Nowhere to turn Thousands of refugees came to the 2018 World Cup through FIFA's FAN ID system. Now, they’re fighting to find a way to stay in Russia.
More than three million international tourists visited Russia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but not all of them were there for the soccer. Some hoped to apply for refugee status in the country because they faced life-threatening dangers back home. The Russian government rejected their applications for asylum: after the tournament ended, several thousand people were deported. However, even now, a year after the World Cup, some people are still trying to defend their right to live in Russia. Some of them escaped war, others escaped terrorist groups, and still others escaped religious persecution. In Russia, they encountered new hardships: trouble finding work, trouble finding housing, and trouble with the law. Meduza spoke with three refugees about why they came to Russia and how they have survived the last year.
“I make money by being in studio audiences. I’ve learned the word ‘applause’ extremely well.”
Yemeni citizen, 28
I’m a citizen of Yemen, but I’ve never lived there. My father moved to Saudi Arabia a long time ago, and he still works there in a wedding fashion store. We have a big family: I have seven brothers and sisters. My mother doesn’t work — she takes care of things at home.
In Saudi Arabia, life wasn’t very good for us. There’s racism everywhere there. People treat Yemenis like shit. They don’t think we’re human. We have to carry our documents with us at all times in case we’re checked, it’s practically impossible to get a decent job, and if one of us starts making good money all of a sudden and, say, buys an expensive car, police officers go up to that person on the street and start asking how they were able to afford it. At the same time, we can’t go back to Yemen: there’s a war there.
I graduated from school in Saudi Arabia and then left to study in India. Just because it’s cheap — we could afford it, unlike a Saudi education. I spent four years in India, majored in systems administration, and went back to Saudi Arabia. But I couldn’t find a job in my field: nobody wanted to take someone from Yemen. All the good jobs in the country are “reserved” for citizens of Saudi Arabia. In the end, I couldn’t find decent work at all, so, like my father, I started selling clothes out of a little shop.
Then, another problem came up. According to Saudi law, an immigrant can’t stay in the country unless their employer or some other adult Saudi citizen vouches for them. Nobody wanted to sponsor me. I had no choice. They could have deported me, so I started thinking about where I could go.
The simplest thing was to go to Russia. The World Championship was going on, and unlike in Europe, I didn’t need a visa to go to Russia. You just had to make a FAN ID. And back then, in Saudi Arabia, there were a lot of companies that arranged trips to Russia. You could go there for soccer matches or just because. People who were in the same situation as me said you could get asylum there. In the end, I paid about 9,000 rubles ($140) for a “fan passport” (fan passports were complimentary for those who bought match tickets — Meduza), and in early July, I flew to Russia. Of course, I wasn’t planning to watch any soccer.
At the time, I knew practically nothing about Russia, but I had friends here. When I was studying in India, I met a lot of Russians — there are a lot of them in Goa. I made friends with some of them, and I even dated a girl there, but we broke up eventually.
In Moscow, I got settled in a cheap hostel on the outskirts for 400 rubles (about $6.20) a night. I still live there now. I live in a room with seven other people, and I’ve done my best to get used to it. I have a bed and nothing else. Practically nobody in the hostel speaks English, so I can’t tell you anything about the people I live with. We only say “hello” and “goodbye” because I basically don’t speak Russian myself. I tried to learn, but you have a very complicated language. For a while, I was living in Russia without any kind of normal social life, but then I found meetups on Facebook for English speakers and foreigners in Moscow. Thank God, now at least I have somebody to talk to!
I didn’t have any savings that I could take with me to Russia, so I had to find work right away. I had to pay for the hostel so I wouldn’t end up homeless. It turned out to be very difficult to find work. I don’t have any documents, and I don’t speak Russian. In the end, one of the people who works in the hostel helped me. His name is Guram, and I think God sent him to me. All the places I’ve found work in Moscow, I found through him.
In my first year in Russia, I’ve had a lot of different jobs. I still haven’t been able to find a steady one, so all of my income sources are temporary. For example, I’ve been an extra in Russian movies and TV shows a few times. I make money pretty often by being in studio audiences. I’ve learned the word “applause” extremely well. They don’t pay much — 700 rubles (about $10.85) a day — but it’s enough to pay for the hostel. I’ve also done manual labor— I installed tiles in some building in the city.
My life basically looks like this: make money, give it to the hostel, make more money, pay for the hostel again. I take anything I can get. When I can’t find work for a few days, Guram lends me money so I can pay for housing. Thank God, I haven’t landed on the street this year even once. I definitely don’t want to live on the street in this climate. It would be impossible!
Almost everything I make goes toward housing. When you add in transportation costs, there’s very little left. I mostly eat food from the Fix Price [convenience store]. Usually, I buy the cheapest ramen noodles — they only cost around five rubles (8 cents) per pack. Sometimes, I don’t even have enough money for that. At one point, I didn’t eat for a week — I only drank tea.
