March 16, 2021

Werklund School researcher partners with newcomers' centre to improve lives of LGBTQ2S+ refugees

Tonya Callaghan investigates how to improve policies and supports for these often-overlooked arrivals
Tonya Callaghan
Tonya Callaghan Werklund School of Education

A University of Calgary researcher has launched a community-based research collaboration with the Centre for Newcomers in Calgary with the aim of improving the lives of LGBTQ2S+ refugees arriving in Canada.

The project, titled The Geopolitics of Pride: Supporting LGBTI Newcomers, is currently raising money on the UCrowdfund platform. Funds raised to support research will help provide leaders and frontline service staff with methods to better assess organizational systemic barriers, improve procedures and outline success criteria for settlement practitioners, helping create safer and more sensitive services.

“In more than 70 countries around the world, people are forced to hide their sexual orientation as a means of survival,” says Dr. Tonya Callaghan, BA’90, BEd’96, PhD, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education, who specializes in critical social justice theories, anti-oppression education, and anti-homophobia/transphobia education.

Callaghan explains that, because gender- and sexually diverse refugees are fleeing dire situations, they must leave their home country as soon as possible to survive, so they can’t stay and fill out the applications and forms to get their refugee status before arriving in Canada. This, in turn, excludes them from services like English-language instruction.

They may also continue to feel excluded and oppressed once they arrive in Canada. Callaghan says many immigrants and refugees find solace, camaraderie and support by seeking out their own communities when they arrive in Canada because they have so many things in common with people from their home country. LGBTQ2S+ refugees, however, may not have this support system because their home culture may not be so embracing of gender and sexual diversity.

It’s not going to be an all-embracing experience for them. It could be triggering for them, it could be trauma-inducing for them, and there may even be people who are still trying to oppress them while they’re in Canada through social media.

Callaghan says the Calgary Centre for Newcomers, which launched a program specifically for LGBTQ2S+ refugees approximately four years ago, are doing great work in this space, but one of the things they have identified is that government agencies set up to support newcomers have a blinder when it comes to gender and sexual diversity.

“They don’t anticipate this type of newcomer,” she says.

Callaghan says these government agencies will have a more stereotypical notion of what a refugee might look like. For example, they might anticipate a male immigrant or refugee that comes to Canada first, gets set up, learns English, gets a job and then calls for other members of the family to come to Canada, with that male supporting them.

“If we’re designing programs and support systems with that image in mind, then a lot of people are falling through the cracks,” says Callaghan.

Work will focus on intersectionality of LGBTQ2S+ refugees

She wants to focus on the intersectionality of LGBTQ2S+ refugees, where they are not just subject to racism when they arrive in the country, but also homophobia, transphobia or heterosexism that may be deeply entrenched in their home country, so they can’t get the natural support from their own culture, and available programs do not cater to their needs because of heterosexist omissions. 

Callaghan got involved in this project when Dr. Kelly Ernst, BA’92, MSc’95, PhD’95, and Boban Stojanović, both at the Calgary Centre for Newcomers, were applying for a grant to keep their program for LGBTQ2S+ newcomers running, and they were looking to do some research about the question of intersectionality, so they sought out researchers from the university who work in the area of critical social justice.

“Researchers who swim in theory make good partners with people who are community-based activists that are working on the ground in direct support systems for newcomers,” says Callaghan.

The research partnership includes the Centre for Newcomers, Callaghan and Dr. Ghada Alatrash, PhD’19, a colleague of Callaghan’s who is currently teaching at Mount Royal University and taking up an assistant professorship this summer at the Alberta University of the Arts.

Callaghan says the partners all have the will and the experience to do this work, but they now just need funding from donors in order to hire research assistants and maybe a postdoctoral scholar who might like to be part of this kind of research.

UCrowdfund campaign supports the project

This funding will come through the UCrowdfund campaign. UCrowdfund is the university’s crowdfunding platform for projects initiated by UCalgary students, faculty, researchers and alumni.

Callaghan says this is an unusual way to raise money, but it does have some advantages.

“I think it’s a good way to get people to know about the study,” she says.

Callaghan says she received feedback from scholars across the country asking her why she didn’t just apply for a grant. Her reply is, because there are so many partnerships involved, she didn’t want to be the principal investigator in a formal way, but wanted to share the credit with everybody involved. 

Callaghan wants people to know just how important this initiative is to so many people.

“This project has the potential to save lives,” she says.