Were you aware that a small staff of six are working to save the lives of LGBTQI people all over the world? As the name Rainbow Railroad implies they work to discreetly move people out of dangerous circumstances into safe houses, and often on to a safe haven in a new country. Their name is intended to pay homage to the Underground Railroad that began in the 1780s.
In April of this year, the abduction, detentions, torture and deaths of 200 plus LGBTQI Chechens were documented by the media. What you may not realize is that this is a global problem. Homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, several of which impose a death sentence. Living in a country where homosexuality has been decriminalized does not guarantee one’s safety.
Rainbow Railroad has grown to a team of six employees (five in Canada, and one in the United States) and obtained charitable status in 2013. The inspiration to begin Rainbow Railroad came from a homeless Palestinian youth during World Pride in Tel Aviv in 2006. Supported by an active board of directors and countless volunteers, this organization has assisted more than 300 individuals to date.
Out of necessity, Rainbow Railroad has successfully harnessed the power of social media in its efforts to assist LGBTQI people; saving people is expensive for an organization that receives no government funding. Naturally, turning to social media is a viable way to fund raise, provide support and connect to those in need. The non-profit effectively showcases success stories of people who have been assisted by Rainbow Railroad, which compels people to act. Everyone can help the cause by way of donation. On the flip side, acts of racism and homophobia are being documented and shared by everyday people on applications such as Snapchat.
I am grateful that Bobby Hrehoruk, Manager of Development and Community Engagement at Rainbow Railroad, was willing to discuss the non-profit’s use of social media to engage with its supporters and the the people to whom they are providing assistance.
The following is a transcript of our conversation.
How much does it cost to help someone in need?
So the typical amount of money that is required varies case by case, but it is usually an average of $10,000 Canadian dollars to help pay for someone to get to safety (including the cost pre-travel and post-travel).
Please describe the process of helping someone.
People connect to us in different ways. The most typical method for first contact is when someone browses our website and then fills out a quick form with a few questions on it. That form then gets sent to us and then we have the person go through the intake process. Often times there are language barriers we have to navigate through and we have to make sure the person is eligible to receive support from us and that sort of thing. So that’s one way. People also reach out for help on social media or they will also be connected with a local LGBTQI group that will refer them to our organization.
How do you validate that requests for help are real?
That is where our relationships and trust with the local LGBTQI groups becomes really important; they play a vital role in validating the cases. They often verify the case or vouch for the person.
Do you have a process to determine who receives financial aid first?
It is usually based on a couple of things like if a person is in dire need of our help or is in a really dangerous situation. Those cases should obviously receive priority attention when possible.
How do you use social media to communicate with the people you are helping?
It is the way people communicate. Most of the correspondence when someone is going through the intake and case process is done through email. However people often times check up on the status of their case with us on social media, like Facebook. Individuals often communicate with their case worker through tools like Whatsapp just because they are secure, easy ways for us to communicate with the person.
How has the use of social media tools benefited the fundraising efforts of Rainbow Railroad?
In regards to Rainbow Railroad, one of our primary ways of communication with our supporters is through Facebook and our other social media channels like Instagram and Twitter. It’s a very easy way for us to communicate what we are up to and the issues that are at the forefront of the work that we do. Obviously, because of the connection with our organisation through those platforms, people frequently end up on our donation page after reading an article about us or come across a post about the great work that we are doing. We have also been the beneficiary of some crowd sourcing campaigns
that happened through the spring when the Chechnya crisis was going on; a couple people in the US were inspired by our work and sent crowd source funds through Facebook’s infrastructure for donations. The effort raised a few hundred thousand dollars for us.
How are the refugees that Rainbow Railroad helped to relocate to Canada doing? How can we help them further?
Every person has unique needs and has various traumas that they have had to navigate before getting to their new home. For the cases that end up in Canada, we do hear positive stories about them overcoming the traumas they they have endured. One of the stories was Tony; her story is in our 2016 annual report.
