Bassel Mcleash's long journey from Syria to Toronto and finally to Sunday's Pride parade was anything but smooth.
It was a road filled with war, hatred and hardship, which is why the chance to participate in his first Pride parade was so special.
"To be honest, I'm totally speechless," he said as he moved towards the start of the parade. "The excitement and the emotion that's happening, it's overwhelming. It's too much to handle."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in the annual Pride Parade in Toronto on Sunday, July 3, 2016. (Photo: Mark Blinch/CP)
Moments later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stepped in front of the large group of politicians and supporters that Mcleash had joined. At most, Mcleash had hoped to capture a glimpse of Canada's celebrity prime minister.
Standing 5-1, it was easy for the 29-year-old Syrian refugee to work his way to the front of the group and next to the leader of his new country — a spot he didn't surrender for the entire parade route.
"Not in my wildest dreams would I ever have thought about having a day like this, marching next to the prime minister or marching in a Pride," he said.
He arrived in Toronto May 26, almost three years after he left the home he'd shared with his mother in Damascus, Syria, and just days before Toronto Mayor John Tory proclaimed Pride Month at City Hall.
He left Damascus after the aviation company he worked for decided it was too dangerous to continue operating in the city. At first he was happy to be away from the violence in Syria and he continued his work as a fuel co-ordinator in Egypt. But when the company refused to honour a pay agreement, Mcleash quit.
In 2014, he was diagnosed with HIV, a difficult situation made worse by the fact that in Egypt, foreigners aren't permitted to work if they're HIV positive. So Mcleash was forced live on the margins of Egyptian society, getting paid under the table for translating for foreigners and doing odd jobs. He depended on the kindness of a small LGBT group.
One of the people in his circle was a well-connected scholar and activist, Scott Long, who put Mcleash in touch with Toronto's Rainbow Railroad, an NGO that specializes in helping LGBT folks around the world escape persecution, imprisonment, torture and possible death.
Mcleash was the first person approved for the organization's new program to sponsor LGBT Syrians to come to Canada after the new Liberal government promised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees late last year.
Five months after Rainbow Railroad offered to help him, Mcleash walked through security at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, a permanent resident of Canada.
Unlike many LGBT Syrians, Mcleash has come out to his family and friends and is willing to speak publicly about being gay.
He told his mother when he was in Egypt almost exactly a year ago. Never afraid to express support for the LGBT community on his Facebook profile, it was one post in particular that prompted his mother, who's not an LGBT supporter, to ask questions.
"I tried to tell her the Facebook post was just for support, but discussion got heated and eventually said, 'So what if I was gay? Would it be some grave thing? Would you disown me?'"
They didn't speak for two months and they still don't talk about his sexuality much, but Mcleash feels LGBT visibility in the Syrian diaspora is important to combat homophobia.
"I don't have anything to lose," he said.
Syrian LGBT migrants often face what another gay Syrian, Danny Ramadan, calls a "double-layered threat" of persecution, because they're refugees who have escaped civil war and they're also part of a sexual minority within a homophobic diaspora living in foreign countries that can be equally, if not more homophobic than Syria.
But Mcleash refuses to let the past hold him back. "I consider myself that I'm in a safe country," he said. "I consider myself that I am free and now I'm able to stand up and be the voice of the people that they're not able to."
'I'm still starting a life here'
At the parade, Mcleash thought of friends in Syria and Egypt who he wished were there to celebrate with him. He knows he's one of the lucky ones.
Pride without friends can be a lonely experience. "I'm still new, most of the time I'm going to events alone so that's sort of a cause for depression, but I know that this is only a temporary feeling because in time I will have friends. It's not a big deal. I'm still starting a life here."
When the excitement and euphoria of Pride subsides, he will continue to search for a job. And when he lands one, Mcleash hopes to help his mother and several of those friends he misses to come to Canada. He's also considering going to university, an option that wasn't really available in Syria or Egypt.
But such logistics could wait Sunday as he enjoyed Pride, and being who he is and his new freedom.
"I set the bar so high, so the next year it should be way more amazing or it's going to be so dull!" he joked.
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