‘Better this than war’ 12 asylum seekers describe the challenges of living in Russia while stuck in immigration limbo
Twenty-six million people around the world have official refugee status, but only 487 of them live in Russia. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are engaged in the Russian government’s asylum application process at any given time, but it’s vanishingly rare for an application to be accepted. This is in part because Russia’s UN delegations often criticize human rights violations abroad, but the Russian government refuses to recognize armed conflicts and persecution as valid causes for granting asylum. Even of the 42,000 people who have temporary, one-year asylum status in Russia, all but 487 are from Ukraine. This pattern leaves asylum seekers from other countries to fend for themselves, including those who have fled civil wars much like Ukraine’s. Journalist Vladimir Kabeyev and photographer Maria Muzalevskaya spoke with 12 people from a range of countries who decided to seek asylum in Russia and contacted the Civic Assistance Committee, a legal aid NGO, for help.
31 years old, Central African Republic
My name is Tatyana — it’s a popular name for women in Africa. I come from the Dagba people, but I consider myself Central African.
I like my country, but everything has been ruined by war. I left in 2012, but fighting has been going on there since 2003. I lived in the Republic of the Congo for a year, and then I went to Gabon and applied for asylum there. I received it, and with it I left for Côte d’Ivoire. While I was there, my father, who fought in the civil wars, died. My mother died in an explosion in a church, and my siblings died in their village during an exchange of gunfire, even though they didn’t participate in the war themselves.
In Côte d’Ivoire, I lived in a church because I was a refugee and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I constantly prayed, and then one day, a priest offered to help me. He arranged an opportunity for me to go to Russia. I arrived here in February of 2018. It was cold, but I can withstand the cold. At first, it was very hard because I didn’t know anybody. I lived with other African people, and they helped me a lot and gave me advice.
Now, I work as a cleaner in a store in the region where I live. I’d like to get asylum, learn Russian, and work in the hospitality industry, which is what my education is in. I have a friend here. She lives in my region, and we meet periodically, visit each other at home. I also have a boyfriend; he’s from Côte d’Ivoire as well. Like me, he doesn’t have refugee status.
I applied for asylum and was denied. An attorney from Civic Assistance helped me appeal the denial, and now I’m waiting for an answer from the Russian government. I have friends in France, but in order to go there, I have to get a visa, which is unrealistic in Russia. As for a family, I can’t think about that right now. Nothing is clear with my documents right now, so starting a family wouldn’t make sense. And yet, all girls want to get married.
I hope at some point the civil war will end, but even if that happens, my entire family has been killed, and I don’t have anybody left there. There’s nothing to return to. I miss my old life, especially my dad.
30 years old, Sudan
I was born in Darfur in 2003, and I was there when the Darfur conflict began. After finishing high school, I enrolled in the metallurgy program at the University of Khartoum. I completed two years, but during my third year, at the end of 2008, I was jailed due to my political views.
When the war started, I was a young boy, and I didn’t fully understand political issues. I felt that these conflicts between tribes were ordinary. When I became a university student, my understanding of these conflicts improved, and I decided to engage with activism. I was against the political system controlling the country — President Omar Al-Bashir and the Muslim Brotherhood organization. I am an atheist, and together with other students, we organized a group of more than 1,000 people called Girifna, which in Arabic translates to “We’re tired of this.” We organized rallies and demonstrations against the government.
After my jailing, I was expelled from my university. I was imprisoned and tortured for four months, and today, I still receive psychiatric treatment for the torture I endured while incarcerated. After being released, I spent five months in a hospital bed, and then I left the country.
I came to Russia in February of 2009 after being invited by a friend. During my first six months, I studied Russian at the Kazan National Research Technical University. I started working as soon as I arrived in places like restaurants, hookah bars, and as a flyer distributor. There are racists, of course, but I still believe in the goodness of Russian society, that you can find a good approach to it. After all, this was the birthplace of such great minds as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Such a society can never be called unkind.
