TORONTO -- A year of the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered many sectors unrecognizable, including charities, as entire countries have ground to a halt with lockdowns and border closures to fight the coronavirus.

Rainbow Railroad is an international LGBTQ2S+ organization based in Canada that provides pathways to safety for persecuted members of the queer community all over the world.

In 2017, they were integral in helping LGBTQ2S+ people escape from a brutal persecution in Chechnya, amid reports that gay men were being abducted, tortured and murdered by Chechen forces under leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

The pandemic forced the organization to adjust its operations – but it did not stop members from continuing their mission.

“Our core mandate is that we facilitate safe emergency relocation to another country, and that is a key aspect of our work,” said Rainbow Railroad’s Executive Director Kimahli Powell in a telephone interview with Wednesday. “We average 3,000 requests for aid a year, and we facilitate about 200 emergency evacuations a year. That means there’s still a lot of people that are waiting for support or in limbo.”

Powell said prior to the pandemic, the organization was evaluating how it could amplify and provide other types of support outside of emergency relocation, such as temporary relocations and safe houses – and that work took centre stage during the crux of the pandemic.

“The pandemic really tested us as an organization and really showed the resiliency of our missions and of our community stakeholders.”

“We were faced with this unique circumstance where the primary driver of our emergency evacuations across states, across borders, was completely shut off,” said Powell. “How do we support people who need emergency evacuation support?”

Powell said additional hurdles lay in having partner organizations, human rights defenders and people on the ground responding to COVID-19 in the global south, some in countries where there are scarcer resources than Canada.

“In general amongst vulnerable people [there is] just an extra layer of persecution, of instability of having to shelter in place sometimes in deplorable conditions,” Powell said, adding that financial strain was also a major concern.

“At this stage we are still 100 per cent funded by private sources,” he said.

But Powell said there was never a moment of major panic, as Rainbow Railroad adjusted to meet the conditions forced by a global pandemic.

“Rainbow Railroad operates in 18 countries and has dealt with crisis situations from the start…COVID provided us with an opportunity to focus and enhance other aspects of our work,” he said.

Rainbow Railroad made a five-point plan to address the ongoing crisis, which included providing direct emergency livelihood to support people where there were no resources available, partnering with organizations globally who needed enhanced capacity to provide support to the queer community in their area, and facilitating support to collectives of human and LGBTQ2S+ rights defenders.

“Sometimes its just loose collectives who are bravely trying to provide resources and trying to respond to crackdowns on LGBT people, where the governments have been imposing strict lockdowns and using COVID as an excuse to target the community,” Powell explained.

“I think we can imagine what it’s like to having had to shelter in place over the past year, or be separated from our families…I think we understand inherently and emphasise with frontline workers and support workers being vulnerable to the pandemic. I think we could extend that to think about people in countries that are more marginalized, that have not necessarily had full adequate COVID response programmes,” Powell said. “When you factor that in with what vulnerability looks like as an LGBTQI person, you can see how someone can find themselves in a very dangerous situation.”

Powell said an example of the danger exacerbated by COVID-19 took place in Uganda, where “the government took advantage of COVID lockdown to raid a shelter that was providing safe haven and refuge for 20 LGBTQI persons for three months…the stakes are really high.”

The online nature of Rainbow Railroad’s work – verifying requests for aid, finding and facilitating safe houses and resources for persecuted members of the queer community and facilitating emergency relocation and extrication from countries – made the switch to working from home easier to adapt to, Powell said.

While working remotely, Rainbow Railroad was still able to provide travel support in 2020, and assisted “nearly 500 hundred people,” despite the pandemic restrictions, including “nearly 70 people” through emergency travel.

“We had no other choice – not to feel in crisis but to resolve ourselves to all our clients and help as many people as possible,” Powell said.

When borders open and restrictions ease, Powell said Rainbow Railroad hopes to resume its international operations and form more strategic partnerships with global governments, and become the “referring partner” with the Canadian government when LGBTQ2S+ people are in need of emergency relocation.

Canadians wishing to help the organization can first start by following Rainbow Railroad on social media to learn more about the issues facing the global queer community, Powell said.

“Many people still don’t understand that 70 countries criminalize same-sex intimacy,” he explained, adding that more encouragement is needed for the federal government to continue taking in LGBTQ2S+ refugees and asylum seekers.

“There’s no reason why we can’t safely resume accepting refugees and asylum seekers…we need to push for more,” Powell said. “There’s room to go further.”

Those wishing to donate to Rainbow Railroad may do so via their website.