The scenes of the more than two and a half million Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country have been brutally heart-wrenching. Eastern Europe is being overwhelmed right now, and it’s worrisome.
The despairing Ukrainians wait very long hours, sometimes even days to board buses and trains to cross the border. Some who have driven, have been leaving their cars and walking considerable distances — marathons to freedom.
We are all shocked at what we’ve been seeing. The barbaric bulldozing of a free country by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Each day brings more shocking scenes, more horrific stories, and more desperate situations.
This entire travesty, as I wrote last month before the war started, “spells doom for LGBTQ+ rights, on which progress has slowly started in Ukraine. Last September, over 7,000 people gathered in the capital city of Kyiv for the annual March for Equality, according to the Associated Press.”
For that column, I spoke with a leading Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activist, Vira Chernygina, who told me at the time that “the rapid flow of pressuring information is significantly worsening the mental health and quality of life of people and communities around the country.”
Her city of Kharkiv has been one of the most brutally attacked cities since it's located near Ukraine's border with Russia.
It has gotten unimaginably worse, particularly for those who have been forced to leave behind their homes, communities, neighbors, family, and friends. These were people who went to work each day, walked to school, went to the movies and malls, socialized in bars, and met loved ones out for dinner. They were living average lives until Putin’s inhumaneness began to crush them.
For LGBTQ+ people, there’s plenty to fear since U.S. intelligence indicated that Russia would target specific people, groups, and organizations, which would possibly include queer individuals in Ukraine. That has prompted many, mostly LGBTQ+ women and children, to uproot their lives and cross the border.
The two countries bearing most of the burden of accepting the refugees have been Hungary and Poland. I spoke via Zoom to Viktória Radványi, an organizer for Budapest Pride, and I also reached out to Justyna Nakielska, an advocacy officer for the Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland.
Nakielska had just returned from the Polish border, and she described what’s being done to help LGBTQ+ people from Ukraine as the situation turns into a humanitarian crisis.
“For now, all of our team members are engaged in helping Ukraine on many levels,” Nakielska said. “When it comes to direct help, we launched a network of LGBT-friendly flats, people from the private sector who are offering accommodations for LGBT+ refugees.”
Similarly, Radvány at Budapest Pride said that they were busy accepting calls and emails from LGBTQ+ individuals in Hungary who wanted to open their homes to refugees as well.
In addition, Nakeisha said her organization has prepared a common room in their office where people can spend some time together, drink tea or coffee, take a shower, and shelter in an environment with some sense of normalcy.
“We are offering basic material and help, like food, clothing, medications, legal assistance, transportation to other countries,” she explained. “We also participate in advocacy efforts on the local, national and international level.”
Equally, Radvány said that Budapest Pride has taken lots of donations and help from its members in the community and beyond.
Nakielska said that before going to the Polish-Ukrainian border, the team gathered more than 40 LGBTQ+ organizations in Poland and prepared special posters and leaflets on the type of help being offered. In addition, a website was launched by Warsaw Pride that "groups all the initiatives in one place.”
She and her team of seven hung posters in visible places at the border crossing, including reception points, and in special Humanitarian Help Centres in Przemyśl near the Medyka crossing. “We hope that LGBT+ people in need will see them and will contact us.”.
Radvány said that they too were hanging posters near the Hungarian border, distributing leaflets, and doing everything they can to make sure LGBTQ+ people know that they have somewhere to go when they arrive in the country.
“We’ve also been using our social media to great effect, and the stories we are hearing are all about the tremendous effort it takes to just cross the border. These stories have been so heartbreaking. We want people to know that we are here for them, and we welcome them when they come into Hungary,” Radvány explained.
Radvány emphasized that the LGBTQ+ refugees they are helping are vulnerable as well. “They are fleeing from Ukraine where their rights and dignity are not as respected like other places in the free societies. Then they arrive in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Romania where the state doesn’t support LGBTQ equality, and the authorities and humanitarian NGOs don’t receive the necessary training in helping LGBTQ refugees.”
Nakielska echoed what Radvány said and described one example of discrimination her team encountered at the border. “At one point the Polish Red Cross operating in the railway station in Przemyśl refused to let us hang our posters informing about our help for the LGBT+ community. A man working there said ‘he's rightist’ and he would not let us hang the posters.”
With these prevalent attitudes of non-acceptance, Nakielska said she’s most fearful for transgender individuals. “Many people who haven't had their documents corrected before the war started have had many problems doing that now and cannot leave the country,” she pointed out. “There is still a lot of transphobia in the army and people are afraid of being enlisted. We are cooperating internationally, and with Ukrainian LGBT+ organizations, trying to solve this very pressing issue.”
I asked Nakielska to describe other issues at the Polish border people are facing. “The situation is changing constantly. Some people waited two hours to cross, the others reported queueing dozens of hours before getting to Poland. And the temperatures are really low there and people are waiting in that weather for really long hours and that will for sure affect their health.”
“At most of the points people get to the humanitarian tents to get some food and shelter but sitting there in shock, and very vulnerable, and they start to speak only after long hours,” Nakielska added. “They are mostly private people, regular individuals, who need help or transport.”
Both Nakielska and Radvány said that a lot of LGBTQ+ people have already crossed the border into their countries. “They are mostly lesbian or bisexual women and transwomen with corrected documents due to official decisions of the Ukrainian government, all the men between 16 and 60 years old must stay in the country. There is among them a lot of gay men, transmen or transwomen without corrected documents,” Radvány said.
Finally, I asked both activists what LGBTQ+ people in the United States and beyond can do to help? “You can spread the message that among people fleeing from Ukraine there are also persons from minorities, also LGBT+ people,” Nakielska instructed. “Not only of Ukrainian nationality but others like Nigerians and Lebanese. There are no better or worse refugees. Everybody should be welcomed no matter who they are, and receive the help they deserve.”
Nakielska advised that people can go to the Council for Global Equality website for more information.
Radvány recommended that people should double-check the sources of ways to contribute since there is a lot of misinformation. “Unfortunately, during tragedies like this, there are a lot of scams that try to take advantage of the situation and of people who are looking to help,” she explained.
“Outside of that, people need to put pressure on their governments to convince them to provide more help for Ukraine in their fight," Radvány said. “I’m not an expert, but I do know that the world needs to do more to help Ukrainians.”