EXCLUSIVE: ‘Please don’t make the mistake we have’ – one LGBT family’s account of running away from Russia

esenia and family

Esenia’s daughter hasn’t been to school in six months.

At the age of 11, she’d be expected to be poring over books, resentfully joining the frosty early morning run in order to get to her lessons on time with her classmates in Kyiv.

But her daughter isn’t ill, rebellious, nor does she desire to be homeschooled. Esenia’s daughter is not allowed to attend school because her mother is a lesbian.

Esenia, is a former regional scientist, now educates her daughter in their home in Ukraine. She has been there with her daughter and partner Anastasia just under a year after the family were forced to leave Russia behind.

“Our daughter can’t go to school, because it is not open for gay people. They’re not happy with us,” says Esenia.

The irony is not lost on Esenia. It was these same rebuttal that her daughter had in Russia – but they didn’t think that they’d hear those words when they escaped to Ukraine.

Life in Russia

When Esenia and Anastasia met two years ago, their relationship wasn’t well received in their neighbourhood. Esenia and Anastasia lived in a small Siberian town in Russia, in a highly religious area.

“There’s been such a huge religious renaissance in Russia,” says Esenia.

“It’s like religion has taken everything back, and says ‘no, you can’t be like you want to be.’ The attitude first changed in the people. Whenever we mentioned our relationship, they would say, “it’s not *our* thing, it is not *our* business,” she says.

“In my situation, I lived in my small town all of my life. I was studying in a different city, and then when I came back, everyone knew me. But when Anastasia and I started dating, everything changed so radically,” she added.

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Any reservations that her neighbours once had were now validated by the state through Putin’s gay propaganda law, banning any depicition or representation of “non-traditional relationships” in Russian society.

It was then that LGBT people started hiding their sexuality and identity for their own safety – to the point that Esenia’s girlfriend left her to be with a man so she could be safe.

“Before I met Anastasia, I was with a girl for eight years. When the political situation changed, she left me for a man so she could be safe. I can’t blame her – who could?” she said.

In the hope that they could find more freedom to live their lives in a city closer to Europe, the three moved to Kaliningrad, a city sandwiched between Poland and the Baltic coast.

But the move offered little respite for the struggling family.

“We soon found out that we couldn’t work, but we thought there wouldn’t be a problem getting our daughter into school,” said Esenia.

“After her first week there, the director of the school told us that our daughter had three months left at school. She cited an ancient, obscure law, where when people come from another part of Russia, you need some papers to validate your child’s education, and of course we didn’t have them,” she said.

“She then said that once the three months were up, she would refer my daughter to the social services. That’s when we knew we needed to move,” she explained.

Moving to Ukraine

esenia and family

As soon as the three months were up, Anastasia, Esenia and their 11-year-old took the first coach available to Kyiv. Taking their dogs and all of the possessions they could carry, they were told by a friend to make a move to the country.

“We considered moving to Greece, or moving to Canada at first,” she said.

“But we knew in order to get into the country, we’d have to pretend to be friends. It’s also near on impossible to get visas into a country like that, so we had to look closer to home,” she said.

“We thought if we went to a country near Russia, we would have a chance to assimilate. But we didn’t have a lot of options. People in Georgia have it the worst. There’s a lot of really religious people in Georgia. People are spied on. In Belarus, you can be beaten up in the street and the police will do nothing about it because the president says, well they don’t exist here.

“So we thought, let’s go to Ukraine. In Ukraine, we don’t need to lie any more. We moved through the border without any controls. We thought, we can come here, we don’t have to lie about our situation. That was a huge mistake,” she said.

Life in Kyiv

But the homophobia in Ukraine is sophisticated. In an attempt to downplay the homophobia at large so that it can strengthen ties with the EU post-Russian conflict In 2017, provisions and support for LGBT people are scarce. There are just eight safe house spaces for LGBT residents in Ukraine. Metro.co.uk reported that there were just 15 openly LGBT people in the entire country.

There are no LGBT discrimination protections for Ukrainians, nor migrants, so finding a home and securing a basic standard of living can be tough.

“When we first arrived here, we needed to find an apartment for just a couple of hours – we called 150 adverts, and we found just one place willing to take us,” she said.

“We’d say, can you rent us an apartment, we are two girls, and we have two dogs, and stuff like that… and when they find out we are gay, they say “oh, we’re not ready, sorry,” and they fended us off,” she said.

