A year ago, after Kabul fell to the Taliban following the full military withdrawal of U.S. troops, Aseer spent 45 days hiding in a windowless storage room in the back of a pharmacy, terrified for his life.
He knew, as every member of the LGBTQ2S+ community in Afghanistan knew, that if the Taliban found him, it could be fatal.
“I was trans, I had tattoos, I had a governmental job, so I was the highest person in their list,” he told CTVNews.ca in a video call on Wednesday.
Twelve months later, that immediate fear is gone; Aseer is one of the 247 LGBTQ2S+ refugees whose escape from Afghanistan was facilitated by the Toronto-based charity Rainbow Railroad. CTVNews.ca is only using his first name at his request due to security concerns.
“I feel safe here finally,” he said. “After 26 years, I feel safe.”
Now, his fear is for the friends still trapped in Afghanistan, along with thousands of other LGBTQ2S+ Afghans who are desperate to escape the increased persecution and violence that the Taliban takeover has exposed them to.
It’s a problem Canada needs to do more to address, advocates say.
Rainbow Railroad, which helps resettle LGBTQ2S+ refugees in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., has seen a huge increase in requests for help from people in Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul.
“As of this morning when I reloaded our numbers, we’re at nearly 5,500 individuals in our system that have requested help since August of 2021,” Devon Matthews, director of programs at Rainbow Railroad, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Monday.
The year prior, they had received just 50 requests.
“Afghanistan has never been an incredibly LGBTQI friendly environment for people,” she said. “And yet what we were seeing pre-Taliban is that people were at least able to kind of function within their daily lives and live quiet LGBTQI existences.
“And now people are truly living completely underground, just hoping to survive. They’re unemployed, often not connected to family and often living in hiding and in squalor, in really awful conditions, without access to proper food, medicine, community or any sort of like mental health care, just attempting to ensure that they’re not publicly outed or identified while they await some form of support.”
And the threat that they’re hiding from is very real.
One person Rainbow Railroad was working with was killed by the Taliban before they could flee, Matthews said.
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Canada promised to step up, pledging to accept at least 20,000 refugees, a number which was quickly increased to 40,000. Currently, approximately 17,655 refugees have arrived to Canada across all the pathways available.
But advocates say that many LGBTQ2S+ Afghans looking to escape to Canada are falling through the cracks, and are ineligible for current refugee pathways, or facing unprecedented challenges without enough aid.
Rainbow Railroad has been calling for months for the government to partner with them to allow them to directly refer their verified cases for refugee status.
The federal government does work with the charity through the private sponsorship program, according to a statement from Immigrations, Refugees and Citizenship Canada press secretary Aidan Strickland.
“This agreement, known as the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership, encourages Canadians to sponsor 2SLGBTQI+ refugees and strengthens collaboration between 2SLGBTQI+ organizations and the refugee sponsorship community,” Strickland told CTVNews.ca in an email. “More than 200 2SLGBTQI+ refugees have arrived through this initiative.
“In 2021, the partnership was expanded once more in response to the Afghanistan crisis, providing for an additional 150 spaces for Afghan 2SLGBTQI+ refugees between 2022 and 2024.”
But considering the number of cries for help Rainbow Railroad is receiving, they say private sponsorship isn’t letting them help enough people.
They believe a more streamlined referral partnership would allow them to better leverage the networks they already have in these vulnerable communities.
“What we’re pushing for is an increased commitment to working quickly and more directly to move as many people as possible, because we are only seeing this number increasing,” Matthews said.
FROM KABUL TO CANADA
For Aseer, leaving Afghanistan was inconceivable until a year ago.
It wasn’t easy being queer in Afghanistan, where same-sex intimacy is illegal, but he had a clear purpose — he was working in human rights as a volunteer, connecting with other members of the LGBTQ2S+ community to help them accept themselves, and was committed to fighting for equality in his country.
“I had a good business, a good life, a good job,” he said.
But when Kabul fell to the Taliban, his job with a telecommunications company connected to the government became one more black mark against him.
His tattoos, considered forbidden in Islam by some, were also in visible locations such as his neck and hands. What were once symbols of his autonomy and self-acceptance were now something that could end his life.
That journey to accept himself was an uphill battle. Growing up, everyone around him saw a girl, but at 12 years old he began to grasp the truth.
“I can’t breathe in girlish clothes ‘cause I’m not a girl,” he said.
He explained that “being gay is a big, big shame in Afghanistan,” adding that trans identities are not understood.
“They just see that there’s two genders, male and female. And you have to kill the people who say that we are trans or gay or anything else — they won’t accept that.”
When he came out to his mother, she responded with love, saying, “be whatever you want.”
But his father reacted with increasing violence as Aseer got tattoos and cut his hair. He received so many blows to the head that his vision was impacted, he said, causing him to require thick glasses.
He fled his family home after his father began to pressure him to wear more “feminine” clothing and agree to marry a man. But the hard-won independence he found in Kabul was erased in the Taliban takeover.
A friend who lived in the U.S. connected him with Rainbow Railroad last fall, concerned for his safety.
