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What Lies Ahead: The Story of a Displaced Transgender Ukrainian

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

The first time Artem – a 21-year-old transgender man – traveled to Berlin, was on vacation in 2019. He could never have imagined the circumstances under which he would return three years later.

Artem knew he needed to leave his home in Ukraine when “my mom saw a piece of a bomb fly over our house,” he recalls.

One week after February 24, the day the Russians launched their attack on Ukraine, Artem and his mom had already relocated to a subway station where, “there were a lot of people,” Artem says. “They just laid blankets on the floor and people were sleeping and eating on the floor.”

“A lot of people” is an understatement. Artem is now one of more than five million Ukrainians – and thousands of LGBTIQ Ukrainians – who have fled their home country since Russia’s invasion. Displaced LGBTIQ Ukrainians, and countless queer refugees and asylum seekers around the world, are especially vulnerable to isolation and discrimination, which often prevents them from accessing essential resources.

That’s why ORAM is providing safe short-term and long-term housing options to displaced LGBTIQ Ukrainians – including Artem – in Berlin and other welcoming European cities, as well as supporting partner organizations in countries neighboring Ukraine.

With a look of slight disbelief on his face, Artem reflects on his mom’s abrupt decision to leave their home. “We didn’t plan anything at all…when we were in the subway, my mom bought tickets to Lviv because [it’s] much safer than Kyiv.”

Five days after Artem uttered these words, Russia began its offensive on Eastern Ukraine, targeting thousands of Ukrainians who previously sought refuge there.

But Artem and his mom had already continued from Lviv to Poland. In Lviv, they waited outdoors for 10 hours to board a train to Poland. Artem recalls that “It was so cold, and we didn’t have any food…volunteers gave us some food like hot soup...”

From Poland, Artem and his mom continued to Berlin, Germany. Safebow, a grassroots organization focused on evacuating and resettling displaced Ukrainians from marginalized communities, connected Artem and his mom with ORAM so that we could provide them with free temporary housing in an Airbnb.

“The housing was important for me,” says Artem, “to have my own free space separate from my mom.” And while Artem enjoyed his long-awaited privacy and downtime, he and his mom also spent time together in the kitchen, preparing food to share for the first time in a while.

Within two weeks of arriving in Berlin, Artem secured a job at a nightclub where he now spends most of his time. When he’s not at work, Artem is focused on completing German documentation that is required to acquire a tax ID and become eligible for social benefits and housing.

“Here in Berlin, the medical insurance covers all the cost of [top surgery],” he tells me. “My main goal is to stay in Berlin, to find some jobs, to have all my documents done, to find accommodations, and to get top surgery.”

He describes his plans with intense determination, as if it’s all no more than a day’s work. Then, just for a moment, Artem allows himself to set aside the strict optimism and resolution that has propelled him this far. He tells me he worries about his mom, who hopes to return to Kyiv to support the local economy. He misses his cat, Cynthia, who is now living on the outskirts of Kyiv with his grandparents. And “just sometimes,” he admits, “I also miss the streets where I lived and the public transport – I really enjoyed riding the public transport.”

Maybe Artem will get to return to the streets in his hometown eventually; to reunite with Cynthia and ride the bus once more. For now, he’s focused on what lies ahead: housing, employment, and survival.

Adapting to a new life in Berlin will be no vacation for Artem, but his resilience will surely enable him to survive and adjust, and hopefully – with a little help from people like you and me – to thrive.

Donate today to support ORAM’s efforts to assist displaced LGBTIQ Ukrainians.

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