(NEW YORK) — The flashlights of the Ukrainian army followed Zi Faámelu, a transgender woman from Ukraine, as she walked through a swamp and hid from the military while crossing the Romanian border.
Tall, sharp bushes scratched the singer’s face, and the rough waters from the river pulled her body in the opposite direction. She knew it was the only chance she had to escape.
She was carrying only her passport, wrapped in a trash bag to protect it from the water. Her passport identified her as male, making it illegal for her to flee Ukraine after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered all men to join the army.
Once she made it to the other side, Faámelu could only think of the fact she made it alive.
“I knew this was my last chance of survival and I had to do something like this real quick,” she told ABC News.
“I was almost drowning and I drank so much water. And I was very exhausted and I swam. I thought I [wouldn’t] make it. But somehow I reached the other side.”
At the first checkpoint, Faámelu said the guards took a photo of her passport and sent it across the border to prevent her from leaving the country. The treatment she received at the border, she said, was similar to the reality she faced for being a trans woman in Ukraine.
“My story is not like popular opinion right now because I know the inside of it all. And it’s not pretty,” she said. “It’s ugly. So I know the world stands with Ukraine, but they don’t know what’s going on inside the country.”
Throughout her life, Faámelu said she faced discrimination and transphobia. The invasion made things worse, she said, and she found herself stuck inside her apartment due to fear of persecution.
“At first, I wanted to leave Kyiv because there were bombings, but there was a group of dangerous people moving around this city. Homophobic, transphobic people that were preying on LGBTQ folks,” she said.
Faámelu is not the only one who says she fears for her safety. Olha Raiter traveled with her ex-partner, Uliana, and their 7-month-old son to Berlin from Ukraine by car. The trip took about 68 hours, and their car became a temporary home as they saw their country being shelled.
“I tried to stay positive because you could just die in one second if you just imagine what’s going on,” Raiter said.
“We have to be positive. We have to believe,” she added.
Raiter always wanted to have kids, but she said it was difficult to make it a reality because of how it would be viewed by society.
“I couldn’t get married,” she said. “We are all discriminated against in Ukraine because we cannot get the same rights. We have Damien together, but officially, she’s nobody to him, even if she’s a mother the same as me … and she was there from the very beginning and she was there when I was delivering him. But she still, according to Ukrainian law, … she’s nobody.”
Raiter says, “We were moving in the right direction. We put pressure on our government, and it changes. I didn’t have a feeling that this was a country that didn’t want me.” Despite the hardships and the rough reality members of the LGBTQ community say they face in Ukraine, Raiter did not leave the country because she felt unwanted, but feared raising a child among war. She hopes to return to her home country one day to raise Damien.
“I want [Damien] to … grow up in Ukraine, and I think it’s important because it’s important for me. I know it’s possible,” Raiter said.
Svetlana Shaytanova works for Quarteera, a nonprofit organization creating a safe space for members of the Russian-speaking LGBTQ community in Germany. She focuses her work on spreading awareness and sharing the harsh realities faced by queer people, like Faámelu.
The reality for trans people in Ukraine and across Europe, Shaytanova said, is that it’s harder than it might appear.
“They don’t want us to exist,” Shaytanova said.
“It’s not the government that persecutes people; they put laws in place that allow the general population to be openly aggressive against queer people.”
Faámelu is currently staying with a German family – and she says she feels lucky.
“It’s a perfect place for me right now. It’s just luck, … because I could’ve died [at the border],” she said.
When Faámelu crossed the border, she left everything behind – her clothes, belongings and even her art pieces. In the midst of the chaos, she still hopes to keep making music and continue her activism within the trans community.
“[My voice] is the only thing I have now … because I have nothing. They took everything away from me,” she said.
Faámelu says change must be made so others don’t have to be discriminated against and fight for their lives as she did at the border. The issue, she said, is beyond the Russian invasion.
“We’re fighting for our lives as trans people,” Faámelu said. “It’s a war for recognition, for getting noticed, for getting hurt. But we are humans. We deserve our rights.
“This is a war within a war.”
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