In Sudan, there are even more injustices than here in Russia. The system that controls Sudan discriminated against me significantly more than the system in Russia does. There, the government was against everyone, both African and Darfurian. The rulers instead consider themselves to be Arab. They do everything in their power to prove this to the Arabian cultural center, in order to validate their actions and beliefs, and this is quite stupid. Like, what difference is there between Al-Bashir and me? There is none — we are both Black Africans. But he thinks he’s Arab and that the Prophet Muhammad is his grandfather. It’s a psychological situation. As Sigmund Freud wrote, a person will do the impossible in order to be accepted where he thinks he belongs. Even though Al-Bashir is long gone, the governmental system in Sudan remains the same. The same war criminals that orchestrated the genocide in Darfur still run the country today.
Now, I’m in the process of moving again because Russia denied me asylum. I received refugee status in the United States and am currently waiting for my travel permit. The Russian Foreign Ministry has already spent seven months reviewing my application, and I’m not the only one going through this. I think in Russian we just call this bureaucracy.
30 years old, Cameroon
I was born in Bafoussam, Cameroon, in 1990. I had a child early on and couldn’t find a good job to support her because I didn’t have any connections. In Africa, if you don’t have any connections and you want to work and support yourself and your loved ones, it’s better to move to another country. Now, Ashley is already 11 years old, and she lives with my brother. Every month I send her money, but unfortunately, I can’t bring her here.
After I left, the civil war began in Cameroon, and it continues to this day. The French region is at war with the English region, and there is no end in sight. I love Cameroon and would love to return, but I can’t because of the war.
I chose Russia because the ticket was cheap — just 500 dollars. So I got a visa, boarded the plane, and flew away. I arrived on September 21, 2013, and joined an acquaintance of mine in St. Petersburg. He wrote to me: "Come here, and I’ll find you a job," and it seemed like he would set me up in some kind of hotel or store. But it turned out that he meant prostitution.
In Russia, I soon became pregnant, but decided against abortion. Once, another young woman from Nigeria suggested that we run away together, and I agreed. That’s how I ended up in Moscow. I didn’t have anywhere to live. One day, in the metro, I saw a black woman and asked her for help. She told me that I could live in her apartment, but I would have to take on part of the rent.
The contractions began on December 26. I had to call an ambulance and they took me to the hospital. They started to ask me if I had documents, and I only had a photocopy of my passport. The original was still in St. Petersburg. Once I gave birth to the child, the hospital staff refused to bring his documents and demanded 11,000 rubles (about $150). I didn’t have any money, so I just took the child and returned to spend the night at the apartment. In the end, they gave me the document because Putin signed a law that required any child born here to be given a birth certificate. I named my son Jordan.
Now, I’m trying to figure out what to do next, how to get myself out of the situation that I’m in. I don’t want to think about the bad; I try to think about the good because sometimes I just want to give up, but giving up isn’t an option.
There are a lot of racists in Russia. Of course, there are good people, but equality isn’t talked about, and they judge everyone by their appearance. Russians are different — they are different from Africa, just as they differ from Europe. They like to be insulated, independent. I know many people who could move to another country, but they don’t. They’ve got it good enough here.
Gabriel (name has been changed at his request)
30 years old, Cameroon
I was born in a small city called Limbe. I had a happy childhood in a good family where everyone loved me. When I was 11, my father died, but the rest of my family and I continued loving and supporting one another. In high school, when I realized that I was attracted to men, I decided that this was an illness because I’d never heard of the term LGBT before. I started asking God to cure me.
Despite all of these problems, I was able to go to college. I moved in with my aunt in the city of Douala, and I started studying economics. One day, in an Internet café, I saw a tab opened to a dating site called Planet of the Future where there were a lot of LGBT profiles from Cameroon. I also created a profile, but then I got scared and deleted it. My cousin tried to set me up with a girl, but it ended badly. It was then that I decided that I couldn’t live like this, and I tried to end my life by taking pills. My aunt took me to the hospital, and they pumped my stomach. I realized that it was worth it to live, at least for the sake of my loved ones.
