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Discover Rainbow Railroad’s crucial and inspiring work this World Refugee Day.

LGBTQIA+ Protests during Istanbul Pride

Rainbow Railroad is an international organisation with a simple mission: help LGBTQIA+ people all around the world get to safety. Contiki, and the TreadRight Foundation, have partnered with Rainbow Railroad so we can support the continuation of their brave and inspiring efforts. We are endlessly proud of this partnership and we thought it was high time to offer you an introduction into what these true heroes do. 

We spoke to Dane Bland and Adriana Espinosa from Rainbow Railroad, in order to share with you what they do, how they do it, and how you can join the fight to support LGBTQIA+ lives and rights across the globe.

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Why we support the Rainbow Railroad. And why you should too…

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Who are Rainbow Railroad?

To put it simply, Rainbow Railroad is an extraction programme for members of the LGBTQIA+ community living in dangerous situations. What started as a small group of dedicated activists planning around a kitchen table in 2006 has now become a registered charity organisation which operates on a global scale. They work hard to resettle people at risk into 20 different countries, including Canada, the US, Germany, and France. 

To put it in more complicated terms, Rainbow Railroad does so much more. “We respond in crisis situations, we provide cash assistance, information, community and mental health support, and we work with 30 partners all around the world including many who are on the ground and can provide direct help as well,” explains Dane, head of development. And even that is still just a small facet of all the jobs to be achieved. 

“I’m not a counsellor, but it often feels like I have to be,” says Adriana, director of emergency travel support and cash assistance. “You have to be really open and be able to listen to these people’s stories. You have to listen and understand what they really need and what safety means to them.” It’s certainly not a job for everyone, and the sad truth is that not everyone can be supported either. But Rainbow Railroad always tries every avenue they can and goes beyond the best of their abilities to make these solutions work. 

Dozens of migrants and workers on the sides of the US-Mexico border wall in Tijuana Beach

Image source:Rainbow Railroad

What do they do?

In addition to supporting LGBTQIA+ people at risk, Rainbow Railroad wants to empower people from the community. Part of that empowerment, and the organisation’s work, is setting up sustainable solutions for people. This includes things like financial security, ensuring they have somewhere to stay in their new destination, finding employment, and securing legal protections. 

“These are people who have been persecuted in their homes, either by a state where it is still criminal to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community, or sometimes even by their own family, the people who are supposed to be their support system. They’re alone, and they’re carrying a lot of trauma.” Restoring their power and individuality is crucial. 

Through this empowerment, Rainbow Railroad will be able to help even more people. Adriana explains that part of the job is to “try to connect them to local organisations on the ground that will be able to support their journey and to continue to hold their hand.” 

Both express the sentiment, however, that asking for help in the first place is a huge step towards empowerment. “Everyone, on every stage of the journey, is really taking their own life into their own hands. All we’re doing is facilitating that incredible bravery,” the empowerment there comes from realising that, despite what their countries or families or religions may say, their lives actually have worth despite their sexuality, and they deserve that freedom to be who they are.

A pride parade makes it's way through a city street with signs of protest.

Image source:Rainbow Railroad

What are the challenges?

The situations Adriana and Dane encounter are each unique and in turn present unique hurdles. One case that Adriana recently handled included two women escaping a country in the Middle East only to find themselves trapped in a different country. “Because they were stuck outside of their country of origin it was hard to try and come up with a solution. Luckily, we managed to fly them around the world and they ended up in Germany.”

“In the end this operation is kind of like a really well thought out gamble, but a gamble nonetheless,” Adriana continues. “We have to mitigate the risks, we make several plans, but in the end we’re considering and navigating factors that are out of our control. We don’t have a magic wand we can wave.” Some passports have poor mobility, and many people have never even travelled, let alone taken a plane, before. This means that not every request can be fulfilled, or not with the urgency it may require. 

The roadblocks aren’t just present in the countries of origin where homosexuality is illegal, they’re also present in the form of rising tensions regarding migrants and refugees. “It really is a global rise in this sort of pushback against human rights,” says Dane. “The pandemic hasn’t helped either. The unequal distribution of vaccines has affected people in these marginalised communities because they can’t travel because they’re not vaccinated, because they don’t have access.”

Kas,Turkey - January 16, 2016, Coast line between Kalkan Kas at 09:45. An inflatable boat filled with refugees and other migrants approaches the south coast of the Turkey. Picture captured from Kalkan Kas Road D400.

Image source:Rainbow Railroad

What keeps them going?

But there is always a silver-lining and there is always hope, and that’s what keeps Adriana and Dane going, as well as the thousands of people reaching out for help. “Those two women who we got to Germany, one of them is supporting her partner from afar so she can create a safer space and eventually help to get her out as well. Among all this chaos,” Adriana says, “there are still human beings who care for others.” 

Dane explains that what gives him the most hope are the people reaching out for help themselves. “In many of these countries simply typing in Rainbow Railroad online can be an act that sends them to prison. But these people are doing it anyway because they know and believe they’re free to express themselves and love who they love. It’s that bravery and that self-determination which is so inspiring.”

In many ways, the fact that Rainbow Railroad and organisations like it exist is something that shines a light on the future. “All my colleagues are people who are so passionate about this work and supporting the community,” says Adriana, and Dane has hope for future generations to carry on the torch of kindness and acceptance.

LGBTQIA Pride March In Belgrade

Image source:Rainbow Railroad

How can you help?

At the time of writing this article (June 1st 2023), Rainbow Railroad has received 3,813 requests for help since the start of the year. Last year they received over 10,000 calls for help. “There are 67 countries in the world where it is still illegal to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. That’s an extremely harrowing statistic,” says Dane. “But awareness is a big thing that helps us.”

As with any issue, just talking about it and spreading the word is often a great place to start and a great step towards LGBTQIA+ people living lives free of persecution everywhere. Systemic advocacy and change has to happen. “Information is power. Educating yourself about the challenges and speaking up,” is an easy way to take that first step according to Adriana.

Rainbow Railroad is able to operate as it does today thanks to the help of many trained professionals, but also from the help of volunteers across the globe and donations from other organisations and individuals. 

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