Refugees International’s Intern Avery Franken corresponded with Action LGBTQIA+ avec les ImmigrantEs et RéfugiéEs (AGIR) board member Meryem Benslimane. Since 2011, AGIR has provided support for LGBTQIA+ refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented individuals in Montreal, Canada. Due to the intersection of race-based discrimination with homophobia and transphobia, and the lack of LGBTQIA+ resources for migrants, this community often faces additional challenges in fulfilling their needs, including securing stable, safe housing and employment, as well as accessing comprehensive healthcare.
This interview was edited for brevity.
Avery: What is your role at AGIR, and how and when did you arrive to this work?
Meryem: I came to the organization almost five years ago. I’ve held several positions: as part of the support team and now as a Board Member. Initially, I was looking at meaningful volunteer opportunities. As a queer migrant myself, I connected with AGIR’s mission. It is the only organization in Montreal with a mandate to support LGBTQIA+ refugees and immigrants, so I wanted to give back and support its work.
Avery: Could you describe the services offered by AGIR and the significance of focusing on the needs of the LGBTQIA+ refugee and immigrant community?
Meryem: We offer drop-in sessions where newcomers can speak in a confidential environment and hold meetings in French, English, Arabic, and Spanish. We assess individual needs, direct them to resources, help with preparation for asylum hearings, and provide accompaniment. Our support groups are a space to share information, break the isolation, and connect with one another. We’ve now created specific discussion groups—for women, youth, and trans and non-binary individuals—to respond to their specific needs. It’s really a group by and for. We often have returning participants share their knowledge and experience even after they’ve been accepted as refugees.
As to why it’s important, we’re talking about a very vulnerable population. They are very isolated, they might not speak French or English yet, but they have needs: finding housing, a job, and support. After fleeing situations of life and death, there is also a lot of trauma. There are government resources, but people are not trained on the realities of this community, so LGBTQIA+ refugees and immigrants may encounter homophobia or transphobia when accessing services. AGIR trains and collaborates with other organizations, so there are resources for people if they need support. In Quebec, community organizations are often underfunded, so structural and systemic barriers still exist.
Avery: How has the COVID-19 pandemic revealed additional needs or vulnerabilities of the displaced LGBTQIA+ population, and how has this affected AGIR’s work?
Meryem: We’ve seen COVID-19 impact four main areas: housing, healthcare, employment, and community.
There is a housing crisis in Montreal, and we had a curfew. This has had a real impact on homeless LGBTQIA+ and two-spirit Indigenous people, especially considering the added risk of transphobia in shelters. In terms of healthcare, it’s been extremely difficult for LGBTQIA+ refugees, who are in particular need, to access mental health resources. Quebec has implemented measures to make sure that everyone can get vaccinated regardless of their status, which is great. But everything that is not COVID-19 related is difficult to access.
For employment, LGBTQIA+ refugees and immigrants disproportionately work in positions where they are exposed to the virus. But the government of Quebec doesn’t acknowledge everyone. They created a program referred to as ‘Guardian Angels’ to hasten the pathway to permanent residency for essential workers. But that’s the problem: who is deemed an ‘essential worker’? The people who work in security or cleaning services are not deemed essential, even though they are as exposed to the virus and do essential work.
Finally, resources moving online has impacted community-building and exacerbated the isolation and trauma LGBTQIA+ refugees and immigrants already face. It also creates a digital divide as not everyone has a computer and fast internet connection. We’ve seen this effect in moving our own services online. In-person, connections between participants were created organically; now, people come to ask questions or request a specific service, but they don’t connect as much with each other.
Avery: In addition to services for displaced LGBTQIA+ individuals, AGIR conducts organizational trainings and advocacy in Montreal. Why is it important to include outreach and education in your work?
Meryem: We offer trainings for organizations that are not focused on the LGBTQIA+ community, but are working with immigrants and refugees, and for LGBTQIA+ organizations that immigrants and refugees go to for services and social events. It’s really important to train them to make sure that they are aware of the unique intersectionality of discrimination for LGBTQIA+ refugees. We have a team of very dedicated people, but cannot do everything. We want to make sure that when we send our members to these organizations they won’t face discrimination. We’ve seen great impacts so far. Organizations are more aware: they ask us really specific questions, and we can see that they want to help and do better.
Avery: How do you think community-based work, such as AGIR’s, contributes to a safer, more welcoming atmosphere for displaced LGBTQIA+ individuals?
Meryem: One of the main challenges is the lack of safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ immigrants and refugees. You have spaces in Montreal where they have to navigate homophobia, transphobia, and racism. But even within LGBTQIA+ spaces, they still have to navigate racism and fetishism. Often, these spaces are mainly occupied by white gay men. If you’re not a white gay man, it’s very hard to find a space. Together with our community partners, we help create safe environments and share best practices, so LGBTQIA+ refugees and immigrants can feel like they belong.
Avery: What advice do you have to help create a more welcoming environment for displaced LGBTQIA+ communities?
Meryem: While it is important for community integration to have events that are welcoming of everyone, one needs to be aware of this community’s specific needs. Try to educate yourself, go to trainings and workshops, and create tailored events and groups—especially now when people are isolated. They can be fun social events. It doesn’t need to be heavy!
Another thing is that we all have a bias, even within LGBTQIA+ communities: we have a very Western-centric way of seeing and describing things. If we can reflect on the language itself—the terminology we are using—it will help create a more welcoming environment. It’s about being more aware and more sensitive.
Avery: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. Is there anything else you’d like to add for our readers?
Meryem: I can share good news! For years, Quebec was the only province in Canada where trans immigrants couldn’t change their ID and gender marker unless they became a Canadian citizen. That could mean navigating their entire lives with papers that do not reflect who they are. On January 28, 2021, these discriminatory articles from the civil code were challenged in court by the Centre for Gender Advocacy. The judge decided that this was indeed discriminatory, so you no longer need to be a Canadian citizen to change your name or gender. AGIR was involved in advocating for this change for many years , so we are extremely happy to see this victory.
Avery: That is wonderful news! Thank you for sharing and taking the time to correspond on these important issues!
PHOTO CAPTION: Rainbow pride flags. (Photo by AGIR)