Soon after finishing college, I moved to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. No one knew me there, and I made a new account on the dating site. One guy invited me to his place, and I accepted. After we’d already walked into the building, two people came up to us. The guy had deliberately planned all of this. I was viciously beaten, and in addition the guy raped me without using any protection. I went to a pharmacy to buy medicine because I was very worried about my health. I told my family that I fell from a motorcycle.
Two and a half years later, I was still looking for someone I could love and who would love me. I was 26 years old, and I met a man who was 33. We started chatting, and one day we went together to a bar where LGBT people often gathered. Someone I knew saw us. He told me that this man was very dangerous and that he was afraid for my life. When I tried to end my relationship with the man, he started threatening me, blackmailed me with intimate photographs, and swore to rape and kill me. He said that he was the head of Cameroon’s secret service. I was terrified, and I decided to leave the country. Besides, my mother had died, and there was nothing keeping me in Cameroon anymore. I gathered all the necessary documents, took the $5,000 I had saved, and boarded a plane.
I wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which sent me to the Civic Assistance Committee. They helped me apply for asylum and recommended an organization that provided assistance to LGBT individuals. I was denied refugee status, and my lawyer and I filed an appeal. At that point, I was becoming depressed, and my suicidal thoughts resurfaced. I called the NGO, where a psychologist advised that I go to a hospital. That’s what I did, and I spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital.
I knew that there was more homophobia in Russia than in other European countries. Although LGBT individuals face problems in Russia, here people can at least openly meet up. You can tell by the dating sites: everyone has photographs, no one hides. Dating sites in Cameroon are patrolled by the police, and you might be risking imprisonment if you meet up with someone of the same sex.
21 years old, Yemen
Before the war, we lived in the city of Taiz. When the Arab Spring started, we moved to Sanaa and lived with my aunt. My father got a job driving a forklift, and my mother stayed at home. My brother and I were in school, but by the time the war started, my brother had finished sixth grade, and he was taken out of school so that he could get a job at the library and help the family when my father lost his job.
As far as I understand, the war started because people wanted a new president, and the sitting president refused to leave — he wanted to stay in office. I remember that one day, when we went to buy groceries, but they didn’t let us in; they said that the store was closed. We went to another shop, and after about 10 minutes, we heard an explosion. When we got back, we saw that the explosion had been in the very same shop that they hadn’t let us into. I was 16 years old, and for the first time, I saw what death looks like. After that, people started to die every day: in mosques, in shopping centers, even at home. It became impossible to live; you could die on any day and in any given place.
My mom is from Vietnam, and my dad is from Yemen. We couldn’t get to Vietnam because my parents lost all their contacts there, and we couldn’t get in touch with anyone. So, we just went to the airport and asked to be evacuated. There were three Russian Emergencies Ministry airplanes, and they let us on one of them even though our passports were already expired. But then in Moscow, they didn’t want to let us leave the airport. At that point, somebody came from the embassy, extended our passports, and left. We followed him, and we had to wait at the gates for an hour before they let us through. For two months, we lived at the Yemeni Embassy, and every day, they asked us when we would leave. Eventually, we went to the Vietnamese Embassy, and they helped us find housing and work.
When I applied for asylum, my rejection letter said that I’m a Vietnamese citizen, so I should just be able to move there. At the Vietnamese Embassy, we got a reference letter saying that I don’t have a Vietnamese passport, and we sent it in with the rest of my documents when I appealed the asylum decision. In the end, my mom and I got temporary refugee status, and my dad and brother were rejected. Then we worked with the lawyers to appeal the rejection again. We asked them not to separate our family. Ultimately, all of us got asylum for a year. Now, we’ve extended it for another year, and we’ve all applied for a temporary residency permit.
