I was born and raised in Albania where I started my activism as an openly gay human rights defender in 2008. On a personal level I struggled to accept myself. For too many years I isolated myself and pretended that I was a different person.
Slowly but on a gradual way I finally accepted myself and that was like an eye-opening moment for me: it allowed me to see how unjust Albania was for us. Activism helped me to claim back the years of darkness. Through it I was helping myself, as much as I was helping others.
We empowered a core group of young motivated people and on 2012 we took our bikes in the main boulevard and organized our first Gay pride under a heavy rain and explosions being thrown to us by people who were not happy with it. That was a turning point for us. We were taking back a public stage where our story was being told wrongly for so many years. And every year it was so much fun!
We advocated to change the legislation, pushed political parties to have a public stand on LGBT issues, we opened a shelter for homeless LGBTI+ people, and we launched an online helpline.
But my partner and I realized that we were not safe. Not because of being gays, but especially because of being an openly gay couple, and an openly activist gay couple.
We landed in Vancouver on our visitors’ visas and spent our first week in a “Bed and breakfast” in Burnaby. It felt like a heaven! For us and for our dog too, who also traveled 22 hours with us from Albania.
The reality of being refugees in a new country kicked off in the form of practical questions:
Where do you find a house? Where do you look for a job? Can I work in Canada? What does “Canadian experience” means? How can they ask you about Canadian experience on your first time to Canada? What does “credit history” means? What is a “criminal background check”? Haven’t they checked us before they issued the Canadian visa? How do you find a lawyer? Do you need one? How do you open a bank account? Can you?
Thanks to a closed Facebook group of LGBT community in Vancouver we were able to find a room for 3 months in a shared house. The girl who offered us the room did not ask neither for the credit history, nor for a background check. All she said was welcome to Canada! Was it because we were lucky, or was it a solidarity among the LGBT community? The house was at Commercial Drive, an area with Italian restaurants that reminded us Albania. Did I mention how close is Albania with Italy?
We are 45 miles away from South Italy and we share our border with Northern Greece.I was prepared to give this detailed information because some years ago, when I visited the US, I had to explain to many Americans the difference between the country of Albania and Albany in the state of New York. I am happy to confirm that in two years spent in Canada I have never seen the need to explain that difference!
First months were hard. In order to start, we needed first to end everything that was part of our life up to that moment. It felt like in a Christian baptism: We had to somehow bury our past in order to live a new life! We submitted all our documents and our story. In return, we got a document from the government that looks like this: (Photo 10)
That word “claimant” surprised me. Why do they call us claimants? Don’t they believe us? The next year was the year of “suspicion”. It felt like we were welcomed in this country but up to a certain degree. Everything beyond that was a big suspicion that surrounded us:
Are they who they claim to be? Are they hiding anything? Are they able to work? Ok, let’s give them a credit card with a 500 dollars credit limit. Will they pay it back on time? They have their driver licence, but do they know how to drive a car? They have been advocating and changing the laws, and providing services to their community, but can they work if they don’t have a Canadian experience? They have a master and bachelor’s degree, but can they succeed here if they don’t have a Canadian education?
6 months in Canada, jobless, and after dozens of failed job interviews, I was driving aimlessly close to my home in Surrey. I saw a big board in a blueberry farm. They were looking for workers to pick up blueberries. I didn’t think that was what I wanted to do but I wanted to show to Canada that I could work everywhere. And I called the phone number advertised in that board. “No young man”, I was said, “we are not in the blueberry season, call us next year”.
I was lucky, because the next day I was finally offered a job as a Tenant Support Worker in a supportive modular housing project in Vancouver. Although my education was in History and Archaeology and not in a social service or social work field, they valued my experience with the LGBT shelter in Albania. That changed everything! I finally proved I could be a good employee and I could pay the taxes and the bills and build my credit history and start to finally have a “Canadian experience”.
In Surrey I kept volunteering for a support group aiming to help LGBT refugees in Canada. My partner started to work too, the document with the word “claimant” expired when in October 2018 we were found to be convention refugees. That validated our claim and made us protected refugees. The period of suspicion affected us so much, that we decided to even go back to school after we though we were done with it. My partner has already started his university studies here, while I will begin on May my college.
And when it feels like home you start to do everything you used to do like enjoying nature, or you go to see La Boheme at the opera. And of course, you never stop to fight for a better home that welcomes everyone and treats everyone with justice and acceptance.
Than you finally look back to your journey and start asking yourself a couple of more complicated questions like: how do I pay back this generosity?