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Thursday, May 26, 2022

“My only chance was to swim across the Danube”

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It started with a bang. Zi Faamelu was lying in her bed in kyiv when a deafening noise woke her up in the middle of the night. She at first thought it was fireworks. It never occurred to Faamelu that the war could have come to the Ukrainian capital at that time. “We thought it was just rumours. She was confused,” she says.

But when he looked out the window, he realized that they weren’t fireworks. The whole sky glowed orange; A few seconds later more impacts sounded. “At that moment I knew: That’s the sound of a bomb.”

“I was very scared”

So Faamelu called a friend and decided what to do. Do you visit the nearest bunker? Or have you already packed the most important things? I was in a panic, says Faámelu, everything was very hectic. When a nearby building was also destroyed, he decided to flee; too great was the fear that he might hit his house next.

A friend also warned him that there were groups roaming around kyiv arresting gay people. “I was very scared, of the Russian invasion, but also of anti-trans people in my own country.”

At the end of The Voice of Ukraine

Because in her country of origin, Faámelu is not unknown. Just a few years ago, the Ukrainian singer was in the final of the Voice of Ukraine singing competition and she has already been on tour in China. However, since the Russian invasion, fame has been her downfall, as Faámelu came out as trans a few years ago. This makes her one of the people who has not been allowed to leave the country since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression.

For example, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj ordered a general mobilization that applies to men over 18, but also to Faamelu, whose passport still shows the male gender and his old name, which is much better known in the country.

So Faamelu decided to run away. He packed up his most important things and left town in a car with a friend. But the journey turned out to be difficult, they were stopped again and again and had to show their identity documents. “The officials were confused because I have a photo of a woman, but my old name is on the passport.” Several times, Faámelu pretended to be asleep, hoping that she would not be asked any questions. She “she was extremely mentally challenging.”

When kyiv was attacked, Faamelu had to flee.Photo Credit: IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

They finally reached the border crossing between Ukraine and Romania. From that moment on, Faamelu was alone. She speaks of a dramatic escape, it is not possible to confront the border authorities with her story.

She was immediately recognized at the checkpoint and insulted by a transphobic border officer, who also took her passport.

With the help of some German friends, Faámelu got in touch with a Romanian driver who was supposed to help her leave the country, but things were no better at the second checkpoint: they recognized her again and denied her exit. “The border guards at the first checkpoint had already sent them photos of me,” says Faámelu, who felt persecuted.

The only possibility was to swim across the Danube.

She then had to undergo several medical tests, all of which came to the same conclusion, says Faámelu: fit for military service, even though she was not. Her doctors mocked and insulted her in a transphobic way, he says. When she finally made it back to the car, she realized that she had to find another way to get out of the country. The Romanian driver asked her if she knew how to swim. “She didn’t really know what she was referring to,” says Faamelu, “until I realized that my only chance was to swim across the Danube.”

I was very afraid – of the freezing cold, the dark and the soldiers at the border. “I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to accept that this was really happening. It was horrible, like something out of a horror movie.”

Together with the Romanian driver, he drove to a suitable place and put all his documents in a plastic bag. When the soldiers reappeared, pointing their weapons at them, Faamelu ran as fast as he could. “That was my survival instinct. I just jumped into the dark.” He made his way through a swamp and brush that scratched at his face until he finally reached the river.

Faamelu had to mobilize all his forces to face the strong current of the Danube. He swallowed a lot of water, threatened to sink several times, but finally reached the Romanian coast: “I felt like a criminal, but in reality I was a fugitive.”

When the Romanian police discovered her, Faámelu was unable to utter coherent sentences. “My head hurt really bad. I just screamed words: Trans. Danger. Kill. Help.” But the police understood and took her to the police station, where Faámelu was able to contact her friends in Germany, who picked her up a few days later.

Faámelu stayed with a family in Magdeburg

Now, weeks after his escape, Faamelu is in Magdeburg. As the accommodation for trans people in Berlin was already occupied, she traveled to Saxony-Anhalt with a family who took her in. “She gave me protection and is incredibly caring,” she says Faámelu. On the first morning, she placed a tray in front of her door with muffins, coffee, and a small bouquet of flowers. “It is the perfect place to recover, mentally and physically. I feel safe here.”

Zi Faámelu has stayed with a family in Magdeburg, where she feels safe.Photo: private

During the last weeks, Faámelu has slept a lot and has gone out for short walks. She feels lost and confused. “There was really no time for rest and stillness because I lost everything. All I have left is my vote.”

And Faamelu wants to use this, so that the whole world knows what threatens trans women in Ukraine. “In my country, many think that I am a traitor, a coward, for sharing my story. They want to silence me,” says Faámelu. “The world is with Ukraine and I’m talking bad about it. But that’s not true. I love my country, but I don’t love that aspect, so I have to tell the truth to help my community.”

The conditions of trans women are getting worse

During his escape, Faámelu met Lisette Rosenkranz, who works as a volunteer at the German Association for Trans-Identity and Intersex (dgti). He found out about Faámelu through a social media video of her and kept in touch with her through Instagram until Faámelu arrived in Germany. Together with Faámelu and the dgti, she would like to help other trans women in Ukraine, because: “In recent days, the conditions of trans* women who stayed in Ukraine have worsened more and more: on the one hand due to the advance of the Russian troops, on the other hand. Due to the war situation, it is becoming increasingly difficult for women in Ukraine to obtain the necessary documents to be classified as unfit for combat”.

Many would go into hiding, which given the state of war “possibly a life-threatening decision.” Faámelu now awaits support from the United Nations.

[Neuigkeiten aus der queeren Welt gibt es im Queerspiegel-Newsletter des Tagesspiegel, der zweimal im Monat erscheint – hier geht es zur Anmeldung.]

The federal government’s queer commissioner, Sven Lehmann, also addressed the special dangers faced by queer people in Ukraine towards the Federal Foreign Office. “Russia’s anti-gay laws, the brutal crackdown on transgender people, and the mass harassment of LGBTIQ people in Russia should be a warning to us.”

The will and willingness of the federal government is great, says Lehmann. “Unfortunately, the problem is that the Ukrainian government does not allow people to leave the country.”

Rosenkranz also stresses that the danger for trans women at the border has not been avoided. “When women finally arrived on the ‘safe’ side of the EU, unfortunately they are already in the following danger: pimps are waiting at the borders, women, including trans* women, try to intercept them and put them into sex work at the force”.

Faámelu speaks at Transgender Awareness Day

Together with the dgti and other associations, Rosenkranz has launched a Facebook page for trans people who have fled in recent weeks. Numerous people have already offered their apartments and accepted sponsorships. “It is important to us that trans* refugees are not left alone here and put into collective accommodation, where there may be a renewed danger of discrimination or pimping. Our community stands together.” Unfortunately, fears can be understood all too well by everyone. of trans people in Ukraine.

On Thursday, Rosencrantz and Faámelu will meet in person for the first time, specifically at the Transgender Awareness Day in Berlin. In front of the Bundestag they want to draw attention to the situation of trans people in Ukraine; Faámelu will report on his escape and Rosencrantz will translate. But the focus should also be on the importance of a self-determination law that replaces the discriminatory law on transsexuals.

“The example of trans* people in Ukraine shows how important it is to finally get a modern self-determination law in Germany, because trans* people in Germany often experience discrimination and unnecessary complications due to unnecessary complexity,” says Rosenkranz. A simplification of the legal framework would help people to finally be themselves, wherever they are in the world.


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