For months, he had listened carefully to heart-wrenching stories of war, hardship and challenges told to him by a queer refugee from Lebanon, a country to which many Syrians, forced out by the civil war, continue to flee.
“I’m not a super-anxious person in my day-to-day life,” O’Rourke says. But, he says, he spent several months “just feeling kind of ill about this.”
Sensing the mounting humanitarian crisis, he found he “just wasn’t quite equipped to handle it without doing something about it.”
A 30-year-old high school Spanish teacher and musician, O’Rourke is close friends with several people who have been privately sponsored to come to Canada. So the decision to sponsor a queer Syrian refugee made sense to him.
“I just see it as, like, the right thing to do,” he says. “Yes, I’ve been exhausted, and yes, I’ve been discouraged, but it’s the small thing that I can do to feel a bit anchored in what this world’s situation is right now.”
After attending a public presentation last fall about how to support Syrian refugees coming to Canada, O’Rourke took a lead role in founding the Safe Passage Circle, one of several small groups of Vancouver-area residents who are organizing to privately sponsor LGBT refugees from around the world.
Along the way, he received more cues and encouragement from other concerned people, including his colleague’s seven-year-old daughter who felt compelled to get involved. The young girl had been deeply upset by the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s small dead body washed up on a Turkish beach, and she and her mother were looking for ways to help displaced Syrians.
The pivotal moment of committing to the project happened over breakfast with long-time gay activist Murray Corren, whose work, with his late husband Peter, changed adoption laws for queer families in BC, challenged homophobia in schools, and helped legalize same-sex marriage in Canada.
Corren and O’Rourke met through Rainbow Refugee, a Vancouver non-profit that helps LGBT refugees escape persecution in their home countries, after both men expressed interest in forming a sponsorship circle.
“We had breakfast at his place on Sunday and started hashing out what this would look like and whether we were a good fit in terms of doing this . . . whether our values matched enough,” O’Rourke recalls.
They quickly found they matched.
During that first meeting, the pair discovered they had both lived on Bowen Island at the same time and, with Corren being a retired school teacher, they both shared a love of learning and mentorship.“He’s really good at acknowledging people and the efforts they’re making. So that’s a really great quality he has that I think brings a lot to this whole process.”“We get along really well, I have great respect for Trevor,” Corren says.
Reached by phone, Corren tells Daily Xtra that he got involved with sponsorship work after spending five years abroad in Mexico. After his husband died, he was looking for a new adventure. “I thought, I’m going to be very bored if I’m doing nothing,” he says.
Corren was also motivated by a broader sense of solidarity and his lifelong dedication to improving lives within the LGBT community. “I wanted to be involved in something specifically related to the queer community,” he notes.
“That I am able to do this,” he adds, “gives me a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure.”
Now, a little over a year later, their group has nearly a dozen members. They’ve raised the required money and are in the process of arranging a plane ticket for the person they’re sponsoring, Sayf.
The process has been anything but easy. O’Rourke spends 40 hours per week on his sponsorship work, the same amount of time he puts into his paid teaching.
During our interview over coffee, O’Rourke and fellow group member Jenny Simpson describe Sayf’s living circumstances. He’s currently living in Turkey, waiting for his application to be accepted and processed. Because it’s unsafe for him to be open about his sexuality there, and because being gay is not culturally acceptable within the Syrian refugee community, Sayf is socially isolated. The past few months have been particularly challenging for him, O’Rourke and Simpson say, because Turkey has seen two high-profile killings of queer people.
With a serious health condition that’s exacerbated by stress, and no doctor (his doctor fled during Turkey’s attempted coup in July), Sayf needs emotional support. As the primary point person for Sayf, O’Rourke tells me he video chats with Sayf every week, holding space for him to talk about his challenges.
“It’s usually pretty gut-wrenching,” O’Rourke says of their conversations. “I’m really lucky that I have a good support network here. It’s weird to be supporting somebody and need support from other people. So afterwards I’ll usually call my parents or somebody like Jenny who’s involved.”
In addition to offering emotional support, O’Rourke is also involved with Sayf’s lengthy application process and the financial administration of his file; he also performed every week last spring to fundraise the money required for the application to proceed.
Despite the personal sacrifice that seems to be involved, both O’Rourke and Simpson frame the endeavour as solidarity work and reject the notion that they’re trying to rescue someone.
“We’re working to use the privilege that we have to help others access their own rights,” O’Rourke says.
Simpson teaches social studies at the same school as O’Rourke, and says the work has helped her feel grounded in the face of news of the war in Syria.
“It’s hard to know what to do when you’re looking at the news, but this was an opportunity to collaborate with people I knew and trusted,” she says.
“It’s really overwhelming, I find, to hear about some of the world events,” she later adds. “It hurts me emotionally.”
O’Rourke and Simpson’s group is one of about 12 small groups currently working with Rainbow Refugee.