My name is Soldado Kowalisidi. I am 26 and live in Kyiv, Ukraine with my husband and a bunch of animals. My typical morning starts with a walk with two fluffy dogs that you can’t help but love. During the day, I study to become an animal behavior expert — something I enjoy immensely. In the evening, I come home, to enjoy a quiet, homey evening with my husband over tea.
My life may perfectly typical to you. I could be your neighbor, your co-worker, or any other member of your community. But authorities in Russia and Ukraine have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want me in theirs. Even though I am a survivor of horrific violence, they refuse to protect me. To them, I am an asylum seeker, and a transgender rights activist and they would be thrilled for me to simply disappear or fade away into silence. I refuse.
How did this happen?
Three years ago, I lived in Siberia, Russia, in the city of Omsk. I worked as a human rights trainer in the human rights organization Sibalt. At my own risk, I started a project to help trans people and named it Laverna (yep, you guessed it — in honor of Laverne Cox). And so, I became the first open trans activist in Siberia.
It is dangerous to be an activist of any kind in Russia. The Kremlin routinely harasses, jails, and even kills people who disagree with state policies. But few are hounded as persistently and obsessively as LGBT activists. You don’t even need to be particularly politically engaged to live in existential fear of state-sponsored hate. Across Russia, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face a relentless campaign of terror for simply living as who they are. In a remote city like Omsk, in a remote region like Siberia, the danger grows to extreme levels. In April 2017, authorities in the Russian republic of Chechnya launched a state-sponsored purge of their LGBT population. Over 100 gay men were arrested, starved, tortured and forced to reveal the names of their gay friends. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, encouraged families to kill their gay relatives.
For me, none of this is theoretical. In Siberia, my apartment was almost broken into multiple times. A right-wing radical group beat me violently several times and threatened to kill me. They yelled in my face that perverts and agitators like myself (that is, transgender activists and human rights defenders) had to be burned. In Russia, I spent every waking day looking over my shoulder and wondering when the next attack would come.
At the same time, the organization where I worked as a human rights trainer was designated a “foreign agent” by the Government of Russia. Sibalt is run by Russian people who love their country and want to make it better. Yet the term, carefully chosen by the authorities, connotes “spy” in the Russian language. The FSB, Russian special services, started inviting me in for “talks” to intimidate me. Realizing that my life was actual danger, I left. It took me 20 minutes to collect all my belongings.
As I cleared border control on my way out, I was sent to an additional security check. I had an extremely humiliating “conversation” with officials wearing uniforms without identifying insignia. They knew everything about me.
I traveled to a few countries, living out of my suitcase without knowing where I would go. Part of me still hoped that the situation in Russia would improve and I would be able to go home. Instead, when I was in Ukraine, Russia passed legislation ostensibly aimed at fighting separatism and extremism but effectively attacking activists and human rights defenders. I realized there was no going back.
I started my life in Ukraine full of hope. Ukraine seemed to me a perfect country to continue my work as a human rights defender, to continue fighting against the authoritarian Russian regime from outside. I threw myself into activism, protesting for human rights in Ukraine, for Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, the rights of Crimean Tatar people living under Russian occupation. Together with Amnesty International Ukraine, I implemented a nationwide project called “Intersectional Training of Human Rights Trainers”. I learned Ukrainian to communicate with Ukrainians in their native language.
In Ukraine, I met the love of my life. Together, we adopted four beautiful animals. I have a family here. I have a life that would be almost perfect.
However, all of that is hanging in the balance. In October of 2017, the Migration Service of Ukraine denied me refugee status. Their denial referenced far-right, homophobic propaganda published online. In July, I lost the first court appeal: the judge absurdly ruled that LGBT human rights defenders and activists could safely live in Russia.
The exhausting legal process and the court’s rejection of my asylum case triggered my PTSD which originally developed after I was attacked in Russia. I thought about suicide every day. I had endless nightmares and flashbacks to the beatings and threats that I had encountered.
I survived this period and realized that my life and health were more important to me. Now I am looking for a third safe country in case I lose in the appellate court and Supreme Court, which seems quite likely: about 96% of asylum requests in Ukraine are denied. The Supreme Court, the last hope in any court case in Ukraine, has recently been refusing even to consider asylum seekers’ cases. In their eyes, I am not a human rights defender, not a person with two degrees or a polyglot — merely a statistic to be written off.
After all this time, it turns out that neither the country I fled (Russia), nor the country I where I asked for asylum (Ukraine) has a place for me. But I will not give up. I know my life has value and I know there are still many people for me to help.