I work every day including weekends from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM selling Vietnamese groceries. The salary’s all right — it ends up being around 40,000 rubles ($540) per month. It used to be hard for me because I didn’t understand anything people were saying, but now, since I know how to express myself and get to where I need to go, now that things have been sorted out with our documents, I’ve started to like Russia. My dream is to get into a university here and become a professional translator.
19 years old, Democratic Republic of the Congo
I was born in Kinshasa in 2001. I was told that when I was born, there was a revolution. I don’t have many memories of my childhood – when we left, I was nine years old.
My father and his brother had a business, and after the start of the war, people from the police started coming to us. They shot my father’s brother right in the eyes. He went to complain, and they didn’t like that. Soon after that, my father didn’t come back from church. Mom went to the police, and then these people came to our house again and broke everything. We still don’t know the details of why they killed my uncle and where my father disappeared to.
We chose Russia because my mom came here as a student. She studied economics, but she didn’t finish. Plus, it’s very difficult for Africans to go to other countries — nowhere wants Africans. Our relatives helped us get passports and visas, collected money for our tickets, prayed, and sent us to Moscow.
My older brother, who’s a year older than me, came with us, and my younger brother was born here. In 2015, my older brother started to change. It got worse over time: he threw up after eating, and he started having memory issues. You could ask him to bring oil, and he would bring salt. In the end, he was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and heart disease. We learned about the disease when he was 15 years old.
He was energetic and thought that he would recover. He loved to study — even when he wasn’t feeling well, he still studied. Three years after we learned about the disease, he had heart surgery, and it was successful. We had official status and insurance. The Zhizn’ kak chudo (Miracle of Life) foundation helped collect money for the treatment. He needed a donor to transplant part of his liver. The choice was either mom or I, but she has a small liver, so they took mine. They took out my half and placed it in him, but it was unsuccessful: his body couldn’t cope, and he died.
The Civic Assistance Committee helped us apply for asylum, but we were rejected. We appealed and are now waiting for a decision. I grew up here, but I didn’t really have time to think about who I want to become. Right now, I don’t have the ability to study; I need to get documents. If this issue gets settled, then it might be possible to study, but I’m already 19, I can’t go to school, and I need a secondary education diploma to get into university. I lost the opportunity, but my brother is still little, he’s only 9 years old, and he should study for his future.
I think racism is everywhere. When we came here, we were called monkeys, but I think it’s like that everywhere. Now, I don’t hear that anymore, but if I do hear it, I’ll just walk by. When we arrived, Medvedev was president, then Putin returned, and it hasn’t changed since. But that’s better than constant upheavals. My mom experienced war — she still remembers the explosions, how they ran, how people died. She is scared and says that war is very bad. Better this than war.
20 years old, Afghanistan
I was born in Pakistan in 2000. We were refugees there. When a new president came to power in Afghanistan in 2001 — Hamid Karzai — the security situation got to be more or less all right, so we went back there and lived in Afghanistan until 2015.
Dad worked buying and selling land. One lawyer who worked with the government wanted to buy land, and he submitted a deposit, but he never paid the full cost of the land. Then, he changed his mind about the purchase and asked for the deposit back even though it’s non-refundable by law. Meanwhile, Dad had already used that money to buy other land, and he couldn’t give it back. They ended up putting him in jail for two months, but then it became clear that his detention had been illegal. The people who demanded money from him said they’d kill him because he reported them. That’s why we ran away — so that they wouldn’t kill us. Our government works differently: anyone who has a pistol can kill someone else with no consequences.
In 2015, Dad and I had to leave the country. We left the house at 5:00 in the morning, went to Tajikistan, and went from there to Kyrgyzstan. We requested asylum there, but we were rejected. Then, we went to Russia — we drove across all of Kazakhstan in a single day. We crossed the border during the night, near the Kurgan region — just went out and walked into the steppe on foot, where we had a car waiting. In Kurgan, we got on a bus and got off near the Sadovod market. I worked there as a porter until 2017. At first, we were completely undocumented, but in November 2017, we contacted Civic Assistance on advice from our friends.
