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From Safe House To a Pathway to Safety: Rainbow Railroad’s work in Jamaica

This October, program staff traveled to a safe house supported by Rainbow Railroad in Jamaica. Read on for reflections on this experience, and insights about our ongoing work in the region. 

From Safe House To a Pathway to Safety: Rainbow Railroad’s... From Safe House To a Pathway to Safety: Rainbow Railroad’s...

This October, program staff traveled to a safe house that Rainbow Railroad supports in Jamaica. Read on for reflections on this experience, and insights about our ongoing work in the region. 

Jamaica is one of the nine Caribbean countries that still criminalizes same sex intimacy, and one of the first countries in which Rainbow Railroad established a major operational presence. To this day, we continue to do significant work in the region.

In December 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found that Jamaica’s laws violated LGBTQI+ people’s right to privacy and the right to equal protection, recommending the repeal of anti-LGBTQI+ laws, as well as countering homophobic discrimination and violence through training, education and public policies. Rainbow Railroad Senior Program Officer Gareth Henry has been at the center of this case as one of the plaintiffs, bringing as evidence the homophobic attacks he himself suffered in Jamaica, as well as evidence from his casework at Rainbow Railroad.

From October 11-14, 2022, Rainbow Railroad Director of Programs Devon Matthews, Senior Program Officer, Gareth Henry, and Program Officer, Lauren Young, visited Jamaica to meet with program beneficiaries and on-the-ground partners, including the team that runs the safehouse.

Right now, there are 11 people being kept safe through this vital program, funded by Rainbow Railroad. With our support, these individuals are offered security while they wait as they prepare  to relocate to a safer country – also with Rainbow Railroad’s help. 

Since 2006, Rainbow Railroad has relocated 572 Jamaicans to safety, including over 100 in the last 2 years alone.  We also provide targeted cash assistance for needs such as passport application fees and other documentation, critical medical care including anti-retrovirals for those living with HIV, and other essential needs such as winter coats and suitcases. In the last two years, nearly 100 additional people have received this kind of support from Rainbow Railroad. So far in 2022, we have also provided 14 people with non-monetary support, such as letters of support, referrals and information about services they can access, and emotional and mental health support. The safehouse is one way that we provide support to persons at risk – since safehouse capacity is limited, triaging of cases based on vulnerability and need is done very carefully. 

Said Program Officer Lauren Young, “If there was no safe house, we would have heard of more deaths.”  Lauren contrasted the secure conditions in the safe house with what case individuals face in the community, saying, “Because there are not enough shelters, many LGBTQ people rejected by their families live in the ravines and gullies. Many of them haven’t completed high school and don’t have a birth certificate. In contrast, the safe house provides access to a dentist, psychiatrists, medical care and support to obtain identity documents. Finally they have the experience that they never had in Jamaica, receiving services without discrimination based on their appearance or mannerisms, services that are often denied to them in the community.”

Lauren also processed her experience at the safe house through the lens of her role as a Rainbow Railroad caseworker and a refugee from Jamaica herself. She said, “I often need to protect myself and not tap into the emotions of those we help  when we are doing casework via phone and email, but in person, with them in the safe house, I allowed the emotions to come. When you see the hurt and disappointment on their face, it breaks your heart. You realize that you literally save people’s lives.”

The safe house makes a huge difference to Rainbow Railroad’s case work; it is much more cost effective than having people wait in hotels while travel arrangements are being finalized, enabling us to move more people. The safe house is a centralized hub for case work, where case individuals can see a doctor and a psychologist, have HIV and other STIs addressed, and receive treatment for other medical issues. It becomes a place they can call home, a one-stop shop for practical support, and, perhaps most importantly, a place where they take care of each other.

Senior Program Officer Gareth Henry said that he was struck by the individuals in the safe house who told him, “This is our home!” after years of experiencing homelessness. He spoke about the profound sense of community that people in the safe house share, saying, “People’s definition of family is usually their blood relatives, but in the safe house, LGBTQI+ people have a space with people who share a common bond looking for safety after experiencing trauma and violence, and trying to keep others safe. They tell me, ‘I thought I had it bad! But this other person suffered so much’. In fact, they all had very bad situations, but in their most traumatic stage, to meet others who have suffered in the same way is inspirational and creates a community that prepares them to travel.”

The safe house represents the power that can bring about systemic change in Jamaica– solidarity and commitment from the LGBTQI+ community and from allies who support them. Said Gareth, “If we can sustain the commitment of the folks involved in the safe house and replicate this, there is hope for Jamaica. We can have hope, but we have to work, we have to capitalize on this kind of exposure and bring more people to join this unique opportunity. I believe that the change will come, there is hope, but we have to press forward.”

Part of pressing forward is continuing to document evidence of the human rights violations committed against LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica and to advocate for change, which Rainbow Railroad will undertake in the coming months. Gareth said, “At Rainbow Railroad, we help people to find safety, but ultimately the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)  recommendations state that the government of Jamaica has the obligation to create safety for all people in its jurisdiction.”

Gareth leaves us with a profound message about the joy of doing this work: “As challenging and traumatizing as it is for me, and sometimes I get retraumatized, it’s difficult, but it is so meaningful and brings me overwhelming joy and peace to walk with them through this process. Rainbow Railroad is a ray of hope for hundreds, maybe even thousands of LGBTQI+ folks in Jamaica.”