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Canada Secretly Sneaks LGBT Russians Out Of Chechnya


Chechnya began an aggressive anti-gay purge earlier this year. Law enforcement and security officials in the Russian Republic arrested more than a hundred gay and bisexual men, beating and torturing them in unmarked detention centers. Some died. And the government of Canada decided to secretly do something about it. The nonprofit Rainbow Railroad recently revealed that it had partnered with the Canadian government to organize the safe passage of 31 LGBT Chechen refugees to Canada.

Kimahli Powell is executive director of Rainbow Railroad, which helps persecuted gay men and women around the world. Welcome to the program.

KIMAHLI POWELL: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Tell me what exactly Rainbow Railroad and the Canadian government did here.

POWELL: I can't get into too many specifics, but what I can tell you is that our role was to facilitate the evacuation for individuals who managed to flee Chechnya into Russia. It became clear talking to the individuals - I went there myself in May - that this was a unique opportunity to bring people into Canada.

SHAPIRO: When you went there in May, what did people tell you?

POWELL: It was a difficult trip. I met individuals who in February were just living their lives. And these are young men and women - mostly men - early 20s. Most of them never left their homes. Really distraught, shell shocked, fled with very little to their person.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying they had never left their homes in Chechnya and you were meeting them at safe houses in Russia, in a city that they were unfamiliar with, surrounded by people they didn't know, cut off from their old life for fear that people in that old life might hunt them down and kill them.

POWELL: Yeah, that's right. The whole purpose of the program was to manipulate people into meeting. So you might be on an application.

SHAPIRO: You mean a meetup app like Grindr or Scruff or something like that.

POWELL: That's right. You know, imagine trying to meet up with individuals, but instead of meeting up with that person you're confronted by militia of five to seven people. They put a sack on your head. They throw you in the trunk of the car. And then you're brought to a facility. You are put in a cell with other gay people, but also drug users, drug dealers, other criminals, and then tortured until you give more names. And that was the whole purpose to the program, is to get more names. At the end of this you were confronted by your family, outed. And then they were clearly told, well, what are you going to do about this?

SHAPIRO: You mean the family members were told, what are you going to do about this person who has shamed your family?

POWELL: That's right. You're a shame to the family. We expect you to do something.

SHAPIRO: When somebody goes through such severe trauma, what is their adjustment to life in Canada like now? How are these for the most part young men doing?

POWELL: You know, I was reunited with many of the people that I met recently, and they're doing well. They're really resilient. I think what makes me so proud of our country and being Canadian is just how free we are. The first individual arrived the weekend of our Pride parade in Toronto in June...

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

POWELL: ...And marched with us quietly.

SHAPIRO: Can you just tell me what that person's experience must have been going from a place where openly being gay could've meant death to a place where people were marching in the street with rainbow flags?

POWELL: I remember very clearly the Friday before the Pride parade we made arrangements to meet him. He was very, very tense and nervous. We had a volunteer translator. And ultimately, the volunteer called me back after I left and said, is it OK if he goes to the gay neighborhood? He just is so anxious and wants to be free. And when we met back with him on Sunday, you could just see a transformation from the person I met in Russia as someone that realized that he can be himself.

SHAPIRO: Does the fact that you're able to talk about this now mean the program is over? Or are you still hoping to bring more people over to Canada who have been through this horrific experience in Chechnya?

POWELL: Oh, we're not done yet. We will move people as long as people are still fleeing.

SHAPIRO: Kimahli Powell is executive director of Rainbow Railroad. Thanks for telling us your story. It was great to talk to you.

POWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.