Yusuf Celik did not arrive in Canada as a refugee. But he did come here to escape the stream of discrimination that had followed him for most of his life.
The now 31-year-old man, who has worked on contract for the federal government in Ottawa, was born in Kâhta, a small mainly Kurdish town in the southeastern Turkish province of Adiyaman, and spent his first two decades dealing with blowback based on who he was.
As a young boy, Celik (pronounced Che-lik) would secretly wear his sister’s clothes and play a game with a young neighbor in which Celik was “mom” and the other lad was “dad.” At 14, he had his first sexual experience with another male teen.
In response, Celik’s devoutly Muslim parents sent him, the second-youngest of seven children, to a madrasa — an Islamic religious school — with the not-so-subtle message that his sexual orientation was to be curbed. News of honor killings of gay Turkish men added fear to the discouragement Celik was feeling. At the age of 16, he says, he tried to commit suicide.
Prejudice toward him turned to ethnic lines when he pursued his education, which included one year of fine arts studies in ceramics and glass at Istanbul University. Celik was regularly reminded that, as a Kurd, he was an outsider (although he points out that a DNA test he took revealed that his ancestry is 72 percent Armenian).
In 2009, he left Turkey for the West Coast of the United States, where he would live with one of his brothers in Portland, Ore., and, he hoped, begin a new life.
Life in Ottawa beyond the shadows of Syria
Celik enrolled at a community college to fine-tune his English-language skills and prepare for university studies. He got involved in student politics. He was with family.
But before Celik had the chance to complete his college program, his brother noticed something on a shared data-plan they had for their cellphones. Celik was visiting gay websites.
“He kicked me out of the house and threatened to send me back to Turkey,” says Celik, who found refuge at a friend’s house and jobs working in room service at a Westin hotel (for which he got paid) and chopping vegetables at a Syrian restaurant kitchen (for which he received food) to survive.
He earned enough money to afford a one-room apartment and attend Portland State University, from which he obtained an undergraduate degree in Middle East studies and political science.
Celik, who embraced social activism during his university days in Istanbul, openly expressed his views on LGBTQ rights — much to the horror of his brother, who threatened to kill him.
Yusuf Celik, 31, didn’t come to Canada as a refugee but immigrated from Turkey to escape the often violent discrimination that followed him most of his life because he’s gay. JULIE OLIVER / POSTMEDIA
It was time for Celik to move on again, and this time he eyed Ottawa, where lived a gay man he had met and befriended in Istanbul in 2008 and with whom he had stayed in touch.
In 2011, Celik came to visit his friend in Ottawa for three months. The following year they got married, and Celik formally immigrated to Canada in 2013. (The couple recently divorced.)
In Ottawa, Celik added to his academic credentials, earning a master’s degree from Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in 2016 when he landed his first full-time job as a program assistant — on contract — screening applications from prospective immigrants at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Last year, he was on a six-month contract with the non-profit Institute on Governance working on fiscal federalism, decentralization and resiliency-building project in Iraq, which involved traveling there to meet with officials from both the Iraqi and Kurdistan regional governments.
Celik, who recently worked as a policy and research analyst for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and, as of January, will work as a research analyst for Public Services and Procurement Canada. This past spring, Celik also acquired Canadian citizenship and has also been involved in fundraising for Syrian refugees.
Based on his personal experience as an immigrant who had to find a new life in Canada, he says he believes the system here can favor over other newcomers.
“Immigrants also bring the luggage of trauma with them – and I find that we sometimes treat citizens worse than refugees in this country. The federal government has to treat all immigrants and refugees equally.”
His opinions point to the layers and nuance between different communities, including among newcomers in this country.
Given his life’s journey, it is perhaps not surprising that Celik is an activist in many ways. A practicing Muslim, he says Canada needs to take more of a leadership role in defending the rights of LGBTQ people — refugees or not – and particularly, gay Muslim men, whom he says are the “most oppressed” group around the world.
To empower gay Muslims, promote their rights and help create safe spaces for them, Celik started Gay Muslims United, earlier this year — an organization he hopes will have an international reach, but still a focus close to home. For instance, he would like the LGBTQ community in Canada to include more Muslims in committee and paid work.
While outspoken, he is also vocal about his admiration for his new home country.
In a YouTube video about his journey to Canada, Celik says it is the only country where he “could live proudly gay as well as proudly Muslim.”