Esenia does not agree with the Russian-Ukranian conflict (“I’m not part of the conflict. We respect other countries, and we don’t want to try and change anything,” she says), but the political tension between Russia and Ukraine had made her family’s life that little bit harder.

“Trying to find an apartment when you’re Russian is bad enough. But when you’re Russian and you’re gay? You’ve got no chance,” she said.

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“93% people who have sought LGBT asylum in Ukraine have been rejected,” said Esenia.

Since they moved to Ukraine, Esenia says life is “only a little bit better.” Neither Anastasia or Esenia can work, and rely on online freelancing work to make ends meet. Esenia no longer teaches a class full of pupils – she now has to teach her daughter. Shops try to charge the couple double the price they charge Ukranians for the same goods. They cannot access healthcare. They have also been attacked.

“Here in Ukraine, a huge part of the population are homophobic. We don’t have rainbow flags with us, but we still face discrimination,” she said.

“We went to a shop one evening and this drunk man approached us, wanting to have sex with us. When we told him that it wasn’t our thing, that we were a couple, he started to get aggressive. We ended up having to fight with him and two other women,” she said.

“Another time, we heard a neighbour screaming because her husband was attacking their children. We kept her safe in our apartment,” she said.

“We wouldn’t let him near her. He came knocking on our door the next day and said, “if you think no-one cares you two are living here, I can go to the police, I can go to the government and you will be kicked out of here if you put your nose in our relationship,” she said.

Although they cannot work and are struggling to make ends meet, Esenia is insistent that her and her family cannot go back to Russia.

“We can’t go back to Russia. Women can just be beaten on the street if they don’t look femme,” she said.

“Everything’s changed, so badly, and I don’t know to fix it. I don’t even think a change in President will fix anything.

“We have friends, one who is transgender, and she has a child. The police took their child away. They could take our children away. In Russia, you can take a child from any gay family as even someone else looking after your children is better than you,” she said.

“We can’t go back to Russia. In our situation, we’d lose our child, because we are a gay couple. It’s gay propaganda to have a relationship. She’s 11-years-old. And we’re family. And we lose a child just because we have our family. So we really can’t stay here because we don’t have anything, and they don’t care. We can live here, but we don’t have any rights here. We’re a problem that should be solved. That’s why we just sit quietly and stay at home.”

Nowhere left to turn

This isn’t the first time her daughter has been in this situation. It is the reason why Esenia, her partner Anastasia and her daughter left Russia. After the school convenor met Esenia, she said that her daughter had three months at the new school.

“In my family I have three more sisters – two of them are gay as well. Now they’re still in Russia, hiding. Because we look like pretty, femme girls, it’s okay. It’s a great danger however, for girls who are butch. Butch girls can and will get beaten up on the street,” she said.

“My grandma, everyone – they’re not powerful people, they’re normal Russian people. My grandma had part of her pension saved, and the state took a portion of it and spent it. They are simple Russians, they can’t help us. My parents can’t help us any more than they have, and they can’t just come over and say “guys, what are you up to?”. We have no rights,” she said.

“We can’t work, we’re not entitled to a social life, any social security, we’re just like people who don’t have rights. I live here a little bit better. At least no-one will go into my apartment and take me away – I suppose that is one big plus. But in other situations like that, you have no choice.”

Looking ahead

In a bid to cement their status, some have married in order to secure residency, with others falsifying papers. But Esenia and her family do not have that choice.

“It’s a smart decision to not show that you’re a lesbian. But sometimes you just get tired, and tired of lying. Sometimes you think, “maybe we should break up, just to save everyone,” – but that’s cowardice, it’s a lazy decision,” she said.

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“We have stopped thinking about our future, we’re just thinking about our child. We’re really hoping to live somewhere where we won’t be hated. We’re really aiming for that, and it’s harder than it was before. I don’t know really how we can live better here.”

In the hope that the family can move to safety at some point in the future, they are asking for those with any disposable money to donate to their FundRazr page.

But until the family make the extra cash that they need to flee, they have one message for LGBT Russians: do not come to Ukraine.

“People will make the same mistake we did. They will go somewhere they can go easily. They wonder, why didn’t you go elsewhere? The reason is that it’s impossible,” she said.

Esenia, Anastasia and their daughter are hoping to flee Ukraine as soon as possible. You can donate to their cause through the FundRazr page here.