Bassel Mcleash, a gay Syrian refugee, came to Canada on the Rainbow Railroad.
The 29-year-old HIV-positive man, who once had to keep his sexuality a secret to avoid prison, arrived in Toronto in May as part of the organization's refugee resettlement program. A few weeks later, he was marching in the city's Pride Parade right next to Justin Trudeau, the leader of his newly adopted homeland.
In an interview during a TEDx Toronto conference this year, Mcleash sat down with The Huffington Post Canada to talk about what it was like being in Syria's compulsory military service when the war began.
"I lost three of my friends just because we were attacked. We were sniped. We never knew who attacked us."
He made it to Egypt after the war, only to discover the military regime was more anti-LGBTQ than the Muslim Brotherhood they overthrew. The discovery of his HIV status trapped him in an untenable situation, until a friend introduced him to Rainbow Railroad.
The Toronto-based organization, inspired by the Underground Railroad, helps LGBTQ people "as they seek safe haven from state enabled violence, murder or persecution." They are at the tail-end of an attempt to save 60 lives in the last 60 days of 2016 (You can donate here to help).
Mcleash also reveals what he said to the Prime Minister during Pride, and what he would say to any Canadian who still thinks resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees was a bad idea.
Can you tell me how you got out of Syria and what the situation was like when you left?
I was born and raised in Damascus. When [the war] started I was actually serving the compulsory service in the military. I didn't have a choice. In my own military base, I lost three of my friends just because we were attacked. We were sniped. We never knew who attacked us.
When I got out, I came back home to Damascus and found things that are not as settling as I expected. Things became really awful, bombings and explosions and people lost their life on their way to work. A year after the military, I had an opportunity with my work to travel to Egypt.
Were you in the closet before that?
In Syria, there was a group of people that I was out with, and everybody knew that I was gay. But there were some areas that I was in the closet, for example work, my house, locations where there might be a chance that the news would spread.
"There are some areas in Damascus that everyone is free ... but in other areas, a person if he was walking wearing very short shorts, he's going to be killed."
Was it dangerous to be gay in Syria?
When it comes to the law, if you're accused of being LGBT there's no need even for a solid proof. Just a suggestion or hint or any indication that you’re an LGBT person and you will be held in captive, get investigated and if they were able to prove it, you will spend one to three years [in jail] for the first time you get captured.
The justice system sometimes is not so just.
There are some areas in Damascus that everyone is free. Everyone is able to be what they want to be. We have trans people walking the street in their chosen gender, we have people that go out sort of like drag queens. But in other areas, if [a person] was walking wearing very short shorts, he's going to be killed. So there is a huge variety. We were living in peace together but we knew where to go and where not to go.
What was it like in Egypt in 2012?
When I moved to Egypt, I didn't have any reason to be in the closet. Being an LGBT person is not illegal, what's illegal in Egypt is basically prostitution or having sex for money or doing unethical acts. And that's the clause that all the people are getting entrapped because of.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the military took over. What changed?
Actually, in the period of the Muslim Brotherhood, there was not much capturing. The military regime [tried] to prove that they are religious, so they became way more strict. People were arrested just because they had some change in their pocket, and that was the assumption, that they got money for having sex.
What would have happened if you returned to Syria?
If I went back to Syria at the moment, I will be dragged to serve the military. If I went there and I said that I'm HIV positive, I would get a release from the military service but I'm not going to have any social rights. If I didn't say that I'm HIV-positive and I went to the military, I would not be able to get medication.
How did you come to Canada through the Rainbow Railroad?
This organization helps LGBT people to arrive to a safe place. When I applied for Rainbow Railroad I mentioned that I'm gay, I'm HIV-positive and the struggle that I had to work. It was more than a year and a half that I spent without even any kind of income.
Why was that?
In Egyptian law, in order for you to get a work permit, you need to provide an HIV-negative and a hepatitis C negative statement. That's when I discovered that I'm HIV-positive and I was kicked out of my job. I registered as UN asylum seeker and to get the medical services, but because I served in the military in Syria, my case was not accepted for relocation. I had to find other ways.
"I wasn't able to hold hands with my friend in public, not to mention a boyfriend or something. So things are really different here."
One of my friends introduced me to the Rainbow Railroad and I applied for it and I got accepted. And I've also got a sponsoring group that they are helping me and everyone is trying their best.
How has the Rainbow Railroad helped you since you arrived and how do you like it here?
Rainbow Railroad's role was to get me here. After that, the responsibilities are moved to the sponsoring groups and other organizations that are welcoming the newcomers, like Egale, The 519, and SOY. They can help with accommodation and legal work.
Do you like Toronto?
So far, I love it. I feel so at ease. I'm able to be whatever I want and do whatever I want. And it's not because I want to go wild or something, but there are things that you just like to do that I wasn't able to do. I wasn't able to express myself. I wasn't able to say "Hey, how are you? I like you" out in public. I wasn’t able to hold hands with my friend in public, not to mention a boyfriend or something. So things are really different here.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in the annual Pride Parade in Toronto on Sunday, July 3, 2016. (Photo: Mark Blinch/CP)
What did you think of the Pride parade in Toronto?
I was amazed! I arrived two or three days before the Pride Month started and I got to explore the city, see what's happening, [and] check the activities. And at the end was the Pride Parade where I was able to walk next to the prime minister. I was overwhelmed by [his] presence. It's something that never happens twice and it's hard to top that, to be honest.
What did you say to the prime minister?
I thanked him for the [Syrian refugee] initiative and the opportunity for me to be here. He was so modest. His answer was, "It's not me that made the initiative; it was Canada that asked me to make the initiative. So if you want to thank anyone, thank Canada."
I know that it's not only him that should be credited, but he is the person that finally signed the paper. He's the one that I was able to thank. So I thanked him.
"[Trudeau] was so modest. His answer was...'if you want to thank anyone, thank Canada.'"
Canada is a nice country and it's nice to be here and feel free. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. It's a thing that you don't find anywhere, to have all those ethnicities and backgrounds all together in this one place living in a very peaceful manner. It's amazing.
Not everybody supported bringing in Syrian refugees. So, what would you tell those people?
Being here is not something that I decided since the day that I was born. I was forced to come here. I was living a very good life. I was handling the situation. I was keeping secrets, yes, I wasn't able to be myself, but I was happy with my friends. I had ways to be myself.
Because of what's happening now in Syria, I'm not able to go back to my place, I'm not able to see my family, I'm not able to see my friends. I lost two of my best friends and it's devastating. People are coming here because they don't have anywhere else to go.
The ancestors of the people that are born here came here after war, after famine. It's the same situation. So ask yourself the question, why was it OK for my parents to come here but not for those people?
And it's not like we're coming here to try to kill you or take your land. We're coming here to start a life and live in peace with everyone else. I'm sorry but from my own perspective, the first people that came to the American content, they did very wrong things to the indigenous people. We're not coming to do the same. We're not like that. Every one of us is bored of war. We do not want to see any kind of blood.
We're here to start a life and we're trying our best to do that.