Rainbow Railroad: The organization saving LGBT citizens from hostile governments

For individuals in nations where being a part of the LGBT community threatens their freedom, safety and, sometimes, their lives, the Rainbow Railroad provides a way out

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Stories of exodus mark a central theme in human history. War, famine, crippling poverty: all have forced people to flee one country for another. But there's a growing reason for leaving home and homeland. In more than 70 countries worldwide, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT citizens live in fear for their freedom, their safety and, in some cases, their lives. Their governments not only sanction brutality against them but often carry it out. There is no obvious or easy escape path, but for those lucky enough to hitch a ride, there is something called the Rainbow Railroad. Like the Underground Railroad, the Rainbow Railroad helps those fleeing danger get across borders to safety. And like its historical namesake, this network shrouds its operations in secrecy. But over a recent six month period, we got a look at how the Rainbow Railroad works. We met escapees from three continents and were on hand for a series of departures and arrivals.

Last June, on the first day of summer, Abanoub Elias left his old life in Egypt and arrived at a refugee at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. 

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Abanoub Elias arrives in Toronto

Rainbow Railroad staff was there to greet him and on the ride into town, Abanoub took it all in: new country, new landmarks. First stop: a familiar face. This reunion was nine months in the making. Abanoub and Ahmed Alaa, two friends in their twenties, first met in Cairo on September 22, 2017. The occasion: a concert by Mashrou Leila, a Lebanese band, popular throughout the Middle East, whose lead singer is openly gay. Caught up in the music and the moment, Abanoub did the unthinkable for a gay Egyptian. He raised the rainbow flag, a symbol of gay pride. Ahmed spotted this bold stranger in the crowd of 35,000 and says he was inspired.

Ahmed Alaa: He can do it, so I can do it too.

Jon Wertheim: This was unthinkable to you--

Ahmed Alaa: Yeah.

Jon Wertheim: --before the concert?

Ahmed Alaa: So when I saw Abanoub, "Okay, I can do it."

The two waved the flag together. 

Jon Wertheim: You said it was the best five minutes of your life?

Ahmed Alaa: Yeah. It was the best five minutes of my life. In the bad situation in Egypt, you can't talk about anything. Now, you are raising the flag. You are talking about LGBT rights. Oh my God. You can't talk about that in Egypt, in-- public-- public area.
In Egypt, just being openly gay can bring trouble. Human Rights Watch says 300 LGBT citizens have been detained under the country's debauchery laws in the last five years. 

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Ahmed Alaa

Hours after the concert, Egyptian media denounced the flag raising and security forces took the opportunity to crack down on Cairo's LGBT community, arresting dozens. Panicked, Ahmed posted this video to social media to get his story on the record.

"It's clear to me that I am wanted by the police," he said. He was arrested days later for "promoting immorality." Police also questioned him about a woman named Farida.

Jon Wertheim: They're interrogating you and they know about Farida?

Ahmed Alaa: Yeah. The first name. The first name was Farida.

Farida Abo Aouf, a trans woman and well-known LGBT rights worker in Cairo, got word police were asking about her and knew she had to leave Egypt. She took this video the night she escaped. She says she couldn't risk being recognized along the way, so she cut her hair and took shots of testosterone to look more masculine again. Farida told us she almost didn't make it past Cairo's airport officials, who pulled her aside for questioning. 

Farida Abo Aouf: And he looked to me like, he knows something, but he didn't tell me. 

Jon Wertheim: You think the guard knew--

Farida Abo Aouf: He knows--

Jon Wertheim: --something was up?

Farida Abo Aouf: Yeah, yeah. He looked to my eyes, eye contact, big eye contact. It's like, "I know everything."

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Farida Abo Aouf

Farida made it to Canada, where Rainbow Railroad staff was waiting for her, having learned about her situation from their network in Egypt. They got her settled in Toronto, where she told them about Abanoub, who had gone into hiding outside Cairo, and Ahmed, who was serving three months in solitary confinement.

Farida Abo Aouf: I was crying a lot. I told them, "Please help my friends. Please. They are in jail, can you please help them?"
 
Jon Wertheim: You're connecting your friends in Egypt with Rainbow Railroad once you're here.
 
Farida Abo Aouf: Yeah. Yeah.
 
Founded in 2006 and based in Toronto, Rainbow Railroad has evacuated more than 600 LGBT individuals from 22 hostile countries. The small, unassuming operation fielded more than a thousand requests for help last year and says that number will increase this year.

Referrals come from an international network of LGBT groups and safe houses. Then Rainbow Railroad secures visas and pays for flights to safety - all of it funded, not by any government, but with private donations of cash, and also airline miles. Executive Director Kimahli Powell reviews each case.

Jon Wertheim: What do they all have in common?

Kimahli Powell: The majority of people that we help have told harrowing stories of being hunted down, of being excommunicated by their churches, their families, their communities, and so they've come to us really desperate.
Jon Wertheim: This isn't cultural homophobia. This is police, courts, legislators.

Kimahli Powell: We've heard stories of an individual who had a mob go to their house, burn it down, and when they flee to go see the police, the police say that, "We cannot help you because you are gay."

Jon Wertheim: The police sanctions the mob.

Kimahli Powell: The police sanctions the mob. Sometimes the police are active perpetrators of this violence.

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Kimahli Powell

He's talking about an incident that took place in Jamaica, one of 70 countries worldwide where same sex relations are a crime – in seven of these countries, punishable by death. The United Nations says global gains in LGBT rights, including marriage equality, have been met with backlash in many parts of the world.

