Editor’s Note: This article is a part of the “Journalism of Tolerance” project by the Kyiv Post and its affiliated non-profit organization, the Media Development Foundation. The project covers challenges faced by sexual, ethnic and other minorities in Ukraine, as well as people with physical disabilities and those living in poverty. This project is made possible by the support of the American people through the U. S. Agency for International Development and Internews. Content is independent of the donors.
An apartment in a typical Soviet-style gray block in one of the Kyiv’s suburbs with a rundown backyard hardly sounds like an ideal place to live in, but 28-year-old Svyastoslav Smyrnov is happy with his new home.
This four-room place houses seven people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
It’s the only shelter in Ukraine which hosts LGBT people affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine, as well as LGBT people who have a hard time finding a job or a place to rent.
Smyrnov, a gay man, moved to Kyiv in early July from his native Donetsk, a city under control of Russian-backed separatists.
“Here, in Kyiv, it’s easier, people are more tolerant,” Smyrnov says as he walks into a 15-square meter room with bare walls, some old couches and a big white armchair next to a balcony door.
While many LGBT people are afraid to speak openly about their sexuality using their full real name, Smyrnov isn’t one of them.
“I’m not afraid of anyone,” he says, adding that now his main problem is the desperate need for a job.
He has a tall slender frame and smiles warmly.
Smyrnov used to work as a model and took part in a number of runway shows in China. When the war started in the Donbas in 2014, it became difficult to find a modeling agency there.
Many media reports indicated that the LGBT people in the Donbas were hit particularly hard by the war, with homophobic militants ruling the area and no authorities or human rights organizations left to protect them.
Smyrnov says he plans to go home to Donetsk from time to time but “everything is very difficult there.” He says that his family was not very supportive when he came out as gay.
Ukraine’s LGBT people often face discrimination from their relatives, neighbors and employers.
However, for LGBT people who have fled the Donbas war zone it might be even harder. They face a double prejudice: against their sexuality or gender identity, and against their Donbas origin.
In the shelter that opened its doors in June 2014, refugees from Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas can sit down to a hot meal, read, make friends, share experiences and get psychological or legal aid.
“I can’t be more thankful (for the shelter),” Smyrnov says. “These people genuinely want to help and solve all the problems quickly.”
More than 60 people from eastern Ukraine have already turned to the shelter in Kyiv for help.
The idea of the shelter originated back in 2008 but was finalized in the wake of the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014 by Insight, a Ukrainian non-profit LGBTQ organization.
Olga Olshanskaya, a regional development project coordinator of Insight, says it was not an easy project to kick-start.
“It was a difficult story, because it was almost impossible to find funding for such a project,” Olshanskaya explains. “First, we wanted to help LGBTQ teens who became homeless because of homophobic attitude (of their relatives), but that project would have legal obstacles because they were minors.”
In 2014, Olshanskaya says, many people from Donetsk and one person from the city of Sevastopol in Russian-annexed Crimea contacted Insight because “they feared persecutions” and wanted to escape.
The team knew it was time to step in. Help came from MamaCash, one of the oldest international women’s fund, and smaller charitable organizations, Olshanskaya recalls. However, financing was not all, as they still had to find accommodation.
“Before we had our first group, we looked for an apartment for two weeks,” Olshanskaya recalls. “When landlords heard that there would be six people from the war zone and they were LGBT they often just hung up.”
Finally, they succeeded: “The landlord doesn’t care who lives there, we only have to pay rent on time.”
Starting a new life
Everyone who looks for a shelter in Kyiv goes through a similar procedure – they fill in the questionnaire and talk to Olshanskaya. If she approves, the person gets a key to the apartment.
A person can stay in the shelter for up to three months. It usually houses six to eight people at once – two per room. Insight provides them with public transport passes, food, medicine, clothing and shoes.
Keeping the apartment clean is the main rule of the shelter.
“We try to help and create all the conditions for people who have lost everything so they could focus on starting a new life in a new city – socialize, find a job and an apartment to live in in the future,” Olshanskaya explains. “The most difficult part of our job is to pay attention to everyone, to listen to people and support them as they are. Some people started talking openly about their orientation only here, in the shelter.”
Nick Litvinov, 22, who asked to be identified by this alias as he fears for his life, has been living in the shelter on and off since late January.
“It’s interesting how relatives often shy away from you, while strangers tend to help,” Litvinov, also a native of Donetsk, explains.
He used to live in Zaporizhzhia with his godmother but later had to seek help from Insight because of the homophobic attitude of his relatives. It was easy for him to move, as there wasn’t a single place in Ukraine which he would call a home, he says.
“Kyiv is a city I love, especially its old part,” Litvinov says. “Donetsk is my hometown, but there’s no home there yet.”
Litvinov admits, however, that it’s difficult to make friends for him, so the friendly atmosphere in the shelter came as a big surprise.
“The most wonderful thing about my life in the shelter is that I have found a true friend here,” he says. “We don’t only share some fun moments, but also talk about things like solitude or getting old. It’s so rare nowadays.”
Litvinov says they sometimes celebrate holidays together and once even baked an apple pie for their coordinator’s birthday.
Litvinov’s time in the shelter is almost up: he’s about to move in with his partner that he found during his stay in Kyiv. He says that the society is changing for better, as he saw many heterosexual people, including families with children attending the pride march in Kyiv in June.
“It was scary, but we did it. The last pride march boosted my confidence,” Litvinov says. “I saw that something is changing for better in Ukraine.”
He also hopes that “one day sometime soon” same-sex marriages will be legalized in Ukraine.
“Because it’s where I want to live,” Litvinov says.
To help the shelter contact Olga Olshanskaya at email@example.com