Kimahli Powell didn’t think about the danger he might face in Russia when he traveled there in May. The LGBTQ advocate knew homophobia is considered to be widespread in the country, but he needed to be there to help refugees who had escaped Chechnya’s “gay purge.”
“In hindsight, people will tell me that me being a black gay male going to Russia might be a bit of an alarmist kind of thing, but the stakes were incredibly high at the moment,” Powell told NBC News. “This was a life and death situation.”
Powell is the executive director of Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps evacuate LGBTQ refugees from countries where they face persecution. The organization has teamed with the Russian LGBT Network, which is helping relocate Chechen refugees to safehouses in Russia. The refugees say they were kidnapped and tortured by the Chechen government and live in secrecy with nowhere to go.
“It was really painful and devastating to hear their stories,” recalled Powell, who personally visited the safehouses. “I think about it, and they haunt me now months later. But at the time it was a necessity to kind of understand what these individuals were going through for the sole purpose of getting them out.”
Chechnya, a conservative Muslim republic that is part of the Russian Federation, denies any anti-gay persecution is taking place. But Powell said his organization has helped rescue dozens of refugees from the country. He said officials in the country pose as gay men seeking dates on apps like Grindr, which they use to lure and capture their victims. Once captured, he said, they are taken to detention centers and tortured until they give up the names of their LGBTQ friends. They are then taken home to their relatives, Powell explained, who are expected to perform “honor killings ” on them.
"It’s really personal and scary to see my brothers and sisters internationally facing persecution for being who they are, and so I take it with a point of personal privilege and pride that I’m able to help."
“That was where the real terror began,” Powell said, "because the expectation was that the community or family was to finish the job.”
The refugees who managed to escape were “shell-shocked,” according to Powell.
“When they managed to flee because of a hotline created by the Russian LGBT Network, they were pretty distraught,” Powell explained. “Many of them left with just their belongings on their person. Many of them had never left their homes before.”
He said one refugee who underwent "electroshock torture" refused to give up the names of his friends.
“It was horrific to hear this person tell their story, but also I remember thinking it was remarkable how much bravery and courage this person had."
Fifty refugees have been able to flee, many of them to Canada, thanks to a program Powell negotiated with the Canadian government. In 2017, Rainbow Railroad helped 150 refugees evade persecution globally. Powell is quick to point out that he hasn’t done it alone.
“I am honored to be the steward of this organization,” he said, “but this is 100 percent team effort that I am honored to be a part of.”
Powell, who is the gay son of Jamaican immigrants, counts himself lucky to have been born in Canada. In 2016, he traveled to Jamaica — one of more than 70 countries where consensual same-sex relationships are criminalized — to help LGBTQ activists organize their second pride parade in Montego Bay. There, he met a transgender woman with scars from an acid attack.
“It’s really personal and scary to see my brothers and sisters internationally facing persecution for being who they are, and so I take it with a point of personal privilege and pride that I’m able to help,” he said. "If I wasn’t [born in Canada], I could very well be one of the individuals who our organization is there to help."
The global LGBTQ community is worried about a lot more than marriage equality, according to Powell. He said many are just trying to stay alive.
“That’s why the work of Rainbow Railroad is extremely important, and which is what drives me to go to work every morning and continue to do what we do,” he concluded.
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people and allies who are making a difference in the community.