Out in the World: Rainbow Railroad launches Welcome Corps program

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday May 18, 2023
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Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell spoke about the organization's Welcome Corps program that is in partnership with the U.S. State Department during a May 16 presentation at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell spoke about the organization's Welcome Corps program that is in partnership with the U.S. State Department during a May 16 presentation at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Samuel arrived in the United States on March 15, 2022. His two-year journey from Kenya to the U.S. was long and treacherous. He was alone, jobless, homeless, and depressed when he made it to New York City. He was only halfway through his journey.

A 26-year-old gay man who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Samuel told about 40 people who came out to the San Francisco LGBT Community Center May 16 that Rainbow Railroad's new Welcome Corps program would have changed his life if it existed when he fled Kenya.

"It could have made all the difference," he told the audience, who came to learn about how they could help LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees, like him, fleeing persecution, violence, and even death to find safety in the U.S. with Rainbow Railroad's support.

Welcome Corps will be a game changer for LGBTQ refugees once the program ramps up and gets underway, explained Rainbow Railroad CEO Kimahli Powell, a gay man. The intent is to avoid LGBTQ people spending years in refugee camps and taking dangerous journeys crossing borders to get to safety in the U.S., as Samuel took.

Rainbow Railroad's Welcome Corps program, run with the support of the U.S. State Department, allows Americans to support refugees to resettle in their communities as private sponsors. The program removes financial and legal barriers, and risks, such as being responsible if a crime happens, that previously kept individuals from sponsoring refugees, according to Powell's presentation.

Instead, Welcome Corps creates a community of care that includes the U.S. government, community organizations, and groups of Americans. The U.S. government vets and processes the LGBQ refugees, taking care of the legal, and some financial, responsibilities. The organizations take care of other financial responsibilities and manage the program. The volunteers guide the refugees in settling into their new homes.

Rainbow Railroad launched its Welcome Corps program simultaneously with the State Department's Welcome Corps January 19, according to separate news releases from the organization, the State Department, and Welcome Corps.

It's illegal to be gay in Kenya. LGBTQ people, mostly gay men, face 14 years in jail if convicted under penal code articles 162 and 165. In 2019, the East African country's high court upheld its colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

While the laws are rarely enforced, according to Human Rights Watch, LGBTQ Kenyans live in fear of being harassed, arrested or worse. In January, gay fashion designer, model, and activist Edwin Chiloba was murdered, the B.A.R. previously reported.

Samuel described his homeland as being rife with discrimination, blackmail, and violence against LGBTQ people, even by the police. He was subjected to violence, which is why he left, wandering from country to country with Rainbow Railroad's support.

Rainbow Railroad is a consultative partner in the development of the new refugee resettlement program, and it is one of more than 200 organizations that signed on with the State Department. It is also the only LGBTQ organization currently participating in the program, Powell said.

Added Dane Bland, head of development at Rainbow Railroad, "Programs like Welcome Corps help us to do the work of helping more people faster and more efficiently so that we can stretch dollars further and ultimately help more individuals."

Rainbow Railroad is based in Toronto, Canada, though it does have a presence and board members in the U.S., according to its 2021 annual report. The organization operates on about $4.7 million (CAD) in Canada and about $2.2 million in the U.S., according to the report.

It specializes in helping LGBTQ people fleeing dangerous situations in countries find pathways to safety, and is supported by about 30 staff and 12 Canadian and four U.S. board members. Founded in 2006, it is best known for helping LGBTQ people flee persecution, wars, and imminent death in Chechnya and Russia in 2017, and Afghanistan and Ukraine in 2022, which the B.A.R. previously reported.

Rainbow Railroad receives 10,000 requests for help from LGBTQ people from more than 100 countries every year, Powell, who took the helm of the organization in 2016, said during his presentation.

Last year, the organization was able to safely resettle 324 LGBTQ people, many Afghans, and supported 4,457 queer people.

Rainbow Railroad is currently gearing up for an influx of Ugandans fleeing the country following Uganda's parliament's passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023, the B.A.R. previously reported. Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has yet to take action on the bill.

Powell said the organization has received 2,759 requests for help from LGBTQ people in 111 countries to date in 2023. This year, Rainbow Railroad has been able to resettle 53 LGBTQ people and has supported 310 queer people out of 3,000 requests for help as of May. The requests for help include nearly 600 from Uganda since the beginning of the year, 400 of which were received in March, Powell said.

The organization is also working on bringing more than 600 LGBTQ Afghans to safety this year, he added.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of displaced people around the world is going to get to 110 million, Powell said.

Powell explained he's been searching for an opportunity like Welcome Corps since former President Barack Obama's administration. Rainbow Railroad operates "under a cloud of secrecy" because it was "built to subvert systems" [which is] "why we want to do this work legally, but under the radar," he said.

The U.S. hopes to mobilize at least 10,000 Americans to step forward as private sponsors and offer a welcoming hand to at least 5,000 refugees from around the world in its first year, according to the Welcome Corps release.

Building a pathway to safety

Powell and some of Rainbow Railroad's team members were in San Francisco recruiting volunteers to join the program. San Francisco is one of three U.S. cities the team identified, along with Chicago and Washington, D.C., to test and create models for the program.

"San Francisco, in particular, is really culturally and operationally important and symbolic," Powell told the B.A.R. after the meeting about why the city was selected as a testing ground for the program.

Powell told the audience the goal is to resettle 50 LGBTQ refugees this year. San Francisco is slated to welcome 20 queer refugees.

The refugees will be vetted by UNHCR and the State Department, and placed on the path to permanent residency and eventually U.S. citizenship. The refugees will be provided with a small stipend to cover living expenses, and will be provided with health care and other supportive services as they get settled, according to Rainbow Railroad.

