A trans­gen­der Chechen woman and her plea for U.S. asy­lum

Edmonton Journal - - INSIGHT - ADAM TAY­LOR

CHICAGO When Leyla ar­rived in the United States af­ter be­ing smug­gled over the Mex­i­can bor­der, she showed her pass­port to the Bor­der Pa­trol of­fi­cers who found her.

Then she said one of the few English words she knew: “Asy­lum.”

The bor­der guards may not have known it at the time, but the pass­port wasn’t just a travel doc­u­ment; it was stark ev­i­dence that Leyla needed refuge. It showed that she was born in the Rus­sian repub­lic of Chech­nya — and that she was born and raised as a man.

The prob­lems faced by les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der peo­ple in Chech­nya, a tiny ma­jor­i­tyMus­lim part of Rus­sia, be­came a global story this year af­ter re­ports that gay men were be­ing de­tained and tor­tured in what ap­peared to be a state-spon­sored purge.

Yet, Leyla is one of only a small num­ber of LGBT Chechens who have found refuge in the United States in re­cent years. Many more would like to es­cape to Amer­ica, but Rus­sian ac­tivists say the United States has of­fered only lim­ited help — push­ing peo­ple al­ready at risk into ever-more-dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions.

“The an­swer is ob­vi­ous: Take them in, give them visas!” said Svet­lana Gan­nushk­ina, a lead­ing Rus­sian hu­man rights ad­vo­cate who helped Leyla.

Leyla’s story has a happy end­ing. Late last month, a fed­eral judge in Chicago quickly ruled that she should be given asy­lum be­cause of the risk of per­se­cu­tion at home. But Leyla wants to en­sure Amer­i­can pol­icy-mak­ers do not lose in­ter­est in the per­se­cu­tion in Chech­nya. In June, she and other ac­tivists went to Wash­ing­ton to visit the White House, the State Depart­ment and Congress to give their ac­counts of the per­se­cu­tion of Chechens. A State Depart­ment spokesman said that the United States would “con­tinue to raise our con­cerns about this sit­u­a­tion with Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties” and that Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son had writ­ten a let­ter to Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov about it.

Leyla is hop­ing her new home can do more.

Chech­nya wasn’t al­ways as it is now. Leyla is in her mid-30s; when she was grow­ing up, the repub­lic was still part of the Soviet Union, with its sec­u­lar pub­lic cul­ture. Al­though she was be­ing raised as a boy, she some­times wore dresses in pub­lic. “The peo­ple were more tol­er­ant,” Leyla said.

Many Chechens be­came more re­li­gious af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed and the coun­try fought two wars against Rus­sia for in­de­pen­dence.

It was not un­til Leyla moved in 2002 to the neigh­bour­ing repub­lic of Kabardino-Balka­ria to at­tend col­lege that she be­gan to un­der­stand her own gen­der iden­tity bet­ter. She later moved to Moscow and be­gan to live as a woman.

Things were not easy at that time for a Chechen in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal. Leyla said she faced prob­lems when­ever her pass­port was re­quested.

Over­all, how­ever, she was happy. In 2004, then-27-year-old Ramzan Kady­rov took power af­ter his fa­ther was killed. He quickly be­came a key part­ner of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, help­ing wage war on Is­lamist in­sur­gents.

In re­turn, Kady­rov re­ceived lav­ish fed­eral funds to re­build war­rav­ished Chech­nya, as well as un­par­al­leled au­ton­omy to bring its so­ci­ety in line with his ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive be­liefs. As Leyla tran­si­tioned fur­ther, she stopped vis­it­ing Chech­nya and kept her con­tact with home to a min­i­mum. But in late 2015, her rel­a­tives be­gan harass­ing her. Leyla said that’s when her cousin turned up at her Moscow apart­ment de­mand­ing that she re­veal her­self.

A few days later, while tak­ing gro­ceries from her car, she was stabbed in the back and suf­fered a col­lapsed lung.

When she woke up in the hospi­tal, Leyla said a po­lice of­fi­cer told her that fil­ing a com­plaint would be a bad idea — it would mean trav­el­ling back to Chech­nya to go to court.

A few months later, Leyla got news that pho­to­graphs of her pass­port were be­ing shared on so­cial me­dia and in mes­sag­ing apps. Leyla said her phone num­ber was posted in a com­ment on Kady­rov’s pop­u­lar In­sta­gram page, and she re­ceived death threats.

She was put in touch with Gan­nushk­ina and other ac­tivists who ad­vised her to leave. In Fe­bru­ary 2016, they be­gan con­tact­ing for­eign con­sulates. But by April, dis­heart­ened by slow re­sponses and scared by new threats, Leyla and a friend booked a flight to Mex­ico City.

A few days later, they wan­dered across the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der near Ti­juana, where a smug­gler had dumped them alone in the dark­ness. They re­al­ized they were in Amer­ica thanks to an au­to­mated text mes­sage: “Wel­come to the United States.”

Leyla is now set­tled in the United States, yet she spends her days glued to her phone, talk­ing to peo­ple about the sit­u­a­tion at home.

The Amer­i­can re­sponse left her dis­mayed. The State Depart­ment says it has been work­ing to help vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple es­cape, but ac­tivists say most LGBT Chechens have had to turn else­where.

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