Olga Jitlina: Adar

tereshkina-adar-1Image © Anna Tereshkina, 2018

משנכנס אדר – מרבים בשמחה
When Adar begins, joy multiplies.

I. Equality
Joy multiplies in the month of Adar. Joy arrives in the month of Adar. Why, oh why die in March? Spring is just around the corner. The darkness and cold have almost retreated. The light, like water, comes every day. To get out, clamber out from under myself as from under falling debris and beams, to shed myself like old scales. To fly, race, and run away from this exploding ruin. It is the snow melting. It is me melting. Joy surges. Joy arrives.

A friend told me in passing that joy is multiplied in the month of Adar. (Who multiplies it? Why does she do it? How does she do it?) I had always felt this poignantly, you know. At the beginning of March, on the fault line between winter and early spring, Grandmother died. During a lecture, someone from the dean’s office came to get me. They said the ambulance brigade medics who took her to hospital had been looking for me. When I arrived, she was still conscious but shrieking in pain. She asked for a shot that would make her die more quickly. Her aorta had burst. We managed to talk. I said, “Hang on, Granny. If you want, I’ll give you great-grandsons, Granny.” But she said, “March, damn March.” Her aorta had swollen two years earlier. Then, on the dawn of March 23, the police had rung the doorbell and asked whether there were any men in the house. The bed was empty, and Grandmother had dashed to the door and fallen down in the hallway. I rushed downstairs.

Very slowly and instantly, very slowly and instantly. She lay in an unbuttoned black overcoat over white panties, her t-shirt hitched up, her skinny yellow hand strangely twisted. A dent on a car. She had hit something before crashing to the ground. There was almost no blood, only a small spot near her head, and two teeth knocked out. Mom.

A negative imprint on icy pavement. An instant plunge into the abyss of the Mariana Trench. Why did you dress up as blackbird? Where are you taking me, Mother Death?

The sky’s light light light light fills floods the whole world. The sky is coming, the sky flows in like the ocean’s tide, the sky is huge, immense, and all the houses, cars, the entire dusty city, the people come undone from the earth and float in the sky like tiny flakes of yesterday’s pain, which has negotiated winter’s afflictions. Blinded by the light, consciousness bursts open toward the future, surrenders to the whirlpool of happiness, omnipotent, ready to face life’s trials and challenges.

“If we turn the IV off, she’ll die at once. If we don’t, she will be conscious for several hours or days,” the doctor said.

“Turn it off,” I said. I was eighteen.

When I left the hospital, the sky was shining, and the wind blew all the sails towards the sunset’s golden-pink clouds. I asked them that, before I got home, Grandpa’s Parkinson’s would progress to the point he would not realize he and I were alone.

Tattered thoughts rush past, shreds of memories sweep past. I don’t have the time to write them down, connect them, grab them.

You drew the line. You established the border. You will not let me into your house, your family, your life. During days of universal joy, all I can do is sit glued to the screen in solitude, peering at social network timelines where photos of your warm family festivities light up. I am hungry with envy and sadness, a tramp standing outside Yuletide windows.

I have become your illegal alien. Everyone knows about me, but they try not to notice me. You forbade taking pictures of us together, and in conversation you hide my presence with the singular. I shouldn’t leave the house too much. I should be invisible, inaudible, and inconspicuous. It should be as if I didn’t exist. I shouldn’t exist.

Clouds like ragged threads sweep across the blinding sky.

In March, the city really reveals itself only to the drunk and the desperate, to people standing on death’s windowsill. Only through the inward tears produced by the splinters of an ice floe smashed to smithereens does it flash with a hallucinatory beauty for an instant, and the first person you meet passes through the hell of a bulging heart like a thread through the eye of a needle.

My gaze crashed into you as I measured the distance from the balcony to the pavement. You lay, your head nestled against the belly of another person, lying on their back, the whites of their eyes spinning in oblivion, under my balcony. You were trying to warm yourself in the other person’s warmth or just die together. I was afraid to touch your squashed fingers, dried blood, dusty clothes, and urine-stained clothes. I told you to get up on your own and, holding onto the wall, walk with me to the front door. When we got there, before you could tell me about your eight-year-old daughter Liza and your mother in Orenburg Region, whom you had managed to send five thousand rubles before, and before I could decide whether to invite you into the flat so we could jump together or remember how to call the ambulance and where to find the address of the homeless shelter, we sobbed for a long while on the dirty front stoop, random and nameless.

It takes two or three weeks for someone who ends up on the streets to turn irretrievably into a homeless person, the same amount of time depression becomes clinical.

