Rainbow Railroad recently held an informational meeting at Center on Halsted to announce its partnership with U.S. State Department administered Welcome Corps sponsorship program. The organization has chosen the Chicago, San Francisco Bay and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas to kick off this initiative of resettling 50 LGBTQI+ people to safety in those areas.
"LGBTQI+ people are facing increasing persecution around the world, and LGBTQI+ persons seeking refuge have a critical need for networks of support throughout the process of resettlement," said Rainbow Railroad CEO Kimahli Powell. "The Welcome Corps represents a major step in the Biden administration's goal of advancing LGBTQI+ rights worldwide. Rainbow Railroad is excited about this program, which will empower communities of care across the United States to support LGBTQI+ people at risk."
"We are affectionately calling our participation in the program, Developing Communities of Care," said Rainbow Railroad Head of Development Dane Bland.
Bland told Windy City Times that the informational meeting was attended by local supporters and members of the LGBTQI+ and allied communities where they heard about the current state of Rainbow Railroad's work globally "for context and how this program is going to help advance our mission which is ultimately to get LGBTQI+ people to safety in places like Chicago."
According to Rainbow Railroad's website, the organization "is a global not-for-profit organization that helps LGTBQI+ people facing persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics. In a time when there are more displaced people than ever before, LGBTQI+ people are uniquely vulnerable due to systemic, state-enabled homophobia and transphobia. These factors either displace them in their own country or prevent them from escaping harm."
"Welcome Corps [launched on January 23, 2023, by the U.S. State Department in coordination with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department] is a new service opportunity for Americans to welcome refugees seeking freedom and safety and, in turn, make a difference in their own communities," according to its website. "Together, sponsor groups welcome refugee newcomers by securing and preparing initial housing, greeting refugee newcomers at the airport, enrolling children in school and helping adults to find employment. You already have the most important skill you need to succeedknowledge about daily life in your community. Experts will be there to guide you each step of the way."
Since its founding in 2006 as an all-volunteer run organization, Rainbow Railroad has helped over 7,600 LGBTQI+ people find safety through emergency relocation or other assistance methods due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or sex characteristics.
Rainbow Railroad was the brainchild of queer immigration lawyer Michael Battista who later became the organization's first board chair. Battista and some of his friends who were working in the refugee immigration rights realm in Canada came together to help queer refugee friends of theirs who needed to get to safety in 2006. This prompted them to want to help others so they launched the nonprofit under the Rainbow Railroad name, with an all-volunteer workforce until 2015 when they hired their first executive director and support staff. In 2013 and 2015, the organization was officially recognized as official charities in Canada and the United States respectively.
"Our organization reached the kind of growth moment in 2016/2017, when we rose to international prominence as one of the first responders from an NGO prospective to the crisis in Chechnya that was targeting LGBTQI+ people there and more specifically gay men," said Bland. "The state was rounding them up and putting them in prison. Rainbow Railroad was one of the only organizations that stepped up and responded.
"That led to our international prominence moment where we went from helping one or two people at a time in very particular regions specifically the Caribbean and Eastern Europe where we got our start to now being an organization that responds to requests for help in over 100 countries around the world. From helping one person at a time to being a multi-million dollar organization with the incredible help of our supporters that is able to respond to thousands of cases en masse."
Currently, there are offices in Toronto and New York City, with global staff in multiple Middle Eastern and European countries. There are approximately 45 total paid staffers across Rainbow Railroad's worldwide operations.
"We work with an incredible network of civil society organizations all around the world that total 29 active partnerships," said Bland. "This includes countries like Uganda and Russia. Instead of opening up Rainbow Railroad offices all over the place we look for partners on the ground who are already doing this work in their own countries. There is no other organization on the planet that is doing the work we do in the way we do it.
"In 2017, we received 1,200 requests for assistance and provided support for 187 of those people. Last year, we received 9,650 requests for assistance and provided support for 4,457 of those people. The organization has vastly increased over the past five years. The growth was a little more marginal from 2006-2016. There have been a number of factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, awareness and rising global issues impacting LGBTQI+ people that have necessitated our growth."
Last year, Rainbow Railroad assisted people from 45 of the over 100 countries from where requests originated, and relocated those people into 19 different countries. Bland told Windy City Times that the work they do is thanks to the many financial supporters they have gotten funding from over the years who have leveled-up their donations. Bland added that the organization is developing stronger partnerships with governments worldwide; Rainbow Railroad has been working with the U.S. State Department Welcome Corps sponsorship program, for example.
Additionally, last year Rainbow Railroad was one of many dozens of recipients of billionaire philanthropist and novelist MacKenzie Scott's Yield Giving donations. The organization received $5 million and according to Bland this has allowed the leadership to invest that money as well as maximize their resources to help more people since it costs $10,000 U.S. per person emergency evacuation.
"As a welcoming city with a vibrant LGBTQI+ community and organizations deeply rooted in serving the refugee population, Chicago is an ideal place to pilot this project," said Chicago-based Rainbow Railroad Board Vice-Chair Bruce Koff. "My husband and I are thrilled to build our own welcoming team here and encourage others to do the same. It is a unique opportunity to advance freedom and safety for other LGBTQI+ people, mobilize our community and change someone's life forever."
See rainbowrailroad.org/ and welcomecorps.org/ .