As a gay man growing up in Texas, Mark Kelly felt fortunate to have loving, accepting parents who every Thanksgiving welcomed his gay friends and acquaintances disowned by their families because of who they were and who they loved.
Now he lives in Winnipeg, is married, and helping LGBTTQ* refugees board the Rainbow Railroad to flee countries where their sexual orientation can get them shunned, jailed — or worse.
"People are scared to death," said Kelly, who is part of a Winnipeg group that in the last six years has raised more than $1 million for the international organization based in Toronto. Since its founding in 2006, Rainbow Railroad has rescued more than 600 people, helping them get on a path to safety and start a new life in a new country.
Kelly and his fellow volunteers hope to make Winnipeg an official destination on the Rainbow Railroad.
"It would be nice to have an office that represents western Canada," he said. "We're doing more than any other city, from a fundraising perspective, to get refugees and newcomers out," said Kelly. "Winnipeggers are wildly generous."
Thursday night's event at the Winnipeg Art Gallery hopes to raise $125,000.
The guest speaker is Dayon Monson, a trans woman who fled Tanzania. After reporting to police that she was being threatened, the police charged her with public indecency and "unnatural offences." Monson was waiting for her court date when the Rainbow Railroad flew her to a safe country, where her refugee status and immigration documents were prepared. In July, she arrived in Toronto as a permanent resident, before relocating to Calgary.
Getting someone like Monson to a safe place, then supporting and advocating for them, takes time and money, said Kelly. He figures it's about $10,000 per person rescued. Once they get to a place they can resettle, it costs much more time and money, he said.
Kelly is part of a Winnipeg group of 10 that's sponsoring a refugee, a gay man, to resettle here this spring. The federal government allows groups of five to sponsor a refugee if they can prove they have the financial resources — at least $20,000 — to support the person, as well as the dedication of time and energy to help them get on their feet in Canada.
So far, Rainbow Railroad refugees in Canada have resettled in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. Winnipeg would be ideal to host a satellite office for the organization, said Kelly.
"Winnipeg is a cheap place to resettle and has lots of services," he said. And goodwill, said Kelly, whose group is getting help from the Rainbow Resource Centre as well as volunteers who've offered psychological counselling for the person when they arrive.
"A lot of them have been beaten, jailed and shot - there's a lot of trauma," said Kelly, noting that in the 21st century, there are still 71 countries where being LGBTTQ* is criminalized. "It's mind boggling."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.