You are afraid of letting me in, because you know that as soon as I cross the threshold, your home will be inundated with the stench of misery and insanity. You are afraid to defile the peace of your home and loved ones. You are afraid the walls will immediately crack, and the infection of homelessness will spread to everyone. You have marked out your domain.

The pink pill rolls around inside you. It smashes you into the pavement.

Bright pink clouds lashed the eyes and scalded the brain of the body on the bloodless balcony.

The balcony can fit exactly three people. It resembles a tiny boat, a cradle careening between streams of cars and the sky. I suggested we go live there, never going back under the roof. Three wise men in a tub. Bas Jan Ader in the midst of the Atlantic. Baron Munchausen, pulling himself from the water by his own hair to fling himself into the sky’s blinding abyss.

I searched for you up and down the area around Dostoevskaya subway station, in all the attics and cellars, in the unlocked entryways and the warm spaces between the doors into the subway. In your crevice between peeling moldings and the cast-iron curls of stairway railings, all that was left of you was rubbish: a bed fashioned from crumpled newspapers and the booklet with addresses of homeless shelters I got for you the other day. We were going to meet right after the weekend. I was going to bring you clean clothes and wet wipes so you would look decent when you went to get new papers and register with the social services.

When, a few weeks later, I accidentally stumbled upon you trying to bum a cigarette, you were either completely drunk or distant. I handed you a cigarette and tried to figure out where you had been sleeping and when we would go to the homeless shelter. You could not focus and mumbled, “What they call you, sweetie?” I realized I was too late. You had already sailed away. You were already out there, furrowing the waves of the ocean in search of the miraculous. Neither your daughter Liza nor your grandmother would ever see you again. You had left your grandmother and left your grandfather. You had sailed away from me, leaving me alone with my own salvation, you smarted-ass jerk, Slavka.

tereshkina-adar-2Image © Anna Tereshkina, 2018

II. Fraternity
In moments of the most terrible despair, I imagine I have a twin brother. He is just like me, only a little different. He knows everything about me and understands me. He is the only person around whom I can cry, and to whom I am not ashamed to complain. I imagine he comes and comforts me.

We stretch our hands in the sun and laugh with joy. They are exactly the same, only slightly different colors. We have equally thin wrists and large palms with wide, seemingly broken joints and thin fingers. The hands of twins. We are different sexes, but we cannot help but find similarities in our absurd, adolescent-like bodies. Your hair is curly. Mine is straight. But we have an intangibly similar, perpetually disheveled look. My found brother.

“Sister,” said a guy sitting outside a shop and holding a dirty cap turned upside down, “Sister, some change, please.”

The noise of the lagoon gently beat against my eardrums. The sun shined, and almost without splashing the fullness of happiness, I walked by him schlepping full bags.

“I can’t go back. Everything is destroyed. I have burnt all my bridges. If you knew what it cost me to get here, what it cost me to live through this break-up—”

“Calm down. This no place to have a tantrum. Listen to me. You cannot stay. It’s impossible.”

“I laid down my whole life to get here. I scorched the past from my heart. I cut myself off from everyone.”

“It’s impossible. It’s written here in black and white. The decision on your application is negative. Where are you going to live? On the streets?”

“I’ll think of something. I have nowhere to go. I ask you to reconsider the decision.”

“You have gone through all your appeals. There is no room here for all of Africa. It’s an unbearable economic burden on our taxpayers. They cannot feed everyone.”

“I can work.”

“There’s been high unemployment here for many years.”

“I’m not afraid to do any job.”

“Even if that’s so, you’ll never really be accepted here. The culture is different.”

“I’ll learn the language. I’ll come to know your culture. I’ll become a different person.”

“Enough! Stop it! What use is any of this to us in the long run?”

I don’t know how much time has passed since I was dragged from the sea. I don’t remember being brought here. The days, weeks, and months have passed automatically, without feelings and sensations, leaving no memory of themselves, as if the cold tons of water that had squeezed me inside and outside had paralyzed my mind. As if a half-dead body had been pulled out, but what was alive in it and made it want to live had been too late to save.

I just up and went outside one morning. I walked down a street and found myself on the embankment of a wide channel or strait between islands. I felt the sun’s tender caress and smelled the seaweed. The green water picked through the shallow waves and, half asleep, smiled to no one and everyone all at once, and coral houses stood petrified and solemn along its rim. This beauty, these sounds, and the gentle warmth struck me with such force I couldn’t stand it. I fell, tensing my body, hiding my face, and closing my eyes. I suffered convulsions, and tears flooded my head. I remembered everything. Fear, hunger, a series of deaths and partings, no hope of meeting again, loneliness, despair, an endless trek, fear, fear. A mad hunted beast consumed in the depths of itself. Not everything was connected. Here and there, now and then were endlessly, unbearably separated. This could not be happening in one world; this could not be happening to one person. I had died. I was dead.

