Violette Matevosian is the national coordinator of RUSA LGBTQ+, a New York City-based organization that began in 2008 as an initiative of Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST). Although the project’s initial goal was to assist the queer children of Jews emigrating from the countries of the former Soviet Union, the organization is now working hard to help those fleeing the war with Russia.
This was not the first time RUSA LGBTQ+ changed its mission. The first change took place in 2013, when the Russian parliament passed a law to promote “traditional family values” to minors and shuttered queer-serving agencies and online forums. Human rights activists quickly saw it as a homophobic assault on the community.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the impact of the policy was immediate and “had a stifling effect on access to [LGBTQIA+] affirming education or support services with harmful consequences for LGBTQ youth.” What’s more, HRW notes that almost immediately after passage of the measure, members of the community saw an uptick in “social hostility” toward those who failed to conform to heteronormative standards. Not surprisingly, this exacerbated feelings of vulnerability for LGBTQ+ Russians and, in the aftermath of the law’s enactment, many queer individuals sought to leave the country; thousands have since emigrated to the United States.
RUSA LGBTQ+ was there to help them — and the now independent group did so regardless of whether the newcomers were Jewish, Russian Orthodox, atheist, or of another faith; volunteers quickly connected the newcomers with pro bono legal representation, English classes, medical care, and additional resources.
More recently, however, the organization felt compelled to change its mission once more, this time to assist Ukrainian war refugees. In addition to referring them to services and legal help, they are also working with several people who wish to bring friends or family members into the United States through the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program. That program kicked off in April, 2022, and gives Ukrainians expedited entry into the United States — an opportunity that has not been extended to asylum seekers from other war-torn countries. But here’s the catch: To be eligible applicants must have a U.S. sponsor, a guarantor who files paperwork with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stipulating that they will provide full financial support to the newly arrived immigrant during their two-year stay. The program also stresses that U4U does not provide a pathway to either a green card or citizenship.
As of early July, 74,000 U4U applications had been filed, and 47,600 had been approved.
Most of those entering the United States, Matevosian says, are not queer. Has there been any resistance to having an explicitly LGBTQ+ advocacy group assisting them? I ask since reports of trans people being harassed by Ukrainian border guards as they attempt to leave the country have been well documented.
“For the most part, Ukrainians coming into the U.S. are open-minded and are not prejudiced toward LGBTQIA+ people. They understand that we are just living our lives. They value freedom and are grateful for the help we’ve given them,” Matevosian says.
But that is not to say that everything is going smoothly. In fact, Matevosian makes clear that problems and challenges abound. “People are frustrated by the amount of bureaucracy they’ve encountered with U4U. They are allowed in, told they can work, but typically have to wait months and months for their work authorization documents to be issued,” they explain. “It’s especially frustrating that there is no way to check the status of an application online. Some people have had job offers rescinded because they don’t have the needed authorization. We’re a small group, but we make decisions fast. We’ve set up GoFundMe pages, distributed the money raised to individuals and families that need it, and have collected supplies for kids enrolling in U.S. schools for the first time. RUSA LGBTQ+ also knows that it is important to build community among new arrivals. In the last few months, we brought people together for a tour of the Metropolitan Museum, organized a picnic in Central Park, and held a fundraiser that brought in $13,000.”
Most heartening, Matevosian continues, are the burgeoning networks — virtual and in-person — that have cropped up to help new arrivals connect to supports, from counseling to social groups, that make the transition easier. Nonetheless, Matevosian adds, “Ukrainians asylees coming in are very connected to their home country. They are loyal to Ukraine and want to go back if and when they can.”
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