Kimahli Powell shares Rainbow Railroad’s journey


Rainbow Railroad’s Kimahli Powell has helped more than 700 people escape countries where they faced violence and persecution because of their sexuality.

Powell, an honorary degree recipient at the University of Victoria’s fall convocation, is clear: he doesn’t do the work alone. Staff and volunteers at the Toronto-based charity, of which Powell is executive director, have fielded thousands of pleas for help from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and intersex (LGBTI) people around the world since 2006.

The bravest people, he says, are those who must leave everything they know behind for the chance to live freely and without fear.

“It’s not about us, it has to be about the people we help,” Powell says. “The person making the dangerous journey is the one doing the hardest work. If this recognition puts a spotlight on the work, it’s worth it.”

Powell gave a public presentation, sponsored by the Faculty of Humanities, about Rainbow Railroad’s work on Nov. 14 to students, faculty and staff at UVic, outlining the organization’s growth from its founding in 2006 to its high-profile appearance this year on CBS’s flagship news program 60 Minutes.

Powell said that although marriage equality was an important marker for LGBTQI people’s rights, more focus should be put on helping people who experience violence because of whom they love. Same-sex relations are a crime in nearly 70 countries, he said, including eight where it is punishable by death. Rainbow Railroad has helped people escape from countries including Jamaica, Egypt, Uganda, Syria and Iran.

Powell explained to the audience the particular hardships LGBTQI people face at refugee camps, including the fact that many camps are located in countries where same-sex relations are criminalized. He took people through Rainbow Railroad’s work, including how it connects LGBTQI people to safe houses, gives information on the best routes to safety, and provides financial and moral support.

The group’s largest operation, in which Rainbow Railroad evacuated more than 70 LGBTQI people from Chechnya, where the government was rounding up and torturing gay men, posed a number of challenges, including the organization’s decision to go public with the story.

Powell encouraged the audience to apply pressure to the Canadian government, by writing letters to the next minister of immigration in support of refugees and to encourage Canada to accept more applications from LGBTQI people.

Although Rainbow Railroad does bring people safety in Canada, it resettles most people in Europe, to countries including Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands.

“I think Canada has much to be proud of on its record on LGBTQI issues but it’s not enough,” Powell says. “There are thousands of people who need protection.”

He said governments should have robust partnerships with non-profit groups across Canada doing the work. Besides applying political pressure, Powell encouraged people to volunteer with groups that support LGBTQI rights or to sponsor a refugee to “provide a direct lifeline to an individual.”

And go beyond the headlines. Powell urged people to follow human rights groups, such as Egale Canada, Human Rights Watch and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, for news. And to look to groups operating in countries where LGBTQI people are threatened by violence and persecution for guidance on how to best to support them.

“No matter where you are in your academic life, dive deeper,” Powell says. “We always have more work to do.”