I tried to open my eyes again. On the other shore, half-turned towards me, a brick-red building with two candle-thin towers and a rounded dome floated, its white marble façade looking back at me. Four light figures—three above the forehead’s triangle and the fourth at the very top of the dome—soared from the building into the sky. Stunned by the building’s unprecedentedly simple shining grandeur, I again hid my face. Il Rendetore, Il Rendetore. Whether I had died or survived, I realized one thing: I was saved.

I don’t mind. They can work on construction sites, in closed facilities. As long they don’t plague us with their presence. I definitely don’t want my children to see them.

Why has it become so difficult? Why do I feel such horror when I imagine it? Is there something wrong with me? Can’t I leave the house like everyone else? Can’t I go where I want, like everyone else? How silly! What nonsense! I will come and say hello to everyone, as if nothing has happened. I’ll be cheerful. I’ll laugh, make jokes, and chat, hopping from topic to topic. I have been repeating this for many days. I smile to myself in the mirror. I turn on the most upbeat music. I walk along, my head lifted, a spring in my step. I’m like everyone. I’m like everyone. My heart beats harder. But here is the door. It’s not even locked: you just need to push it. No! No! It’s easier to plunge into the abyss. An ostrich in a cage, its head bumping against the ceiling. A lion cub’s severed head. Huge pumpkin halves floating in the water.

Meat carcasses. Everywhere there are meat carcasses and flies, flies, flies. If you do not come up to me first, if you are not by my side, everything will instantly fall silent, all gazes will pierce and immobilize me. Someone’s hand will pull on the end of my smiling turban, my cocoon—and I will be confronted by everyone, my face bare and frozen with animal fear.

“Can I ask you something? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I just like you.”

“Listen, I’m helping you defending your human rights, and you’re flirting with me?”

“No, no, I’m not flirting. I’m serious. I want to marry you. I sent my parents a photo of you and wrote to them you are a very good girl.”

“You’re serious? Serious is not receiving refugee status and getting sent back to a war zone. Or, at best, you stay here without papers. You’d better think about this seriously.”

“Yes, yes, I know you’re right. It’s very important. You have helped me so much. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. But everyone needs someone to be close to. Everyone needs a future in common with someone else.”

“It is natural for people to guard the borders of their house,” intoned a voice on the radio, and I could not come in to see you. Even if I had gone in, the door would simply have moved farther away and remained locked. Then my feet carried me down the stairs, flight after flight, into the courtyard, into the streets of the city to walk to the point of oblivion, until my senses were numbed, until I had lost the ability to speak, until I was anesthetized by the night’s cold.

When I was told we could have no future, that my face must be deleted from all photographs, and my name must never be said aloud, all mentions of it must be effaced and it must be forgotten, when you repeated it, and everything was on the point of collapse, I decided to save our incredible love, our unlimited intimacy in the past. We set out deep into the past. We retreated farther and farther from life, reeling through generation after generation, descending ever deeper into the branched roots of our family trees. We explored each and every fork and knot, looking for a possible intermingling, for the dead man who would silently proclaim, “I now pronounce you brother and sister.”

I don’t know how long I wandered the streets, squares, back alleys, and filthy, luxurious building lobbies, but once, when I came to my senses, I realized I was in a completely different time and city. It was phantasmagorically beautiful, but quite different from my bitter city, where beauty is spread in a thin layer over a flat space, like butter on a perestroika-era sandwich, the neoclassical columns-cum-commissars dispense an equal dose to each, and only needle-like spires are permitted to pierce the sky’s blue vein. Here, on the contrary, beauty exuded from every crevice, clambered over its own head, shook its stone lace, and doubled in the canals, leaving the eyes with not a centimeter of peace. Incredible churches squeezed between beautiful buildings, tucking in their apses. On one of the tiny squares, two blinding, blocky marble façades suddenly rose over me. I watched them, transfixed. They seemed to grow against the black sky. Then they toppled down on me with all their luxury, all their unbridled splendor, and I cried out in amazement, horror, and resentment, mortally offended for all the dull bedroom communities, the settlements consisting only of Khrushchev-era blocks of flats, plopped down in the middle of swamps, the shanty towns, jury-rigged from planks of old plywood, tarpaper, and filthy quilts, where homeless people and Roma children took shelter, mortally offended that beauty was so unfairly, so unequally dispensed.