Once, the police came to the hostel — somebody stole something from somewhere. The police dealt with me too. They took me to the station, and then there was a trial where they decided I should be deported. Now, I’m appealing, but I know that it’ll probably be impossible to overturn the decision. Human rights advocates have told me they can’t help.
Like every other human being on earth, I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my life. They’ll probably deport me to Yemen, where there’s a war on, and I’ll have to fight. Anything is possible, but what can I do? Nobody can help me with Russian law being the way it is. Run away to Europe? It won’t work. Borders are no joke.
Despite it all, I’m happy now. I have a roof over my head, and I have food. That’s enough. I like Moscow; I like the people. For example, unlike in Saudi Arabia, I haven’t encountered racism in Russia even once. Of course, I would like to stay here. I don’t know why the law doesn’t allow it. When I got here, I thought I would find work and live like an ordinary person. Like everybody else. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
My family doesn’t know how I’m doing in Russia. I tell my mom that everything’s all right; she has seven other kids and lots of other things to worry about. I’m happy, and I don’t regret coming to Russia. I couldn’t have stayed in Saudi Arabia. And I’m not the problem: nobody leaves countries where people live well.
“In the winter, I had to clear snow. I only held on for a couple of days.”
Cameroonian citizen, 19, name changed for source’s protection
I grew up in a normal family. Well, unlike some families in Africa, my father only had one wife. And four kids, including two really little ones. We lived in a little village that’s part of a pretty big city in the northern part of the county.
We were doing all right. I was studying law. But in 2016, Boko Haram terrorists attacked a village next to ours. In my family, we talked about whether we should leave right then or wait for a while, but it was too late: the terrorists attacked our village — and our house. A group of people broke in and shot my mom and dad. I managed to run out of the house, which was already on fire. I thought my entire family was killed, so I ran. I ran for a really long time. The only thing driving me forward was a desire to survive.
I don’t know exactly how long I ran, but at some point, I ran up to a humanitarian bus where they gave out food and medicine to people who needed it. I told them about the attack on my village, and they took me in. I spent a few days on that bus. Sometimes, we were parked somewhere, and sometimes, we were driving. In the end, we got to a charity organization’s building. I can’t tell you what it’s called. At first, they let me in, but then some guys came up to me with joints in their mouths and said I should get out, supposedly because I was taking up a spot that could go to a woman or a child. I left and started running again. I was always running because everyone in Cameroon knows that Boko Haram has eyes and ears everywhere. Boko Haram doesn’t just let people go. You can’t just run away from them and live in peace.
I got to the next big city and found my friend, whose family is safe. We decided that I had to leave Cameroon. I left for Chad because you don’t need a visa to go there, but Boko Haram attacked there too before long. My friend’s family really helped me — they made me a passport to replace the one I had left in my village during the attack, and they bought me tickets to Russia and a FAN ID. In July 2018, I left. The only thing I knew about the country was that it might be hard for me in Russia because of racism. But I was counting on the idea that I’d mostly be able to live here in peace.
I was lucky that I met a group of people from Africa right away in the airport. I went with them to a hostel and rented myself a bunk for 400 rubles (about $6.20) a day. Through people I met at the hostel, I started working at a supermarket sorting produce. They paid 500 rubles ($7.75) a day. The money was barely enough for me to eat, but then they stopped paying me altogether, and I stopped working there. That happened several times. I found work, they paid me for a few days, and then they stopped. At one place, some other Africans and I even went on strike: we refused to work until they paid us. The owner of the store caved, but then he fined us 1,600 rubles (about $24.80) for striking, which was our salary for a few days’ work.
It has always been really hard to find work. In the winter, there wasn’t much to choose from, and I had to clear snow. I only held on for a couple of days. It was really hard — maybe I’m just not suited to this climate.
Now, I live in a two-room apartment with other Africans. Some of them also came here on a FAN ID. There are eight of us, and there used to be nine. I pay about 7,000 rubles ($108.50) a month for rent, and I make 14 or 15,000 (about $225). I work in an Italian restaurant near the Kitai-Gorod station. Since I don’t have an official status, they force me to work from morning till night, and they pay me half as much as they would pay me if I were a Russian citizen. Generally, I haven’t dealt with much racism. If you look decent, nobody in Moscow goes out of their way to mess with you.
Now, I’m trying to get temporary asylum in Russia at least. I know I can’t go back — they could kill me. But the migration services refused to take my documents: I lost my FAN ID, so essentially, I don’t have any documents that say how I got into the country. Now I’m appealing that rejection in court.