When we applied for asylum, I was 17. We got a rejection letter. We appealed it, and at the time, my father was given asylum, but they told me to come back when I was 18. But at 18, they rejected me again. Just like that — asylum for the father but not for the son. At that point, we were appealing my rejection. During that process, I got tuberculosis, but while I was in the hospital, they did give me temporary asylum. Now, I’m working officially — I sell home goods at the Sevastopolsky Mall. It’s about 40,000 rubles a month ($540), though Dad hasn’t been working since last year because he got sick.
I have friends in Russia. In the summer, we play volleyball, hang out together, talk together. In 2016, we went to St. Petersburg, and this year, we want to go to Krasnodar or Sochi — people say it’s warm there and you can go swimming. I’m not really considering going to school yet because I have to get a temporary residency permit first. If it works out, though, I’d want to become a pilot, and if that doesn’t work out, I’d study sports journalism. I don’t want to go back to Afghanistan. Even if they make a deal with the Taliban somehow, the lawyer who wants to kill us is still there.
33 years old, Ethiopia
I was born in a city called Buri. When I was 15, my entire family moved to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. My father was a member of an opposition party, and two years after the move, he was imprisoned and tortured. When he got out, he was imprisoned again, this time on a life sentence — his party had been named a terrorist organization. When I came to visit him, he told me to leave the country. In 2010, I left Ethiopia. I spent two years in Sudan, and in 2012, I came to Russia. I got a tourist visa and bought the ticket. It cost about $200 altogether.
In Russia, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know the language, and I didn’t have anywhere to go. I booked a bed in a hostel near the Southwest metro station, and I met some people there from Eritrea who advised me to go to Perm because it’s easier to find work and receive asylum there. Turns out, it’s really cold in Perm. I found work as a porter at a factory where they made windows. We transported them in our cars and raised them up to install them. The temperature was -20 (-4° F), sometimes even -40 (-40° F), so I all of the nails on my hands and feet fell out because of the cold. That job often didn’t pay us our salaries, so after about half a year, I decided to go back to Moscow.
In 2013, I found work serving hookah at a restaurant, and I started making pretty good money—50, 60, sometimes even 70,000 rubles ($675 – $945) a month. The problem was that I had to smoke a lot on the job, and after about a year, I started having health problems. I had to quit. That meant I was left without any money, and someone suggested contacting Civic Assistance. In Russia, I had 15 court hearings. I got all the way to the Supreme Court, but in the end, they still rejected me. I contacted UNHCR to get asylum in another country. Now, I’m waiting on a response from the American Embassy. I interviewed in November 2016, but I still haven’t gotten any information.
Right now, I’m living on money that my friend has been sending me. I want to work, but nobody wants to take me: first of all because I’m Black, second of all because of the situation with my documents, and because of the whole coronavirus situation, of course. I don’t know what I’ll do if I get rejected. I have nowhere left to go, and it would be dangerous for me to go back to Ethiopia.
If they give me a residency permit, I’ll go back to school for sure. In Ethiopia, I studied at a medical college for two years. I want to finish my education and become a clinical pediatrician.
I can barely remember any times that I’ve faced racism here. I have a lot of Russian friends, and my Russian isn’t too bad, so I usually don’t have communication issues. Sometimes, I go to a Russian Orthodox church. Yes, I’m a protestant, but nobody really asks me about that. Sometimes, it can help to go to church — your consciousness clears, and hope begins to appear.
56 years old, Syria
I was born in 1964 in the city of Hama. In 1990, I got married and moved to Damascus, where I was hired to work in a pharmacy. I also taught at an institute — I conducted group classes on chemistry, mathematics, and Arabic.
