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Gay student avoids deportation to Muslim home country

Ismail has been cut off by his family, publicly outed by Malaysian tabloids

Malaysian student Hazim Ismail (right) gets a hug from Alexa Potashnik outside the refugee hearing office in Winnipeg Tuesday morning after winning his case against being deported back to Malaysia, where he had been given death threats due to his sexual orientation. </p>

Malaysian student Hazim Ismail (right) gets a hug from Alexa Potashnik outside the refugee hearing office in Winnipeg Tuesday morning after winning his case against being deported back to Malaysia, where he had been given death threats due to his sexual orientation.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/4/2016 (621 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A gay Malaysian student has been granted refugee protection in Canada.

"I'm overwhelmed," said a tearful Hazim Ismail.

After questioning Ismail for about 45 minutes, Immigration and Refugee Board member Ron Yamauchi said Tuesday morning he'd heard enough and believed Ismail is a legitimate Convention refugee and entitled to Canada's protection.

"He's an extraordinary soul and people like him need support," said his friend and supporter Alexa Potashnik. She was one of more than a dozen supporters who rallied behind the student from Malaysia, where gay people are persecuted.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/4/2016 (621 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A gay Malaysian student has been granted refugee protection in Canada.

"I'm overwhelmed," said a tearful Hazim Ismail.

After questioning Ismail for about 45 minutes,  Immigration and Refugee Board member Ron Yamauchi said Tuesday morning he'd heard enough and believed Ismail is a legitimate Convention refugee and entitled to Canada's protection.

"He's an extraordinary soul and people like him need support," said his friend and supporter Alexa Potashnik. She was one of more than a dozen supporters who rallied behind the student from Malaysia, where gay people are persecuted.

"Hazim is on our team!" Potashnik cheered as he was swarmed by supporters after the verdict.

'I feel the liberty I'm enjoying is about to be taken away... It'ssuffocating there. It's so exhausting trying to hide how you feel' 

Ismail thanked them and said he wished that all LGBT refugee claimants had the support he received.

Ismail had told the tiny packed hearing room he faces persecution if he returns to Malaysia as a gay man who has been publicly outed.  He’s been cut off by his family and publicly outed by tabloids and online news groups in Malaysia.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Alexa Potashnik has become close friends with Hazim Ismail and is helping raise awareness about the U of W student’s refugee claim.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Alexa Potashnik has become close friends with Hazim Ismail and is helping raise awareness about the U of W student’s refugee claim.

"He has reasons to be afraid to return," said his lawyer, Bashir Khan, before the hearing.   "He has quit Islam, but the worst part is he’s homosexual and he’s come out."

Malaysia has laws against gay sex or "carnal intercourse against the order of nature," with punishments that include whipping and up to 20 years in prison for consensual sex between men. 

Khan has represented several gay refugee claimants from countries with homophobic laws at Immigration and Refugee Board hearings. Those claiming to be in need of refugee protection because of their sexual orientation "always raise a huge doubt with the board member," said Khan. But Ismail’s story has been so widely publicized, the question of whether he’s really gay or just saying he is so he can stay in Canada isn’t an issue, the lawyer said.

That he’s gay and an atheist who renounced the state religion, Islam, put him in even more danger if he’s returned to Malaysia, said Khan. "It puts him at great risk."

Ismail said he was thrilled when he arrived in Canada as a student that he did not to have to hide his sexual identity like he did growing up in a country with a Muslim majority.

"It’s suffocating there," he said. "It’s so exhausting trying to hide how you feel."

His posts on social media about coming out made it back to his family in Malaysia, who stopped supporting him.

"They cut him off in 2014, and he survived with his boyfriend’s help," said Khan.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Hazim Ismail is an international student at the University of Winnipeg who is originally from Malaysia. He has a refugee protection hearing on April 5.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hazim Ismail is an international student at the University of Winnipeg who is originally from Malaysia. He has a refugee protection hearing on April 5.

Ismail said he and his partner later broke up and, with no means of support, he couldn’t afford to stay in school or keep his student visa. 

As an international student, he pays more than four times what Manitobans pay for university tuition. To stay in Canada as a student, he needed to keep up his tuition payments. 

He said he felt he had no choice but to go public and ask for financial help. He set up a GoFundMe page to raise $5,000 to pay for his winter 2016 term at the U of W. It raised $6,440 but inadvertently made it dangerous for Ismail to return to Malaysia.

Canadian news reports of his GoFundMe page "boomeranged" back home, said Khan. "There were all these Malaysian news articles condemning him," said the lawyer, who submitted several of the articles as part of Ismail’s application for refugee protection.

Ismail was devastated when he found out his name and face were plastered all over tabloids, blogs and websites in Malaysia.

"I had a friend who said ‘I’m worried about your safety,’" Ismail said. "I woke up one morning, and I had hundreds of friend requests" on Facebook.

Not everyone wanted to be his friend. A popular blog ran a poll asking what should happen to Ismail if he’s returned to Malaysia. Some of the responses were vulgar, a few were supportive and others were threatening.

Ismail said there is a rights group that advocates for freedom of sexual orientation but it is powerless in Malaysia. "They try but the government and the police have a lot more power." 

He filed a refugee claim Feb. 4 asking Canada for protection.

"I felt I didn’t have any other choice. I’m in survival mode."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Carol Sanders .

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History

Updated on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at 11:54 AM CDT: Adds new photo, updates story

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