I don’t know much at all about Russia or Russian life because I don’t know the language. I don’t know how people live and what they do. But I don’t blame the government for my situation. I think that, all in all, Russia is a very good country. It’s very different from Cameroon. There’s loads of corruption there, people live in poverty, and the president has been in power for a really long time.
Not long ago, I found out that the attack on our village didn’t kill my whole family — only my dad. My mom, my sister, and my two brothers survived, but then they resettled people from my village in Nigeria because there were risks of more terrorist attacks, and now I don’t know what’s going on with them. Getting in touch with them and seeing them again someday is my biggest dream. I hope it will come true someday, though I don’t know in which country.
“I realized that my father wanted to kill me”
Gambian citizen, 24
I grew up in a religious family. For the first ten years of my life, I didn’t know my dad — he worked in Saudi Arabia. His job was in an Islamic organization that builds mosques around Africa, runs religious schools, stuff like that. Then, he came back to Gambia and became an imam. My mom has a small business selling things her business partner buys in Dubai.
My life was pretty good, and I had no reason to complain. People in Gambia are very open and sincere, and I liked it there. I went to a Catholic school, but I was Muslim myself, and that didn’t cause any problems until around seventh grade. Then, one of the teachers asked me to join a Christian seminar, but my dad didn’t let me, and he moved me to a different school, a non-religious one. I graduated, and then I spent two years in a Muslim religious school where I studied the Koran. Then, I went back to a normal college and studied management. I wasn’t able to graduate because of the conflict with my family that led me to leave Gambia.
The thing is that in January of 2017, President Yahya Jammeh, who had led Gambia for a long time, refused to recognize the results of the last election — he had lost. He started sending anyone who criticized that decision to jail and trying with all his might to hold onto power. The majority of Gambia’s population is Muslim, and in 2015, Jammeh officially declared Gambia to be an Islamic republic, so the religious community’s reaction to this whole situation was very important. But the Muslim leaders didn’t say anything against Jammeh. The Christian ones did, though. People tried to pay them off, but they refused and said they couldn’t betray the truth. In the end, Jammeh lost power. International pressure forced him to leave.
I was really inspired by the way the Christians acted, and then one of my friends from college invited me to go to church with him. I really liked it there. I liked the people there who were so dedicated to serving God. I liked the fact that they treated me warmly right away, as though they had known me for a long time. I liked the fact that the people at church always told the truth. I started going to church, and I told my parents that I was taking extra courses at the college. I couldn’t tell them the truth. My father has always believed that converting from Islam to Christianity is unacceptable, that people who do it deserve to die. He said that to me several times.
I went to services regularly, and for a while, everything was okay, but then my parents found out where I was going. My father was very angry, and he beat me. I ran away from home and lived with one of my Christian friends. Then my sister sent me a text: the Muslim society my dad led had decided to punish me. She didn’t know what the punishment would be, but my father had said he had to “set an example” as the leader of the group. I realized that my father wanted to kill me.
He and my brother went looking for me and came into the church, but I managed to hide. I realized that I couldn’t live that way much longer. The pastors said I should leave the country: the Muslim communities in various cities have close ties to one another, and it would have been easy to find me. At first, they sent me to Senegal, which borders Gambia, but then, they changed their minds for some reason. They said I would be going to Russia. I don’t know why they made that decision, but they told me I would be able to live normally in Russia — there are African churches there. That was all I knew about Russia back then. I trusted the pastors entirely because I saw their work in the church. They got all the documents I needed and gave me $150. I flew to Moscow.
I started having problems as soon as I got to the airport. Nobody spoke English. I couldn’t figure out how to get to the city. In the end, a man helped me — he put me in a taxi and sent it to a hotel he knew. I paid 500 rubles ($7.75) for the taxi and 2,500 more ($38.75) for a night in the hotel. I realized that I would run out of money quickly, so I went to the police. I was under the impression that the government should know who I was and why I had come to Russia. But at the police station, they just gave me the address for the Civic Assistance Committee (a migrant aid organization — Meduza). There, I met a guy from Lebanon who told me there are a lot of Africans living near the Dmitry Donskoy Boulevard metro station. I went there, and I really did see a soccer field where a lot of black guys were playing.
For a few months, I lived in my Lebanese friend’s apartment. He really helped me, but then the police came, and he was deported. They took me to the station too, but they let me go. I had a document saying my application for temporary asylum was under consideration.
The police came again very recently, in April. We were taken to the station again, and they held me there for 27 hours without food or anything else. They forced me to sign some kind of paper: they grabbed me and shoved me, and I tried to explain to them that I don’t know Russian, and I won’t sign anything. In the end, one of the other guys who was arrested — he was also from Africa — said that in Russia, the police can do whatever they want to me, and no one would ever even find out about it. Then, I signed everything, and they took my fingerprints. They let us go, but I still don’t know what I signed.
