A conversation with El-Farouk Khaki – imam, human rights lawyer, and social justice advocate
By Sabat Ismail
I sat down with El-Farouk Khaki in his home in the Church-Wellesley Village to discuss his work and activism as a refugee and immigration lawyer and long-time human rights and LGBTQ+ activist. El-Farouk is a beloved community member, elder and friend who has done pioneering work in the Toronto QTBIPOC/ Muslim communities. He has created innovative inclusive Muslim spaces that have been tremendously important for me and many others. My intention in conducting this interview was that it can be a way of respecting, publicizing and archiving the work he has done.
I also wanted to document some of the work he’s done and the initiatives he has started because of what I have heard him say in passing to me in others regarding the Lavender Crescent. The Lavender Crescent–which discusses in this interview– was one of the first recorded queer Muslim organizations in San Francisco in the 1970s. Though upon him and others attempting to find more information on this initiative there was barely anything to be found, which underscored to him the importance of documenting queer Muslim histories. Furthermore, more queer and trans Muslims are imagined as non-existent by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, it is important to also document these histories in defiance of this erasure.
Sabat: Thank you for joining me, El-Farouk. Can you tell us about the work that you do within the queer community in Toronto?
El-Farouk: I do different kinds of work depending on the time of day or my location (laughs). My day job is as a lawyer. [What] I work on these days [is] mostly refugee claims; claims mostly based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender-related issues, intersecting issues with HIV infection, and issues like FGM (female genital mutilation) and so on. As their lawyer, I work with them to adduce a narrative based on their experiences and their fears, that will help them to hopefully get through the refugee system, meaning that they’ll get protection as a Convention refugee and get protection here, in Canada. My work is to extract their stories and their experiences of harm that eventually led them to flee their countries and seek Canada as protection. It’s hard work because it’s dealing with people’s traumas.
Sabat: Do you find that the process can be retraumatizing?
El-Farouk: Oh, people are constantly triggered, constantly. Some stories take way more time than I’ll ever get paid for, right. I’ll sometimes be frustrated with clients when they’re not giving their best effort, or they’re not learning from the multiplicity of meetings. Often I give specific instructions on what they need to gather and when they need to do it, and the client sometimes can’t bring themselves to look at the material until the day before we are scheduled to meet, and then we have to scramble to do something with the story. That is frustrating for me.
(Timer goes off for his two-year old’s dinner. El-Farouk gets up to give him his dinner.)
It can be very retriggering, but it is about avoidance, right. If they don’t do what I asked them to do, it’s more unnecessary work for us, and at the end of the day, they’re not as well prepared for their own hearing.
El-Farouk: I give my clients a sheet that has some groups and organizations that may be able to assist them—especially for my female clients and my queer and trans clients. On that sheet there are links that say where you can learn more about the system, and many people don’t look at them and that’s part of the avoidance. At the end of the day, what they do or do not do, and how they do it, is really up to them. I’m there to facilitate their progress and that’s also a part of my work with them, to guide them to where they can get the tools to represent themselves, to advocate for themselves, to acquire some skills, and some awareness about the refugee claim process, and themselves.
Sabat: When your queer and trans clients claim asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity at the Immigration and Refugee Board, is it difficult for them to prove their claim? Especially since they may be closeted in their home countries and that that queerness and transness may not look how the Board may expect?
El-Farouk: Yeah, [the Board] has its gaps. Though there should be no universal generalizations of people who come from certain parts of the world… 15, 20 years ago, most of my client’s were from South America as there were queer places and spaces in those countries, yet they experienced a lot of violence and oppression. But in some African and Middle Eastern countries, there was no real queer visibility or very little visible queer community. The internet and smartphones have given access to people in many parts of the world, to Grindr or things like that which could indicate being gay… I would say it can still be a challenge for some people depending on how they live their lives. There are ways to prepare for most people. They’re in Canada for a year.. year and a half, sometimes before they have their claim hearing, and that allows them to integrate themselves into queer communities here. That gives them a chance, I think, to strengthen their case. I think a part of the problem with that strategy, too, is that a lot of folks are traumatized, so at times making those connections is easier said than done.
El-Farouk: I have seen people who have been through astounding brutality and still come out of it. And I see other people who use every justification for not actually managing, overcoming, or dealing with their abuse. I will get psych assessments and reports done. So that we can use and have some benefit of it in the hearing, but I also share with my clients and sometimes recommend ongoing therapy, or ongoing counselling and some people take it up and some people just don’t.
Sabat: Do you have any thoughts on why some people can make it past?
El-Farouk: For many of my clients, it can be retriggering. But mashallah 1, many of my clients have done really well, or done really good things. For whatever reason they were persecuted or harmed, they are able to pick up their pieces again and are able to move forward. So it depends on the person and circumstance. Some people have deep-seated trauma and they can’t make it past and I recognize that some people are better equipped to deal with abuse or trauma.
Sabat: El-Farouk, can you talk about your personal connection with borders?
El-Farouk: I’m [from] a diasporic family, a migrant. My family had to leave Tanzania, we lived in England, but we had no secure long-term status in England and we faced the possibility of removal back to Tanzania. Removal would have meant torture, maybe disappearance, or even death, at least for my father, so there was a relief when we got our acceptance letter to Canada. My mother and I being able to cross an African border and then from Africa to England, another border, and to be able to stay in England… How does the border confine you or open you up to new possibilities? And then when we came to Canada in 1974, and that was a relief, for us that was a welcome border. But now borders are also unsafe, you know.. I remember before 9/11 I would cross a border, I would remove my earrings and my jewelry and so on and so forth, to try to look as non-discrept as possible, and now it’s better to be gay than be Muslim when you’re crossing a border…
Sabat: Because they usually think you can’t be both?
El-Farouk: I guess that’s what I’m banking on, right? Or that I don’t look like someone who they’d perceive to be a threat. After 9/11 I started to keep all my jewelry on. The last few years, I have not even gone to the United States because it’s not a border that Troy (El-Farouk’s husband and long-time partner) or I feel particularly safe to cross as a Black, brown gay Muslim couple. Now the most recent manifestation of borders for us is that Troy and I cannot travel to about 90 different countries because of their anti-sodomy laws. Troy and I are married and we have a son together, and that means that there are certain borders we can’t cross. This is a problem, my aunt lives in Africa and she’s in her late 80s, and I would love for her to meet our son, but she can’t travel because of her age and her health and we don’t feel safe going to my country of origin in Africa, so borders have always played this role in my life. I make my bread and butter from borders—my clients are refugees and migrants. I would say that borders have always been significant to me.
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- An Arabic phrase that means “As God has willed” – is also often used by non-Arabic speaking Muslims – pronouncing joy, appreciation, admiration or gratitude for a person, thing, or event. ↩