The charity helped Aseer travel out of Afghanistan to a safehouse in Pakistan, where he lived for months packed in with 60-65 other people, waiting for refugee applications to be processed.
“It was like a prison,” he said. “We were not allowed to go out.” Eventually, a visa was granted and he was able to come to Canada in May.
“Canada was my dream country from childhood,” he said. “So I’m really happy.”
But many of his friends, including his girlfriend, are still stranded in Afghanistan. Some he hasn’t heard from, as they are in hiding or are under pressure from their families.
One friend, a trans man, told Aseer on the phone last week that he’s being forced by his family to wear female clothing, telling Aseer, “I want to hang myself.
“He was in a very bad condition,” Aseer said.
“[Another friend] is lesbian, she called me last night. And she said that ‘My father wants me to get married with a man. How can I marry a man?’”
REFUGEES LOST IN THE SHUFFLE
Currently, there are several pathways for Afghan refugees to come to Canada. Canada’s humanitarian pathway includes LGBTQ2S+ people — but they must have already made it out of Afghanistan to a neighbouring country to be eligible.
LGBTQ2S+ individuals face some challenges within Afghanistan that other Afghan refugees don’t, Matthews said, complicating their journey to safety.
“Trans identified individuals are uniquely at risk because they have a really difficult time crossing borders as a result of the gender markers on their identification documents and how those do or do not match up with their visual appearance and gender presentation,” she said.
“Of the cases that we’re working with in our system right now, about 2,600 of those are LGBTQI Afghans still stuck within Afghanistan that don’t fall under the purview of any program that currently exists.”
While Rainbow Railroad can help to arrange travel out of countries by utilizing local sources, the sheer volume of requests from Afghan refugees, along with the logistical and financial challenges of navigating a war zone, make it particularly daunting.
This means most of their work right now with Afghan refugees focuses on those who have already made it to neighbouring countries, Matthews said. After people reach out to them for help, cases are triaged and assigned a case worker, who will support that person on their journey all the way to resettlement.
“We have a team of approximately 10 case workers right now who are working with a volume of like 20,000 people in our system and we have 5,000 alone from Afghanistan who are in need of support,” she said.
Afghan refugees also have to be privately sponsored or referred in order to enter Canada through the humanitarian pathway. Currently, only the United Nations Refugee Agency is listed as a direct referral partner for this program.
The Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership, the private sponsorship program through which Canada and Rainbow Railroad have collaborated, involves multiple LGBTQ2S+ organizations, and began as a pilot in 2011.
When the Afghan crisis hit and Canada outlined LGBTQ2S+ people as an at-risk group, Rainbow Railroad officials began to push for a direct referral partnership.
“The commitment that was made by the Canadian government was really exciting at the time, given the volume of cases that we’re seeing,” Matthews said, noting that Canada’s initial pledge specified LGBTQ2S+ people as one of the groups uniquely vulnerable under Taliban rule.
Strickland said that private sponsors “have been allocated additional spaces under the program, to refer at-risk individuals, including 2SLGBTQI+ refugees.”
In July, Rainbow Railroad met with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser, during which Aseer shared his story.
“I just mentioned that the LGBTQ community is not safe in Afghanistan, please do something for them,” he said.
Matthews is hoping that the one year anniversary of the Taliban takeover might bring the plight of Afghan refugees back into the public conversation.
“Things move on out of people’s consciousness,” she said. “And what we’re really trying to remind people is the depth of this humanitarian crisis continues at severity that we’re not paying enough attention to and pushing our government enough to support.”
She pointed out that the government wasn’t expecting to hit the 40,000 refugee goal in one year, and that they’ll keep pushing to help Canada reach it.
In the long run, Aseer is hoping to see change come to Afghanistan itself to allow for LGBTQ2S+ Afghans to be safe living inside the country.
“They have the right to live there,” he said, adding that he believes the global community needs to “pressure government there to accept LGBTQ community […] inside Afghanistan.”
For every person who successfully escapes, “someone else will burn,” he said.
In some ways, Aseer has been enjoying settling into life in Canada. He is looking into taking guitar lessons to improve his skills and continue pursuing music, which is a dream of his.
“I want to be a rockstar,” he said, showing off a tattoo of a guitar on his arm.
But in other ways, he said he feels like “I’m starting my life from beginning.” He’s navigating a new country alone, having lost his friends, his job and his fluidity of communication.
“I can’t write in English,” he said. “I can’t write a poem in English, I can’t write a story in English, but I can write that in Persian very well.”
And he’s having to start over in even smaller ways — such as getting a driver’s license.
That was something he did Wednesday, lining up to take the written driver’s test among teenagers in his new home in Nova Scotia.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “I love Afghanistan. It’s really hard to leave your country, your family, especially my mom.”
Most of all, he thinks of those left behind.
“My own girlfriend is in Afghanistan,” he said. “And I am really worried about her and I can’t do anything for her. And I love her a lot. She want to come here and I want her to be with me. I need her. And I miss her a lot.”
In a few weeks, it will be officially one year since they last saw each other.
“I have lots of achievement in last four months that I’m living in Canada,” Aseer said. “So we have to fight, we have to face the problems, and someday everything will be good. If it’s not good, then it’s not [the] end.”