Almost immediately after that, the owner of the apartment where we lived came in with the police and said we had to go. For four days, I lived on the street and spent nights in the doorways of apartment buildings. I had no money to pay for housing — I don’t have a job. I’m scared to go outside when I don’t have to. I’m scared that the police will stop me and do something to me.
In the end, I got help from the church I started going to in Moscow. Someone from the church’s leadership found me a spot in an apartment in the Shcherbinka neighborhood where other Africans were living, and he paid for my housing. But he couldn’t help me indefinitely. I don’t know what I’m going to do in a month. I don’t even have money for food. My neighbors feed me sometimes, and sometimes the church gives me a little. That’s a huge help.
My application for temporary asylum has already been rejected, so there’s really no hope that I’ll be able to stay in Russia. I can’t keep living like this and suffering like this. I just want a normal life. I’m ready to leave. Not for Gambia — my father could find me there — for some other African country. I don’t know how much the ticket will cost, but I don’t have money for it anyway. That’s my main problem now.
Before I leave Russia, I want to learn more about the country where I’m going to live. I want to choose it consciously. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t want to go through what I’ve gone through in Russia. In Russia, nothing went the way I thought it would. Things didn’t work out for me here, but I don’t blame anyone. It’s really difficult, but it’s experience. God gave me this experience, and I have to live through it. It’s my fate — nothing could have gone any differently.
“In Africa, people sold FAN IDs and said everything would be wonderful in Russia”
Consultant for migration issues, Civic Assistance Committee
There were many, many people who came to Russia on a FAN ID and then tried to stay here. More of them came from Africa than anywhere else, especially Nigeria. Judging by what applicants have told us, a lot of people in Africa made it into a business: they sold FAN IDs and said everything would be wonderful in Russia. They said it’s a European country that’s willing to accept refugees and help them, and right now, you can go there without a visa if you just have a fan passport. People who had landed in really difficult situations believed that, and they paid up. Sometimes, they paid a lot, $5,000 or $10,000, to go to Russia. They couldn’t get a Schengen visa even for that kind of money — unlike a fan passport, you can’t just buy those.
Once they had spent some time in Russia, people realized that things weren’t like what they had been told to expect. For example, they went to migrant services, and officials there just refused to take their asylum applications. That’s a very widespread practice. Then, a lot of people came to us. I told them what their options were, and to be honest, they essentially didn’t have a shot at getting asylum. Right now, Russia is trying with all its might not to recognize people as refugees. Only 572 officially recognized refugees currently live in Russia.
Even getting temporary asylum is practically out of the question. The law says an applicant can receive it if it would be dangerous for them to return to their homeland. But our migrant services are biased toward refusal from the beginning, and they look for any reason to make that happen. Nobody actually checks a potential refugee’s story. For example, we had an applicant whose rejection notice cited a tourist website that talked about how there were marvelous beaches and vacation opportunities in his home country.
Getting from Russia to Europe is also practically out of the question. All the borders are closed. You can try to do it illegally, but on the border with Finland alone, they’ve already caught hundreds of people with FAN IDs. A substantial number of applicants have told us that rumors are spreading among migrants that they can try to escape to Europe through Murmansk. But when people go there, local taxi drivers find them and promise to take them to the border before driving them off to a random place where the police are already waiting.
As a result of all this, the overwhelming majority of people with FAN IDs have already been deported (about 5,000 people who had arrived in Russia during the World Cup remained there illegally by the beginning of 2019 — Meduza). Another fraction is still in some stage or other of the asylum application process, but the endpoint is basically predetermined. The only way to get refugee status here is by sheer luck: nothing depends on your own story. You can only hope you submitted your documents at just the right moment, the moment when migrant services will have to prove to someone that they’re effective and that they do grant asylum sometimes. We’ve had instances where several applicants in a row receive refugee status even though they were immediately turned down beforehand.
Of course, when we tell them about the situation in Russia, a lot of the people who turn to us for help are shocked. They thought this was a European country that would help them. One man even got down on his knees in front of me and asked me to give him the documents he needed. I tried to explain that I would gladly do it, but I don’t have that power. We fight for every applicant in the courts, everywhere, but it’s extremely difficult.
Every year, the situation for refugees in Russia only gets worse. Before 2018, for example, if our applicants were rejected in Russia, they could go to UNHCR, get refugee status there, and move to another country. The chances there were better than in Russia.
Of course, you can try to stay in Russia illegally and bribe police officers your whole life, but that’s very dangerous. Ultimately, the way things turned out is that people who wanted to improve their lives, live in Russia, or possibly move to another country ended up in a situation where they essentially have nowhere to turn. For most of them, it’s easier now to return to their home countries even if they’re under threat and try to move from there than it would be for them to try to stay in Russia.
Translation by Hilah Kohen