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