News / Toronto

'I can exist and I can live': Fleeing homophobia in Jamaica, man builds new life in Toronto

Gregg Durrant left his home of Jamaica for Canada and now works at the 519, a support centre for the LGBTQ community.

After facing persecution and violence as a gay man in Jamaica, Gregg Durrant fled to Canada as a refugee. Now, he's the LGBTQ Refugee Programs Coordinator at the 519.

(ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE / TORONTO STAR)

After facing persecution and violence as a gay man in Jamaica, Gregg Durrant fled to Canada as a refugee. Now, he's the LGBTQ Refugee Programs Coordinator at the 519.

When Gregg Durrant left his home of Jamaica and came to Toronto as a refugee just over two years ago, he finally felt safe.

“Living in Jamaica I got a sense of just existing and not living,” he said, adding, “Jamaica is pretty homophobic.”

Durrant, 34, is one of many LGBTQ refugees the 519, a City of Toronto agency that offers support services for the LGBTQ community, has helped settle in Canada and escape persecution in their home countries.

Between April of last year and March this year, the organization has helped about 1,238 refugees. And compared to the first quarter of 2016, the first quarter of this year has seen a 71 per cent increase in the number of newcomers it’s assisted.

“I was never out in Jamaica, because I was aware of the consequences of being out,” said Durrant. “I often masked my fears with smiles and pretended to be interested in girls, but people somehow were able to tell I am gay.”

His decision to leave his home came after he was called homophobic slurs, robbed and held up at knifepoint in Jamaica, he said.

“Coming here there’s a sense of community and never before in my life have I been in a setting with over a hundred LGBTQ in one space interacting,” said Durrant of the 519.

He fled his life in Jamaica and a job he loved teaching high school students.

“Being in Canada it was totally different. I can exist and I can live being Gregg, being the gay Gregg,” said Durrant, who is now the LGBTQ Refugee Programs Coordinator at the 519.

The highest percentage of refugees the 519 helps come from Africa, with the second largest from the Caribbean, said Karlene Williams-Clarke, the Manager of Direct Services.

About 18 per cent come from Eastern Europe and the rest are from the Middle East, she added.

“Many people will say when they come here, in their country they don’t have a space like the 519,” said Williams-Clarke. “It’s the oasis of the gay village.”

The agency is open and inclusive and offers a range of services from helping with refugee claims, immigration, medical care and counseling, said Williams-Clarke. The centre also offers individual, group and workshop services, and helps youth, seniors, families and transgender people.

Each year, the organization receives over half a million visits.

It’s funded primarily through donations and through government and city funding, but it also runs events like the Green Space Festival.

The festival, a celebration of diversity and partying for a cause, began in 2008 and has raised over $1.5 million towards programs at the 519.

It is running from June 22 to 25 this year and most of the events are free to the public.

Though Durrant admits he still misses his old job as a teacher, something he’d have to get retrained for to do again in Canada, he loves his work at the 519.

“I’m falling in love with what I’m doing now because I’m able to give back and there’s a sense of fulfillment in that.”

More on Metronews.ca