019. They were supported by Canadian charitable organization Rainbow Railroad that helped them to find safety. They have also benefited from the community outreach provided by FrancoQueer, billed as the only association by and for LGBTQI francophones in the province of Ontario.

Nouran Hussein, a refugee from Egypt, watches as young photographer Mohamad Lazakani checks the screen on his camera during a photo shoot aided his mentor Yasin Osman, at the offices of Toronto-based charity JAYU as part of their “Am I Wrong to Love?” portrait series. ©UNHCR/Chris Young

 

 

Miral says she hopes those who visit the exhibit learn to be more accepting and welcoming of refugees, and to show compassion for the considerable challenges they have experienced.

“They need some time to understand that these people come from trauma and it takes time to heal.”

Nouran also hopes to help shatter the stigma, fears and feelings of shame she has heard expressed among some who identify as LGBTQI refugees.

“We are normal people who are living here. But we are different than the other people because we had some problems – that’s why we are refugees.

“I want to go to this exhibition and I want to tell the world that I’m not ashamed of being a refugee. This is my story. This is my life.”

“Am I Wrong to Love?” runs May 10 to July 31 in the main gallery of Daniels Spectrum in Toronto.

No individual should live in fear or be persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in Canada, remains firmly committed to protecting LGBTQI refugees and asylum-seekers. We make every effort ensure the safety of LGBTQI individuals, while also reinforcing the critical work of coalitions and networks in supporting those uprooted from their homes.