Rainbow Haven: Helping LGBTQ+ refugees in Ottawa

Equity, diversity and inclusion
Patti Tamara Lenard, professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Faculty of Social Sciences
“What can be better than advancing social justice while making friends?” says Professor Patti Tamara Lenard. With the help of many, including uOttawa colleague Emily Regan Wills, she founded Rainbow Haven, a local group that supports the resettlement of LGBTQ+ refugees in Ottawa.

The idea came from a panel discussion in early 2015 during Welcoming Ottawa Week, a series of events and activities for newcomers. When a panellist talked helping LGBTQ+ refugees, Lenard saw her opportunity to “walk the talk” as a researcher focusing on challenges faced by precarious status migrants. She refers to the result, Rainbow Haven, as her “non-hypocrisy project,” allowing her to help offer refuge to those in need.

Welcoming Ottawa Week is a week-long series of events and activities to convey the genuine welcome and hospitality of Ottawa to newcomers.

LGBTQ + Refugees’ specific needs

“Resettlement as a gay refugee is very challenging. Canada has a reputation for being welcoming, but there is still homophobia and discrimination. Rainbow Haven works to prepare refugees for this new reality,” says Lenard. “We work with them on a much more intimate level than other refugee groups might need.” Rainbow Haven and its partners identify LGBTQ refugees needing sponsors and then raise funds and prepare for their arrival.

From the moment the refugees land at the Ottawa airport, they are surrounded by an inclusive Rainbow Haven group, with around 60% of members from the LGBTQ+ community and of all ages. This serves to present a warm, diverse and accepting community to the newcomers and make them feel welcomed.

In research, Lenard asks: “What is our responsibility towards people fleeing danger?” She is currently focusing on their challenges and proposing real-life solutions to them. With Rainbow Haven, she is also taking action. To date, the group has welcomed 10 newcomers from around the world. It also helps LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in Ottawa to prepare their claims. The group hopes to welcome an Afghan couple the fall 2022.  

“Rainbow Haven has been part of my journey from the moment I was accepted as a refugee. They became the family I didn’t have and had a huge impact in my settling down. They supported me financially, morally and emotionally.”

- Fatou Joof, a refugee sponsored by Rainbow Haven who arrived in Ottawa in May 2017

If you want to help

Lenard would be more than happy to mentor anyone interested in creating a group to sponsor refugees. Members can help in their own ways, according to their own needs and availability, whether to help a sponsored family get public library cards or to spend time with them on a regular basis.