Perhaps most brutally in the Russian republic of Chechnya. Its leader has publicly denied the very existence of gay citizens. In April 2017, reports surfaced of authorities there rounding up, torturing and killing queer Chechens. Usman, not his real name, survived this purge. He asked us to conceal his identity, fearing for the safety of his family back home. He recalls the day men in military uniform came for him at his work, took him to an abandoned warehouse and tortured him with electric shocks.

USMAN: (Translated) They tied my hands behind my back. And they beat me. They kept asking me for names and phone numbers.
Jon Wertheim: Names and numbers of whom?

USMAN: (Translated) Gay men I knew. But I didn't give them anybody's name.

Jon Wertheim: Even under torture?

USMAN: (Translated) Yes, I am very proud of that.

After two weeks, Usman was released and a friend helped get him to a safe house in Russia. There, he heard about a means to escape.

USMAN: Rainbow Railroad (Russian) Rainbow Railroad. (English)

Jon Wertheim: That's how you heard it the first time?

USMAN: Uh-huh.

How frequent flyer miles helped LGBT people in danger

In their largest operation to date, Rainbow Railroad worked with Canada's foreign ministry to evacuate 42 Chechens, including Usman, and find them asylum in Canada. A few months later, Powell and Usman went to the U-S State Department to plead for visas for LGBT Chechens still trying to get out. But this is a tough time to be seeking asylum in America, no longer a busy stop on the Rainbow Railroad. Spain, the Netherlands and Canada are among the most popular destinations.

The Chechen operation put Rainbow Railroad on the map. Donations more than tripled, making it possible for staff to venture to half a dozen LGBT hostile countries and assess the need in person. 

We went with Kimahli Powell to Jamaica, well known for its beaches, less so for its homophobia. 

Rainbow Railroad gets more requests for safe passage from here than from anywhere else.

Kimahli Powell: This is a gully. Unfortunately, like a sewage drain area where members of the LGBTQI community sleep.

Jon Wertheim: It smells like a sewer system.

Under the streets of Kingston, Powell took us to see a potential Rainbow Railroad client named Blue. His fear of being attacked because he is gay is so intense, Blue goes underground, quite literally, for refuge overnight.

Jon Wertheim: You have this place to yourself? 

BLUE: This is my house. 

Jon Wertheim: This is your house?

He told us he sleeps on cardboard boxes and when the rain comes through the storm drain, he moves to higher ground. 

BLUE: If I was not gay, I wouldn't be here because I'd be at home. But because of my lifestyle and they found out about me, that's why I'm here. Right?

Even Powell was taken aback by these conditions.

Jon Wertheim: Have you seen this in other countries?

Kimahli Powell: Nothing quite like this. Once you're labeled LGBT, it's almost like a scarlet letter. Like you walk around and someone can attack you at any moment.

The threat of attack drives some gay Jamaicans to this remote hillside town, where our cameras were allowed into this safe house. Many of its residents will be referred to Powell, who went over the most urgent cases with house staff.

One resident told us he was stabbed 15 times, another said she was doused with acid in an anti-gay attack. This is where they wait, for wounds to heal and visas to come through. Across the island, the wait is over for Elton McDuffus, whose work with a local LGBT rights group made him a target. He told us he survived a knife attack and an attempted break-in to his apartment as assailants shouted anti-gay slurs. 

Jon Wertheim: After that you said, "I gotta get out. I…"

Elton McDuffus: No. Yeah. I gotta leave, yeah.

He installed extra locks on the door and contacted Rainbow Railroad. He didn't tell his mother he was about to leave for good.

Elton McDuffus: Like, I don't want my mommy to worry, I don't want my family to worry so I try to keep them out of this process.

Jon Wertheim: So what have you told them? I'll see you when I see you?

Elton McDuffus: Yeah, well I told her "you're not gonna see me for a long time."

Jon Wertheim: Nervous?

Elton McDuffus: Very.

Jon Wertheim: Why?

Elton McDuffus: Because I'm stepping into the unknown. The only thing I can say is I am told that I'll be okay. I'll be in a better place, yeah.

Jon Wertheim: You've called the worldwide exile of the LGBT community the Civil Rights issue of our era. What do you mean by that? 
 
Kimahli Powell: What I mean by that is, we've spent many years in North America saying that marriage equality was the most important marker to- for the advancement of LGBT people. What we haven't done is talk about thousands of thousands of displaced people who are victims of state-sponsored violence, only because of who they love.

Jon Wertheim: This is your new town. 

Elton McDuffus: Yeah.

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Elton McDuffus

Four weeks after we watched him leave Jamaica, Elton McDuffus had found a taste of home in Toronto and told us he was no longer living in fear.

Jon Wertheim: A whole neighborhood with pride flags and gay bookstores. What's it like when you walk around there?

Elton McDuffus: Like I said to my friend, we were walking around Church Street and there were a lot of gay couples walking and holding hands. And I said, "I think we should hold hands."

Jon Wertheim: You said "We should hold hands?"

Elton McDuffus: Yeah and we did. And nobody cared and nobody looked. And you know, that was beautiful.

The Egyptians too are making the most of their newfound freedom. Toronto's Pride parade last summer was a highlight. Rainbow Railroad helped cover living expenses until the asylum claims were decided. Ahmed got his papers in March; Abanoub's came through last month.

On this night in September, they were reminded of how far they've come. Mashrou Leila – the band whose concert sparked the LGBT crackdown in Cairo - was in Toronto to play a show and wanted to meet the Egyptian exiles.

And when the music played, Abanoub and Ahmed stood together, just as they had in Cairo a year before.

Ahmed Alaa: When I was in the jail, I know that I will be able to hear this music again. I raise the flag again with Abanoub. It was an amazing moment for me. I can do what I want now. I'm safe.

Jon Wertheim: You're safe?

Ahmed Alaa: Yeah, I'm safe.

Produced by Nathalie Sommer and Vanessa Fica.