In 2011, the war began. Until then, I had only seen protests two times, but afterward, bombs began exploding in the street. My two oldest sons were taken away to the army, and my husband became ill and died. I continued living in Damascus another four years, but when there was no food in the market and no water and electricity at home, I decided to leave. I always liked the Soviet Union, and I chose to go to Russia.
When I arrived, I didn’t know anyone here. The only thing I had was the business card of a translator I’d worked with in Syria and who had an office in Moscow. I got in a taxi, showed the address, and arrived at the office. I had to wait for a long time, and the person I eventually met with turned out not to be the one that I was in touch with in Syria. He advised me to go to Voronezh, where several Syrian students were already living. In Voronezh, I searched for work, but couldn’t find anything, and by that time my visa had run out. Eventually, on Facebook, I found other Syrians who lived in Russia. One of them gave me the phone number of a Syrian who could help me with work. I bought a ticket and went back to Moscow. I started to work in a factory producing packaging. In that job, you had to glue together boxes, but I didn’t want to do that. I have a different profession: back in Damascus, I had enrolled in some design courses, and I had my own small factory tailoring clothes.
I worked in the factory for two months and realized that I was in the wrong job and couldn’t do it anymore. A separate problem was with my accommodations: I lived in a room with five women, but I needed my own space, so I went back to the same person and said that I needed a different job. So I ended up in Yegoryevsk, and then in Tver, where my youngest son was studying.
In the middle of 2016, my son and I arrived in Noginsk and were hired to work in a factory, again with packaging. Afterwards, someone reached out to us who had a big factory with a laser cutter that needed an operator. My son tried it and liked it so much, they invited him to work there permanently. Now, he works as a computer designer.
I don’t know what to do for myself because I was denied asylum, and no one wants to hire me to work. Once a week, I teach in a school for Syrian children. In Noginsk, a man and I agreed to open a business together tailoring clothes. We bought sewing machines, but they’ve been sitting there unused because there aren’t any orders.
Salim (name has been changed at his request)
25 years old, Pakistan
I was born in Lahore, in Punjab province. I was the middle child in my family. I finished school and studied business management in college. After that, I started preparing to enter university and worked on the side at an organization that collaborates with churches, giving them food, clothing, and whatever is needed.
I am Christian, although most of the population in Pakistan is Muslim. My parents are also Christians, so we have a lot of experience interacting with the Muslim majority. After I finished college, I had more free time to devote to activism, and when you’re a Christian activist in a Muslim country, they start to notice you.
In 2015, in a Christian district in Lahore, there were two explosions. The victims were Christians who were going to a Sunday service. My friends and I went to protests for four days in a row. When my neighbors learned that I was participating in the protests, they were very unhappy. During the sermon at the mosque, the mullah started saying that Muslims should take revenge. After that, they went to the church, broke open the doors, and beat the people who were praying there. They also attacked members of my family in our own home during family prayers. The next day, they caught me on the street, beat me, and left, and the day after that they caught me again. They took me to the mosque and said that I was spreading propaganda against their religion and that I knew what would happen next. After that, I left for the countryside.
In Pakistan, there are clear cultural differences between the followers of different religions, so if you’re Christian, you’ll be noticed right away. We hoped that, with time, everything would go back to normal, and I would be able to return home, but it didn’t get better, only worse. So I just sat at home and didn’t go out anywhere. It was easier in the village — I could go out at night and sometimes interact with other Christians.
Eventually, my father got me a visitor visa and sent me to Moscow. This was in August 2016. When I flew in the plane, I felt really inspired and motivated, but after about three months, my enthusiasm diminished because I encountered so many different problems: the Russian government’s policies regarding refugees, the language barrier, communication problems, the job search, and finally, some problems with my shoulder, which are only getting worse.
I would like to stay in Russia. I’m not a criminal or a misfit, so if I got permission to live here, I would start to build my future like a normal citizen.
