As a trans person fleeing Kenya, Biko Beauttah found her vocation after she made it to Canada.

By Audra Heinrichs.

Unable to legally work due to her refugee status and transphobia, Beauttah set up establishing Trans Workforce.

Biko Beauttah isn’t short of words when describing the six months she spent living in a Canadian refugee center. Only, the sentiments shared by the transgender activist and founder of Trans Workforce—Canada’s first career and networking symposium for transgender people—are likely not what one would expect.

“To this day, I have never been in a place—anywhere in the world—where I have felt that kind of spirit coming from human beings.”

“It was heaven on earth,” Beauttah describes. “Every day, I would wake up and just smile. I can’t describe it to you, but there was just contentment and gratitude. Everybody was just so happy to be there. To this day, I have never been in a place—anywhere in the world—where I have felt that kind of spirit coming from human beings.”

It’s safe to say that the experience Beauttah encountered when she arrived in Canada from Kenya in 2006, is singular, yet it certainly wasn’t without its own strains. Upon entry to the country, she was detained by immigration custody and held for a harrowing 36 hours. When she was eventually released, she was without a place to go or anyone to call, still just 26 years old. Contextually, it makes sense how Beauttah found unexpected solace in a Toronto refugee center; she was now surrounded by people who, like her, had come to the country seeking a way of living not previously afforded to them.

“I wish you could have seen the look on everyone’s faces,” she said. “People of all races, not having to worry about getting raped by rebels, killed at night by soldiers, eaten by animals, or [access to] running water. There’s nowhere else in the world where you will be granted the honor and privilege of dealing with people who would just be there without a care in the world.”

As grateful as she is, even now, for the experience, she discerned something beyond that certain ebullience of those around her: there was virtually no aid when it came to employment opportunities. Despite nine years of post-secondary education, Beauttah would struggle in obtaining work in the decade that followed her immigration to Canada, largely in part because of her refugee status as well as rampant transphobia. Enter Trans Workforce, an idea born out of her own hardships—unique not only to refugees in Canada, but trans people on a global scale. Beauttah set out to organize a career fair exclusively for trans people and began pitching the idea to whomever would listen. Fortunately, she soon had an unlikely ally.

“Cameron Bailey, the creative director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), embraced the idea right away of Trans Workforce at TIFF and I couldn’t believe it because I couldn’t even get my foot in the door anywhere—even at McDonald’s.”

There were 300 attendees and 19 employers at the job fair, including the Canadian Armed Forces and the Toronto-Dominion Bank. Beauttah specifically chose employers who had begun prioritizing the presence of trans people in their workforce, and were committed to further doing so. A quick perusal of news stories about the fair indicated a triumph, though it wasn’t without criticism from other trans activists who took issue with the fact that the military—an institution that has historically been harmful to the queer community—was a participant. Especially in the wake of then-President Trump’s ban on trans people in the military. Beauttah, however, saw things a little differently.

“The people who are protesting the Canadian Armed Forces coming to Trans Workforce, what do they have to say about the American president and the American military situation with trans people?” says Beauttah. “Do they protest that and protest this at the same time? You have to pick one, you can’t have it both ways.”

“It was a huge success,” she recalls, then quickly clarifies: “Well, how I measured the success, was during the job fair, a trans man came up to me and said, ‘Biko, I came all the way from California for this history making event,’ and when he said that, none of the hardships, unemployment, nothing mattered at that point. It just made life worthwhile.”

Five years later, Trans Workforce has continued, with its founder finding even more success. As of late, Beauttah has become a Goodwill Glambassador with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better futurefor refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.

“It’s service and duty with a megawatt smile,” Beauttah jests. However, the job is a little more consequential. The role was created exclusively for Beauttah to raise awareness of the unique plight of LGBTQ+ refugees around the world. In addition to coordinating large-scale events for the UNHCR campaign, #RefugeesWelcome, she also orchestrates its media strategy and works with donors to support refugee causes.

“This planet is our only home, and we can exist in all these hardships of wars, and you can choose love as well.”

There’s little doubt she’s come a long way from Kenya, and the refugee center that inspired it all. When it comes to her growth, though, she credits her grandfather for being a paradigm of resilience in the face of oppression an opposition. “There was nobody else for me, except my grandfather,” she says, tearfully. “He never disappointed me, ever.”

It’s her memory of him, and her own experiences wherein she was given the opportunity to create space for those society has marginalized, that motivate Beauttah to persist in her mission despite a world rife with reasons not to. There’s hope in humanity, she thinks.

“Humanity is evolving for the better. The conscience of humanity is evolving for the better, and we’re starting to see all around the world that we’re all we’ve got. This planet is our only home, and we can exist in all these hardships of wars, and you can choose love as well.”

This article first appeared in Mission’s United Nations Issue.