By Biko Beauttah, as told to Fiona Irvine-Goulet
Biko Beauttah arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in 2006 as an asylum seeker. Beauttah is transgender, and in her native Kenya, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning people—collectively known as LGBTQ2—face systemic discrimination and persecution. Yet her initial arrival in Canada was harrowing: Beauttah said she was humiliated by immigration authorities, placed in handcuffs, and held in custody for 36 hours.
Despite that difficult beginning, Beauttah has gone on to embrace her new home. She became a champion for refugee and LGBTQ2 people, spreading her message of tolerance and equality. She has been involved with the Canadian Council of Refugees and the Refugee Pride Convention; has spoken to high school students about gender equality; and sits on the board of The 519, a Toronto agency serving the LGBTQ2 community.
In the fall of 2017, Beauttah organized and hosted Trans Workforce, billed as the world’s first job fair for people who identify as trans and gender non-conforming. Based on her own difficulty finding a job despite nine years of post-secondary education, and the struggles of many job seekers in the transgender community, Beauttah worked with the LBGTQ2 commmunity to launch the initiative. We caught up with her recently to learn more about her experiences and approach to life.
We know you endured a traumatic entry to Canada in 2006. Can you tell us what happened immediately after you were released from detention?
After a long 36 hours, I was released from immigration custody and told I was free to go—except I had nowhere to go and it was below freezing. I will never forget the moment when I was sitting there: cold, miserable, hungry, disoriented, lost. Then this elderly couple, strangers, they must have been watching me. They had just returned from a vacation somewhere and we were in an airport shuttle bus by this time. They had two muffins that they had saved to eat, except they split one amongst themselves and gave me the other whole one.
It was that moment of kindness by strangers who I never even got to thank, that I learned what it means to be a true Canadian. I have since then tried to live my life in Canada with the example set by what I call “the first real Canadians” I met. Canadians are beautiful.
You lived in a Toronto refugee centre for six months. What was that like, and how did this affect your future in Canada?
Contrary to popular belief, or at least my own pre-existing misconceptions, I can tell you, as someone who has lived in a refugee shelter, even I too went in there thinking of just the shelter. Except, we forget who is actually in the shelter—refugees! Even in a shelter, refugees are the most thankful and joyful people when they are in any place where they feel safe. We were just all so happy to be in a place where we felt safe and secure, and with a roof over our heads, food, no fear of being attacked, no rape, no bombs, everyone was just so happy to be alive. It sounds strange but for me, being surrounded by so many grateful people made me feel very grateful, even in a refugee shelter.
You have become a champion of refugee and trans-persons rights. Can you talk about what pushed you to become an activist?
I like to think that I have always been a compassionate person. However, it wasn’t until I became a refugee and also transitioned that I became aware of all the routine humiliations that marginalized and displaced people face.
It’s our society’s dirty little secret that we like to sweep under the rug. I am not a dirty secret, and neither are others like me; I refuse to be swept under the rug. In the fight for my dignity, others will benefit as well because it is not just for me, but for all our dignity and humanity that I fight. It’s my fuel.You recently organized a job fair for transgender people. Can you tell us a little about why you founded it? And are you happy with the outcome?
I am very pleased with Trans Workforce, especially since it was a labour of love that I singlehandedly built with my blood, sweat and tears, driven by the determination to hold on to my dignity and as a thank you to Canada and its people for giving me so much. The event was such a success that we are going global, you will have to watch this space—that’s all I can share for now. I feel like I founded a movement bigger than I am, and more important than being the founder, I see myself more as the channel by which the movement was started. It was inevitably going to happen, I’m glad it happened in my time. For many like me who are not so lucky to have seen this revolution, it is for their honour that we must make it better for the future generations of transgender people.
What’s one common misconception about you (as a trans person? As a person of colour? As a refugee?) that you’ve had to deal with?
That I am not the typical face of whatever it is that I am supposed to look like as a refugee or transgender person. One incident particularly sticks out. At my very first World Refugee Day as a refugee, while still living at a refugee shelter in 2006, I went to the festivities they held at Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown Toronto. I met a photographer from one of the major Canadian newspapers who was there to cover the World Refugee Day event. He refused to take my picture because… “I am here to take pictures of refugees, you don’t look like a refugee.”
You were a part of UNHCR’s #FromHomeToHome campaign for Canada 150, as well as this past year’s World Refugee Day. Canadians are pretty knowledgeable about refugee issues and are always looking for new ways to become involved. What’s your suggestion for small or large ways that Canadians can be more involved with refugees?
Oh, Canadians and Canada ROCKS! We are already doing it here! I see this every single day through all the kindness and warmth extended to refugees by everyday Canadians who open their doors and give shelter to refugees, and those that feed refugees. Let’s also not forget about the unsung heroes, all the people out there who advocate and fight for our rights as refugees. I am talking about the lawyers who take up our cases, the organizations that resettle us, the ones that feed us, all those people are also heroes that must be celebrated.