50 years old, Cuba
Daily and I are from a small town in Cuba — we used to live next door to each other. It’s difficult in Cuba right now: it’s hard to live there, and it’s very dangerous. While the government doesn’t openly say that it’s against LGBT people, it’s practically impossible for members of our community to find work. After I stopped hiding my sexual orientation, I got insults and threats, and then people started beating me up.
I always understood that I can’t sustain typical relationships with men. When I was 18, I decided not to hide that anymore. At first, my family was disappointed: they had hoped that I would have a family, that I could have children, but then they decided that the most important thing was my happiness.
Once, I was returning home on the bus, and one of the passengers said that I was a lesbian. Then, the driver stopped and said he wouldn’t drive me the rest of the way — the passengers literally threw me off the bus. Another time, I was coming home from work after my shift, and it was very dark outside. Suddenly, someone started throwing rocks at me, and one of them hit me in the head. I had to go to the hospital. I went to the police, but they just heard me out without ever doing anything.
In June of 2019, we moved to Russia to get work — it didn’t matter what kind. We didn’t need to get visas, and we didn’t realize that we would have so much difficulty here. When we arrived, we didn’t know where to go, so we just walked around Moscow. We were already getting exhausted, when we saw a dark-skinned man cooking barbecue on the street. We talked with him, and he offered to let us live on his terrace. We agreed but continued to search for another place to live, and eventually, we stumbled upon an abandoned clinic and settled in the basement
The next day, we started looking for work: we went to stores, restaurants, and supermarkets, trying to get hired, but nobody understood us. In the rare cases when we were able to explain ourselves, the employees said that we don’t know the language and don’t have documents, so they couldn’t hire us.
When they decided to restore the clinic we were living in, an engineer came to examine it, and he advised us to call Civic Assistance. They gave us the contacts for an organization that provides help to members of the LGBT community. They put us in the QueerHouse shelter, which is in a Moscow community center for LGBT+ initiatives. Now, we’re waiting for them to help us move to a new country, where things will likely be just as difficult for us.
33 years old, Cuba
I was always attacked a lot, it was dangerous to go outside at night. They tried to rape me three times, and I even tried to go to Guyana, but that place was even more transphobic than Cuba.
Ever since I was a little kid, I always felt like a woman, so the operation was just a matter of time. I had the operation done eight years ago — my friend, who was an experienced doctor, illegally performed my surgery. After that, he sent me to a rehabilitation home, and then I lived with my grandmother. I don’t know any other transgender people in Cuba. As far as I know, they all move to the U.S. I have one LGBT friend, but he’s gay. I’m satisfied with my decision. I feel very good about myself, both physically and morally.
When Vidalmis and I decided to leave, we only had enough money for our tickets. We had a small amount left over, for buying food or medicine just in case, but the main idea was to find work as soon as possible. Vidalmis is a pharmacist, after all, and I’m a medical equipment technical engineer.
In the beginning, we lived with a man from the Congo in a small alcove for barbeques where he allowed us to stay. Then, we found an abandoned clinic not far from the Leningradsky highway, and we settled there. It was very hard to live there: there was no window, no doors, no electricity or running water, just dangerous all around. Once, a man who was an engineer stopped by — it turns out that the polyclinic was going to be removed and replaced with a hotel. He knew a little English and advised us to go to the Civic Assistance Committee, so that’s what we did.
In Cuba, it was hard for me to adjust to my situation. Of course, it’s a pity that in Russia, they aren’t giving me shelter or a work permit, but I feel happy in my own body. I can’t say that Russia doesn’t have LGBT discrimination because I’ve only lived here for a year, but personally, I’ve never run into it. In that sense, we’ve been lucky: we can walk around outside with no worries, and no one has ever said anything to us.
Translation by Sam Breazeale, Allison Graham, Hilah Kohen, Sydney Lazarus, Derek Legette, Asher Maria, Bernadette Stadler, and Susan Stalter