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  • Writer's pictureKyle Kvamme

ORAM helps a bisexual refugee from Turkmenistan find freedom in Berlin

“I come from Ukraine, where I was studying graphic design,” Mahri (they/them), a bisexual refugee from Turkmenistan, shares with me.   

Mahri video calls me from an apartment in Berlin, Germany, provided by ORAM, catching the afternoon sun. They had been in German classes all day.   

In Turkmenistan, certain same-sex relations remain criminalized. Additionally, discrimination against LGBTIQ persons and other human rights violations are rampant in the country. “My family doesn’t want to live in my country,” Mahri said.

“I liked Ukraine, it was really grandmom is from Ukraine,” they share. Mahri’s face lights up, telling me about life in Ukraine. “When I had free time, I was working at a cafe... I was planning to stay there. [I had] a lot of friends and connections.”  

Pictured: A regional map of the Caucasus and Central Asia from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin.

Mahri studied in Kharkiv, a northeastern Ukrainian city less than 20 miles from the Russian border. “First, when it started, no one said anything about war...I was normally living my life,” they said about the time leading up to the war.   

Things changed for Mahri in a moment. “One day, I woke up, and my wall was shaking...then I understood the war was starting,” they said. The sky was painted red at night from the bombs. Mahri and other foreign students began to panic.  

The university’s response to the war did nothing to ease the worries of its international students. Leave Ukraine, leave your diploma.  “A lot of people were thinking they should stay because of the amount of time [they put toward their degree],” they said. Mahri decided to leave Kharkiv for Germany.   

“I took the bus, I took the train. Everything was risky and more expensive than before,” Mahri explained, nearly out of breath from the events two years ago. Then, on March 11th, 2022, Mahri arrived in Germany.   

“The first feeling I had was that I was safe because there were no bombings and I had food. There wasn’t enough food in Ukraine. When I came here, I was happy,” Mahri said, smiling about settling in Berlin.   

For the first few months, Mahri lived in a hostel where a German volunteer helped them and other guests from Ukraine with paperwork. After five months, the volunteer gave Mahri ten days to pack their things and leave. Mahri wasn’t sure why the volunteer abruptly made them leave the hostel.   

“I started thinking if I should go back to Ukraine. I didn’t think that was a good idea,” they shared. “My country [Turkmenistan] will think I’m a traitor. We have traitors, and they put you in jail and never let you out.”  

Mahri remained in Berlin, staying with friends from Ukraine and temporarily in other apartments. Finding stable housing remained a consistent challenge for Mahri. “An apartment, it’s very expensive and hard to find. It’s not easy,” Mahri shared.   

Some friends Mahri made from Ukraine told her that ORAM provided LGBTIQ refugees from Ukraine with housing for six months, including third-country nationals.

“Giving me somewhere I can live is a very, very big help for me,” Mahri said with gratitude.   

Now, Mahri is focusing on self-sufficiency and integrating into life in Germany. They work at a caviar factory (“It smells,” they share disgustedly) and attend German language courses five days a week (“It’s very hard,” they say with exhaustion). Despite various obstacles, Mahri’s perseverance shines through my computer screen.   

Mahri dreams of one day paying it forward to help others in Germany. “I want to find work in a hospital caring for old people. In Germany, it’s a need, a profession.”  

While working towards their goals, Mahri is grateful for one less worry in Berlin, thanks to ORAM.   

Donate now to support LGBTIQ refugees in Berlin like Mahri.   

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