A total of 100 volunteers are needed in the San Francisco Bay Area. A total of 250 volunteers are needed in all three U.S. cities. The volunteers will form teams of a minimum of five members who will be registered with the program and are committed for 90 days to welcoming LGBTQ refugees.

The presentation slides and brochure for the program state that the groups would need to raise the $2,375 per refugee, to maintain the refugee's benefits, which was rounded up to $3,000 in the brochure. The organization will also provide teams with training and other support.

After the online publication of this article, Bland reached out to clarify how the funding will work. The program stipulates that the groups must raise $2,375 — that is what the government is mandating, Bland wrote in an email.

"To make the program more diverse, Rainbow Railroad is asking all groups to help fundraise generally, but we are guaranteeing this minimum ourselves," he wrote. That means Rainbow Railroad will providing the $2,375 for each refugee on behalf of the groups, and asking the groups to participate in general fundraising to help cover the costs if they are able to do so, he stated.

The groups will help the refugees find housing, navigate getting around, help with job searches, and other needs as the refugees familiarize themselves with their new city and the American way of doing things. Powell acknowledged the high cost of housing in the Bay Area.

"We're very mindful that it's also three cities where housing is not very affordable," Powell said, stating the stipend should cover some of the housing cost. "We want to start in cities because there's a lot involved. We want to make sure we pilot it right and then scale afterward.

"You really just need to be nice," Powell told attendees, explaining they should treat the refugees similar to "what you would do if a friend moved to the city."

The first cohort of refugees from Africa is anticipated to arrive sometime in the summer.

Powell and Bland acknowledged that the San Francisco Bay Area has several strong organizations, such as Oakland's Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay and the International Rescue Committee (which is also a part of the Welcome Corps), that help LGBTQ refugees resettle in the U.S.

What sets the Welcome Corps apart from previous programs is that the program is a partnership between the U.S. government, community organizations, and groups of five or more ordinary Americans, noted Powell and Bland. The other difference is that the program is not a pilot program, it is a permanent program that is expected to evolve.

"That's something Rainbow Railroad has been signaling the need for is a durable, sustainable program that is empowering LGBTQI+ refugees within the existing system to get to safety in meaningful ways in perpetuity," said Bland, a 30-year-old queer man.

Both men expect to be able to scale the program after its initial test year to be able to help more LGBTQ people from more than 100 countries that ask for the organization's help. Eventually, Powell hopes the program will be able to process direct referrals for LGBTQ refugee sponsorship from the organization.

Welcome Corps is the closest the Rainbow Railroad has gotten to responding to donors' questions of how they can do more to help LGBTQ refugees, the two men said.

"This is literally the opportunity that we have to build a program that we hope will last, and we are looking for people to sign up," Powell said.

Cautiously hopeful

LGBTQ refugees who have been languishing in Kenya either at the infamous Kakuma Refugee Camp or hiding out in Nairobi, the capital, or elsewhere are cautiously optimistic about the new program.

"It is another pathway towards resettlement and that excites people," Craig Paris, a gay Ugandan LGBTQ refugee activist in Kenya, told the B.A.R. in a Facebook Messenger interview May 17.

The B.A.R. previously reported on the protests and violence perpetrated against LGBTQ refugees in Kenya, particularly at Kakuma Refugee Camp, that resulted in the 2021 death of Ugandan gay refugee and activist Chriton "Trinidad" Atuhwera and severe injuries to fellow Ugandan gay refugee activist Jordan Ayesigye, who is still waiting to be resettled and is among the hundreds who have applied for the program, Paris said. The attackers were never identified.

The incident prompted reports by the Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project, a program of the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center, documenting the violence, as the B.A.R. previously reported, and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration examining LGBTQ refugees' reality at the camp, as the B.A.R. also previously reported.

"They can't wait to be resettled at least through this route, but they are scared it will be a disappointingly long wait," Paris wrote, stating the LGBTQ refugees are concerned about the severe backlog. "They've experienced a lot of disillusionment."

When asked if there was anything Rainbow Railroad and other organizations working with the State Department in the program could do to reassure LGBTQ refugees in Kenya, he simply wrote, "Having someone familiar reassuring them [and] supporting them with the whole journey."

Paris wrote he is assessing his refugee application status with UNHCR before he applies for the program.

Signing up

Event attendees were excited and felt the meeting was very informative. Many told the B.A.R. they already registered, while others said they were bringing the information back to their communities and organizations.

"I've always been really hungry for something that I can do," said Gabrielle Lochard, a 32-year-old queer person who is a Rainbow Railroad donor. They saw the email about the program as an opportunity to step up and signed up to volunteer.

Cassie Brighter, a pansexual woman with a transgender experience, who is founder of Empower Trans Women, said she was interested in helping transgender women, but still wanted to learn more about the program.

Brooke Nuwati, community engagement manager at IRC in Oakland, called Welcome Corps "more than one could ever wish for."

The 40-year-old ally originally from Ghana said her organization has many LGBTQ refugees they help resettle in the Bay Area and plans to see how her team at IRC can work with Rainbow Railroad.

Nuwati explained that adjusting to American life coming from a different country can be challenging. Coming into a space where there are "nice smiling faces welcoming you, making you feel accepted, and helping you to navigate your every day, it's more than one could ever wish for," she said.

"Who can help us if not us?" Samuel asked the audience. "LGBTQ people, we understand each other. That's why I think it is important for us to help each other."

For a full list of participating organizations, click here.

To apply, click here.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

Updated, 5/19/23 This article has been updated to clarify fundraising needed for the Welcome Corps program that Rainbow Railroad is operating.

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