Growing up in Turkey, Elif Sari was aware of the many Middle Eastern refugees living there while seeking asylum elsewhere. But what she hadn’t realized was how many of them were queer.
“In college, I had been interested in questions of marginalization and repression by the state,” says the Martha LA McCain postdoctoral fellow at U of T’s new Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL). “But it wasn’t until I did an internship at a migrant organization that I began to learn about LGBTQ refugees. This group had been invisible to me. I had never met a queer refugee before.
“In the mid-2000s, queer refugees were not a concern in migration studies. It was a lot of coincidences, luck actually, that led me to begin my academic and activist journey.”
This fall, after completing her Ph.D. in anthropology from Cornell University on “Waiting in Transit: Iranian LGBTQ Refugees in Turkey and the Sexuality of (Im)mobility,” Sari has joined the QTRL at the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies.
She says she plans to examine “‘waiting’ both as a methodological tool and an analytical category to explore how the carceral politics of asylum are shaped by indefinite waiting, spatial confinement and precarious material conditions, and how refugees develop everyday tactics to cope with violence, precarity and uncertainty.”
Sari also wants to examine the shift from government sponsorship of refugees to sponsorship by private groups, and how this has affected the resettlement of queer Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Canada.
“Middle Eastern LGBTQ refugees are increasingly reaching out to Canadian queer NGOs, seeking private sponsorship as one of the few available resettlement paths. I will conduct ethnographic and archival research to explore the effects of this novel phenomenon on queer mobilities, race, belonging and sexual citizenship in the current era of immigration retrenchment, growing xenophobia, and anti-Muslim racism.”
Sari will be teaching an advanced undergraduate seminar for the Sexual Diversity Studies program titled “Queer (Im)Mobilities: Normalization, Resistance and Emergence” in the winter term, and is looking forward to the opportunity to work on these issues in the Bonham Centre’s unique setting.
“I am particularly excited about establishing interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations with faculty and students at the Centre, the Women and Gender Studies Institute, Anthropology and Sociology Departments, and LGBTQ refugee artists and activists in the greater Toronto area.
“Even in the very first QTRL meeting, I was thrilled to see it included faculty, students, researchers, artists, and community organizers. It was a very non-hierarchical structure,” says Sari. “Most of the time, we’re immersed in our own field, we think what we see is kind of exclusive to our field. It’s very important to maintain connections between academia and the outside world. We learn from each other, and we learn together.”
Sari wants to use those connections to learn more about the reality of life for queer refugees. Canada is not necessarily the promised land, she says. Even being accepted for immigration is not as easy as many think. This is because Canada has inflexible expectations of what a queer refugee should be.
“Not all refugees identify as LGBTQ,” says Sari. “Think about all the people who do not fit into these categories, all the people who identify as non-binary or as non-gender conforming. But lesbian refugees need to show butchness, gay men need to act feminine, there’s no room for anyone who doesn’t fit into those categories. I know of a butch-looking lesbian who was accepted, but their femme partner was rejected for being a ‘fake’ candidate. People applying for acceptance are required to provide documentation, such as e-mails and letters, proving they’re queer. But they don’t necessarily have personal sexual archives like this, because they needed to live in secret without leaving traces.”
And like any process controlled by government, the refugee claims process is subject to political changes. Sari says Canada used to offer an expedited process for queer refugees. But when the Syrian refugee crisis happened — and now the Afghan refugee crisis — they were prioritized over queer claimants.
“No-one is against resettlement of Syrian or Afghan refugees, but why do they always have to prioritize one group over another?” asks Sari. “It pits groups against each other, and then they have to compete for refugee quotas.”
That is also reflected in the move to private sponsorships, where LGBTQ refugees have to compete for limited spaces.
“What we’re seeing here is a neo-liberal shift,” she says. “Private sponsorship produces a language of ‘saving’ and ‘rescue’ which has a very colonialist history when it comes to brown refugees from the Middle East.”
And for those lucky enough to be accepted, the reality may not be entirely what they were hoping for.
“In Turkey, we see intersections of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia,” says Sari. “Refugees have to shift between different identities, or give up parts of their identities, and conceal their sexuality. Most refugees see Canada as a place where they can be themselves, and they’re disappointed that they still face prejudice once they get here. It’s very hard to reconcile what they see Canada as being and the reality of what it actually is.”
Contrary to popular belief, says Sari, for many refugees the place where they come to terms with their sexuality is on their journey, not in Canada itself.
“The journey to asylum is also a temporal journey,” she says. “Refugees end up spending a lot of years together. They engage in various conversations about sexualities, bodies, identities. Through these encounters, people acquire new knowledge about themselves and others, and it leads to the emergence of new queer identities, new alliances, collective care and support mechanisms, and solidarity.
“Asylum is both a violent and productive process. Queer refugees challenge those images of being closeted and passive in radical ways by creating their own communities.”
Sari hopes her seminar will allow undergraduates to explore these ideas, perhaps for the first time, and use them in the future.
“It is very important to explore these subjects with undergraduate students who often take active roles in refugee, migrant and sexuality rights, and advocacy as volunteers, activists, social workers and interns; who themselves might be refugees/migrants; and/or who might plan a professional career at the intersections of migration and sexuality.”
Written by Krishna Rau.
Krishna Rau is a Toronto-based journalist specializing in social, political, health and queer issues.