The Rainbow Railroad is a Canadian charitable organization created to rescue LGBTQ persons whose lives are in imminent danger from state-tolerated anti-gay terror. The organization takes its name from and is inspired by the Underground Railroad, a group of abolitionists who helped endangered slaves flee the American South and escape to freedom via a secret network of safe houses and hiding places during the United States’ Civil War.
Since its founding in 2006, Rainbow Railroad has received hundreds of requests for emergency help from people in Uganda, Jamaica, Syria, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and several other countries. At any given time, Rainbow Railroad is processing 30 to 50 open cases, verifying the facts of each case, connecting endangered individuals to people and organizations in their areas who are in position to assist, and ultimately put them on a path of escape to a safe country where they can seek asylum. Because the number of people in need of help is so great, Rainbow Railroad is able to help only those in the most imminent danger of violence, imprisonment, or death.
Violence, prison, and death
Many people live in a society where being LGBTQ is so dangerous they risk being assaulted, imprisoned, or—worse—brutally murdered, simply for expressing their sexual identity. Living in constant fear, they are afraid to reveal their secret inner life to anyone by exposing their sexual orientation, which could place them at the mercy of a hostile stranger, neighbor, or state apparatus. This situation is a daily reality for millions of people around the world.
For example, in 2017 reports emerged that gay and bisexual men were being rounded up and tortured in Chechnya. News reports of concentration camps for gay men were met with condemnation from organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The stories were vehemently denied by Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov. He claimed gay people simply didn’t exist in his country. He added, “They are devils. They are for sale. They are not people.”
In response, Rainbow Railroad worked behind the scenes to provide emergency visas and travel arrangements to Canada, according to its Executive Director Kimahli Powell, a Canadian whose mother moved from Jamaica before he was born. Working discreetly with Canada’s foreign minister and the Russian LGBT Network, a nongovernmental organization responding to the Chechnya situation, Rainbow Railroad reported that as of March 2018 numerous people have escaped camps in Chechnya to Russian safe houses. So far, the group has been in touch with 140 people seeking asylum.
A vital and life-saving service
It is estimated that LGBTQ lives are in danger from state-sponsored terrorism in over 70 countries around the world. The governments and police forces in these countries not only tolerate violence against LGBTQ persons, they encourage the brutality. Because of this, individuals in such circumstances have precious few resources and even fewer places to turn for protection. Since its inception, Rainbow Railroad has provided a vital and one-of-a kind service, helping hundreds of people find a path to safety, at a cost of about $10,000 per person. Current immigration policy in the United States makes it difficult to move people to the U.S., so most are now going to Europe or Canada.
For those who have successfully escaped the violence of their home country, Rainbow Railroad has been nothing short of transformational. Heartbreaking stories of beatings, detention, death threats, and torture give way to stories of love and support, safety, successful asylum claims, and hope for a secure future in a new home. Couples who had been forced to separate and go into hiding are reunited in a new country and area able to start the process of building a new life.
As the organization grows and becomes better known, the cries for help also increase. Of course, the real solution to the problem is to transform the cultures where anti-LGBTQ violence is allowed and condoned, so that organizations like Rainbow Railroad are no longer needed. Until that day, however, Rainbow Railroad is necessary, and will continue its courageous work saving lives around the world.