Kimahli Powell hopes that with international eyes on the crisis of LGBT people fleeing Chechnya, a light can be shed on the plight of LGBT refugees around the world.
Powell is the executive director of Rainbow Railroad, an organization based in Canada that works to help “LGBT people who have faced physical violence or face an imminent threat of violence, imprisonment or death” find safety.
“We are really the only organization in the world focused on this scope of LGBTQI emergency travel,” Powell told the Washington Blade during a recent telephone interview. “We immediately went to work when we heard that there were safe houses being established by the Russian LGBT Network (a Moscow-based advocacy group) for individuals that escaped Chechnya.”
Powell told the Blade that Rainbow Railroad has helped to resettle close to 50 LGBT people who have fled Chechnya.
The majority of them have resettled in Canada, but some of them have gone to other countries. Powell himself traveled abroad to meet with and interview victims ahead of their resettlement.
“The reality of our work is that the majority of the people we help don’t come to Canada, we are truly international in scope,” Powell said.
Distance was one of the factors in resettling victims from Chechnya, both to get the men away from the “stranglehold” of their families and the large Chechen diaspora in Europe.
“Canada’s commitment to the LGBT community coupled with the urgent nature of this crisis made it ideal for relocation for individuals fleeing Chechnya,” Powell said. “These individuals will need community support in order to aid their resettlement.”
“What’s remarkable about Chechnya is that it truly was an international civil society effort, and that meant partnerships all over the world,” he added.
Powell stressed the work of supporting LGBT victims of state-sponsored violence like in Chechnya does not end with finding them safe locations — or even necessarily start there.
“People don’t choose to migrate when facing persecution,” Powell said. “These individuals, still, when I interviewed them, many of them said they just wanted to go home. This wasn’t a choice.”
In looking at current hotspots like Egypt and Azerbaijan, Powell said advocates’ reflexes should not be to immediately jump to “get them out.”
“It’s heartening that people took such outrage to Chechnya, and it’s a large part of what allowed us to intervene,” said Powell. “I want to see that same degree of interest and concern about the many other countries in the world that also have LGBTQI people facing persecution.”
“But it’s not our role to immediately reflex and say these people need to leave,” he continued. “It is about assessing the situation and determining where there are individuals at immediate risk who choose to leave.”
For Rainbow Railroad, this work is one of the “major human rights focuses” for the LGBT community.
“As we celebrate LGBTQI rights and marriage equality for more than 25 nations, the fact of the matter is that there are still 72 countries that criminalize same-sex intimacy,” Powell continued.
Thirty-seven percent of U.N. member states have some kind of criminalization of same-sex activity, according to “State-Sponsored Homophobia,” an annual report compiled by ILGA that examines sexual orientation laws around the world.
“[Chechnya] was a powerful example of what happens when we work together. The fact of the matter is that we’re more connected than ever,” Powell said. “It was our connections that led us to our partnership with the Russian LGBT Network.”
“As we move forward to working with various governments, including the United States, we believe that this work should continue no matter what party is in power, what type of government is in power,” he added.