Syrian Bassel Mcleash with Justin Trudeau at Toronto’s Pride: ‘I wanted to thank him for the chance to be free’

Working up the courage to talk to him took an hour. I was thinking, ‘Should I call him Mr Trudeau? Mr Prime Minister? Justin?’

I lived in Syria until 2012, when I was 25. There was a lot of bombing in Damascus – most of the time it was hard for us to get to work as we couldn’t get out of our houses. The company I was working for in aviation services opened a branch in Cairo, so I moved. Being gay was a factor in wanting to leave. It’s forbidden to be gay in Syria.

I was in Cairo for just under four years. I liked it at the beginning, but from the second half of 2013 there was a crackdown on the LGBT community – Egyptians were imprisoned and foreigners were deported. At the moment there are over 250 people in jail there because they are homosexual.

I left my company because of a professional disagreement, and started working at a call centre, while waiting for my new work permit to come through. It was then I discovered I’m HIV positive – to get a work permit in Egypt you need to prove you’re HIV negative – so I was fired. I lived on savings, then started depending on friends and any jobs I was able to get; a translator, a tourist guide, whatever I could find.

The oppression in Egypt made it impossible to meet people; you just couldn’t trust that someone wasn’t an informer. Mostly my LGBT friends and I stayed home. If we were meeting friends and someone was late, we would call and check reports to see if anyone had been picked up. I couldn’t see a future there.

I contacted Rainbow Railroad, an organisation that helps LGBT people escape persecution, and they accepted my case. A little over a year after I first applied I opened my emails and saw the word “Congratulations”. I didn’t believe it. I started jumping while sitting; it must have looked hilarious. My friend said, “What’s happening?” I said, “I’m going to Canada!”

I landed on 26 May, five days before Pride Month started on 1 June. It felt significant, and overwhelming. I kept thinking: “Am I allowed to do this?”

I heard from Rainbow Railroad that Justin Trudeau would be at the march on 3 July. Early on, I realised there were only about 10 people between me and him. I thought, “I need to reach him.” I wanted to thank him for the opportunity to be here and be free. When I reached his side, I thought, “Now what?” Working up the courage to talk to him took an hour. I was thinking, “Should I call him Mr Trudeau? Mr Prime Minister? Justin?” In the end I said, “Uuuuh… I just want to thank you for everything. I’m Syrian. I arrived here a month ago.” He said, “Don’t thank me. Canada asked me to do this.” He didn’t even try to take credit for it. For me, it was the perfect answer. I was about to cry.

The first time I saw the picture was on TV. It spread from there, on social media and blogs, and soon it was everywhere.

I’m currently renting a room and looking for a job; I’d love to work in human rights, in the LGBT field. I miss my mum, who still lives in Syria, but I don’t miss living under fear of death. Canada is amazing, the weather is nice, the people are friendly; everything is amazing. I know I’m repeating “amazing” a lot, but it truly is. I already feel at home.


Erica Buist

The GuardianTramp

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