Danny Ramadan had to leave jobs, became estranged from family, and lost friends for being an out and proud gay man in Syria.
Yet when he moved to Vancouver in September, he experienced something completely different.
"Here, the feeling that being proud of who you are and working towards that common goal for all LGBT people, it feels that it's celebrated and it feels positive, and that's something I've never experienced before," he told the Georgia Straight by phone. "I'm very humbled by it. I'm very moved by it."
The 30-year-old former journalist, who now volunteers for a local NGO, said he found the first few months adjusting to Vancouver very challenging but is starting to feel more comfortable as his understanding of Canadian society grows.
He's now helping to raise awareness of the plight of LGBT refugees, and will be speaking at Qmunity's 11th annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia breakfast on Friday (May 15).
"Because of newcomer LGBT people and refugee LGBT people who are in desperate need for a lot of support, this is a cause I truly believe in and it's very personal for me because I was a gay refugee back in Lebanon before I came here to Canada."
Due to fears of being monitored by security forces, Ramadan (who was an LGBT activist in his homeland) left Syria, during the civil war in 2011, and lived as a refugee in Lebanon for two years. However, he wanted to pursue his potential and felt he could do that in Canada.
"If you're an LGBT refugee, Canada would be at the top of the list because it's the country where you're mostly accepted, mostly supported, the local community welcomes you, there's a lot of support and the government as well and programs such as the Rainbow Refugee program, which I applied through where you get sponsored by Canadians who help you to get here, who help you to understand the new community."
He would like to educate Canadians about the difficult journey that LGBT refugees face in not only coming here but also adjusting to a new, foreign life.
"It's not just about arriving safely here, which is, by itself, a very difficult process," he said. "Coming here with the background that I came from and the civil war and being a refugee for two years and worrying for your own safety, when you come here, you start facing those demons again and…it's very hard to just transition to [a new] society. It doesn't happen overnight. People, when they start a new job, they get overwhelmed so imagine if you're taken away from everything you've ever known and put in a totally different place."
Immigrating with his partner did help him during his adjustment process and he also praised the local LGBT community for being "extremely supportive". He said that Rainbow Refugee and Qmunity ("by far, the best resources that I have here") helped to protect privacy yet gave him the ability to make his own decisions.
"I don't think people understand…how much support LGBT newcomers need between their need for feeling that they are accepted but at the same time the need for self-determination because they need to make their own decisions and build their own limits to what they should consider private and what they should consider something that they will share with their community."
Turning to ethnic communities can be problematic for some LGBT newcomers, as some of those communities may have members whose values from their countries of origin are homophobic or conservative. (The local organization MOSAIC has been conducting a project called I Belong, to raise awareness among organizations about such concerns that are unique to LGBT refugees and newcomers.)
For instance, Ramadan said he went to a social gathering here where he happened to meet a 20-something man from Syria.
"When I spoke [to him] about my dream that one day, I might start an NGO to support LGBT rights in Syria, I ended up being lectured about how that's not acceptable," Ramadan said. "It was a very polite way of being homophobic. And I don't want that in my life at the moment, especially when I'm trying to include myself in the community and become part of it and as well as to add to the community and become very successful in it, and not just for myself."
Ramadan clarifies that his desire to be successful is not for his own personal gain but a means for setting a positive example for others.
"I want to be successful so the Canadian community can say, 'Oh wow, we can bring refugees and those refugees can take care of themselves and then add back to the community.' "
At the Qmunity breakfast event, Ramadan said he will speak about refugees and newcomers who may have lost their homes but are working hard to recreate that and find a sense of belonging in Canada.