These people have shown a lot of resilience. When they arrive in Canada, they have new hope of building a life with dignity and with the safety that each person deserves. Of the Chechnya cases that have been relocated in Canada, many of them are still adjusting to their new home. But with the support of and from the community, they are starting to find their place and learning a bit of the language. Those are all encouraging signs.
The easiest way to help organizations like Rainbow Railroad is obviously to donate and volunteer for organizations that work in LGBTQI
services and refugee support. Another way to help is by spreading the word about how we can support our LGBTQI sisters and brothers across the world.
Can you talk about your program to help individuals sponsor a refugee?
Canada is unique in that the government allows a program called the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, which allows private citizens to kind of take the role of the government in terms of supporting a refugee coming to Canada. That process usually involves groups of five. Those groups of five have to raise the minimum, which is in the $12,000 range, and those teams are responsible for supporting the refugee’s settlement in Canada. It is a great program because it really lets Canada accept more refugees without having a dependence on the government. It also engages with community members that want to help others who haven’t had the best life. And the program can also help support them in creating a new life here in Canada.
Amazing! I know you have the 60 in 60 campaign coming up in the next couple weeks. Can you share a little information about what exactly that is and can you enlighten us on any of the situations that these next 60 recipients are facing right now? I am assuming that you already know which 60 people are up next.
At any time Rainbow Railroad is working on 50-60 open cases, so in all likelihood, the people we are able to support in 2018 will also be supported through the funding that we obtain through this campaign. The 60 in 60 campaign is quite simple. The goal is for us to fund raise half a million dollars and help save 60 lives in 60 days. The campaign kicks off on November 1st and ends on December 31st 2017. Historically this time of year has been the most charitable time of year with our supporters; it’s just a great opportunity to see how easy it is to save an individual life for $10,000, a plane ticket that can be the difference between life and death . We are really excited to launch the campaign
Where will the 60 in 60 campaign be launched and how will you be launching it?
We will be reaching out to our supporters through all of our means of communication. Hopefully you will see us in the news and any way that we can convey the importance of our work!
Rainbow Railroad certainly does many things well in its efforts to fund raise and provide assistance to LGBTQI people living across the world. I believe one of the keys to its success is the transparency in its effective and moving social media campaigns. Platforms such as Facebook have provided a convenient and easy way to update supporters via video. Staff are also easily located on Facebook, LinkedIn
, Instagram and Twitter (in addition to their website). Rainbow Railroad shares personal success stories while protecting the privacy of its clients.
A further benefit of the organizational transparency Rainbow Railroad has achieved is the ease with which everyday people can contribute to the cause. Many donations are received through organic traffic to the non-profit’s website. Rainbow Railroad also spells out how individuals can choose to support their cause; instructions for options such as creating a fundraiser of your own, sponsoring a refugee, and sharing information (to keep the charity top of mind) are clearly outlined on its website.
As a lesson to inform other charitable organizations, crowd sourcing is not as beneficial to the long term fundraising success. The donor information is not shared with the charity, thereby precluding the opportunity for future relationship building with supporters. Although beneficial in the short term, it takes a few months to receive funds (which is not a problem for groups who do not have a cash flow deficit)
Most of us are blessed not to have feared for our own safety based on our sexual preference or gender expression. It is wonderful to know that groups such as Rainbow Railroad exist to help regular people, contribute good into the world, and save lives.
Please show your support for the work of Rainbow Railroad by sending them a donation.
Name of Organization Contact:
Robert Hrehoruk, Manager of Development and Community Engagement
If you have concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site, please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Program Director, Social Media for Business Performance.
How Canada has been secretly giving asylum to gay people in Chechnya fleeing persecution
The Inside Story: Jamaican gay rights activist finds asylum in Canada
These middle school students pretended to rape black classmates on Snapchat
2016 Rainbow Railroad Annual Report