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Canada's Samra Habib champions the rights of LGBTI refugees


Canada's Samra Habib champions the rights of LGBTI refugees

The photographer, author and activist reflects on growing up fast as child refugee in Toronto – and why she fights for equality and 'a sense of belonging'.
17 May 2020
Samra Habib.

As Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Samra Habib’s family faced frequent threats from extremists when she was a child. She was just 10 years old when they were forced to flee their home, resettling in Canada. In her acclaimed memoir, We Have Always Been Here, Samra navigates the struggles of being a young refugee in a new country, and documents her own personal journey as she discovers her true self.

As a queer Muslim, Samra writes of her struggles to find safety – and a sense of belonging – as she encounters homophobia, bullying and other significant challenges. Her memoir explores queer sexuality, and is a testament to the power of accepting oneself.

At the heart of this memoir is exploring the intersection of your identity: of being queer, a Muslim, a refugee, a Canadian, and more. We Have Always Been Here is a deeply personal debut book that reflects on this intersection and the obstacles you faced. What was it like having your debut novel be a memoir that deals with so many personal subjects and difficult issues?

It was helpful to write about the impact of all the trauma I had experienced in my life as a result of being a refugee, a person of colour. It helped me see myself for the first time and be kinder to myself.

Your photo project 'Just Me and Allah,' which you touch on in your memoir, captures portraits and stories of queer Muslims. How different was the experience of having to capture your own in a memoir?

Not easy. I prefer to be behind the camera and be an observer, documenting others’ stories. But I saw the benefit in telling mine because the stories of queer Muslims weren’t reflected in our culture.

On Twitter, you’ve said that “moving to Canada as refugees was one of the most difficult experiences for me and my family.” Can you describe what the journey from Pakistan to Canada was like for you?

I had to grow up incredibly fast. One of the things I think many don’t realize about refugee kids is that they often lose their childhoods. I had to become the parent pretty quickly as my parents didn’t speak English, so I had to accompany them at their doctors’ appointments to help with translation.

You came to Toronto with your family as a refugee at a young age. What struggles do refugee children face, and how can Canadians and their community 
support them?

I think it begins with creating systemic changes to ensure that supports are available to refugee children that recognize the specific kind of trauma and barriers they face as a result of their experiences of being uprooted.

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, or IDAHOT, and the theme this year is Breaking the Silence. What is the importance of bringing these issues to the forefront of the conversation, especially for doubly vulnerable groups like refugees?

I think it’s important to bring the conversation to the forefront in order to create inclusive spaces and nurture a diverse range of perspectives. I think LGBTQ+ issues need to be universal issues and inform how we talk about inequity and access to opportunities. They need to help inform our lens on equality and creating a sense of belonging.

UNHCR works to support LGBTI refugees, ensuring that we are both protecting refugees and creating safe spaces for them. As an advocate for queer people, what kind of supports do you think are most important for LGBTI refugees?

Creating a sense of belonging and creating spaces where they feel validated and seen is pretty important. I think we often view LGBTQ+ refugees as “the other” but we need to create systemic shifts in our immediate surroundings to ensure that we are working alongside them as equity partners to create systemic changes and cultural shifts.

Your memoir has been selected as a 2020 Canada Reads contender. What has that experience been like so far? And what does it mean to you to have your book selected to represent what the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) says is “one book to bring Canada into focus?”

It’s a huge honour to know that my queer Muslim memoir is chosen as a story that helps contribute to our collective Canadian experience. It makes me so happy to know that folks who otherwise wouldn’t have known about the book are hearing about it because of the “Canada Reads” programme.

Nobody should have to flee their home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Donate now to support LGBTI refugees.