I rushed through the intersections of an endless latticework of streets, running into dead ends and stumbling over bridges until, finally, at dawn, the sun glanced between the houses. I came to a wide embankment. In the rays of the rising sun, over the surface of waters forced apart, a clear Palladian silhouette arose, turning slightly to greet the arriving joy. Something dripped, thawing from the inside, painfully easing the winter frostbite. I realized the month of Adar had passed, and I had been able to survive the year. The time and place came into focus. It was April, my mom’s birthday and, maybe, mine, and I was ten years younger than she was when she jumped from the balcony. I stood on the same embankment where, several centuries ago, during the plague, the incurably ill were dragged so that, for the last time before they headed to the cemetery, they would believe in salvation.

Pateh Sabally, a twenty-two-year-old Gambian man, tried to stay afloat in a canal while onlookers shot him on video, peppered him with racist remarks, and laughed. In one video, you can hear the onlookers screaming at him, “Go on, go back home.”

At least three life rings were thrown into the water, but Sabally did not try and reach them, which suggests he committed suicide.

No one jumped into the water to help Sabally, and he drowned.

tereshkina-adar-3Image © Anna Tereshkina, 2018

III. Liberty
Remember, when we embraced for the first time, everything fell into place, everything was as it should have always been. The planets no longer had to orbit the sun. They finally had come home. They had found their safe haven. You wove me a cocoon of tenderness from kisses, words, and touches. It will protect me always and everywhere. And if you are with me when I die, I will die happy.

But only you and also you were blinded by pain at the same moment.

Dost thou remember, do you remember, how on that morning, when we awake together, embracing, and laugh at the joy of feeling each other, the happiest day will dawn? Everyone will share love with everyone else, and there will only be more love. Fear, jealousy, despair, barbed wire, and checkpoint politeness will be left behind. All the homeless, insane, undocumented, illegal and semi-legal, prostitutes, mistresses, and street urchins will stand straight up and solemnly along the sunny streets, and everyone else, giddy, will rush out to them, leaving their homes forever. Smiles will crack immured faces, and the age-old plaster of affliction will spill onto the ground and people’s clothes. The wind will waft the dust away. The buds of joy will burst open with a crash and sprout through every creature. And the joy keeps on coming and coming and coming. We multiply the joy.

Dost thou remember? And thou? Do you remember? Do we remember?

Originally written as a personal letter by Olga Jitlina, although this text never achieved its aim, it was the basis of Fraternité, an audio walk round Venice in October 2017. Curated by Vera Kavaleuskaya and Alina Belishkina, the walk was part of Research Pavilion: Access to Utopia. Illustrations by Anna Tereshkina. Translation by Thomas Campbell. A huge thanks to Ms. Tereshkina and Ms. Jitlina for permission to reprint their work here.

Refugees

“Everything There Is like a Horror Film Now”:
Young Refugees Talk about War, Fleeing Home, and Living in Russia

Filippo Valoti-Alebardi
Furfur
October 19, 2016

Armed conflicts in the Middle East and instability in parts of Africa and South Asia have led to one of the largest immigrant crises since the Second World War. According to Frontex, 1.82 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, and another 173,761 people arrived in Europe by sea in the first part of 2016. Russia has found itself on the sidelines in terms of most migrant flows. Only one route, which runs through Russia’s land borders with Norway and Finland, was used for the transit to Europe. According to RIA Novosti, around 6,000 people traversed this route between October and December 2015.

The Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) claims there are very few people with refugee status in Russia, less than eight hundred. Basically, people who seek refuge here can count only on temporary refugee status, which is valid for one year. But if a person manages to obtain it, no one can guarantee it will be renewed in the future. Furfur met with four young refugees and wrote down their stories of fleeing their home countries and living in hiding in Russia.

hasan

Hasan, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria

I left Aleppo three years ago. In 2012, the civil war came to our city. All the state institutions closed, except for some hospitals. I stopped going to school and almost never left my house. Everything was topsy-turvy in Aleppo then: government troops might be in one district, while the opposition was in the next. Life was hard but bearable. The financial crisis was not as bad as now, and my family had some savings. We were bombed, but not like during the Islamic State’s offensive. The electricity didn’t work, but we had a generator. The water was severely rationed, but it was enough.

Almost as soon as fighting broke out, I was forbidden to leave the house. I was not yet threatened with conscription, but my parents feared I could be recruited, killed or kidnapped, since I was the oldest son in the family. The other members of the family also tried not to leave our flat without a very good reason. We just sat at home and waited for it to all be over.

In the summer of 2013, an acquaintance of my father’s helped me get a work visa to Russia, and I left Syria. The person worked here in a sewing factory where there were many Syrians. He met me at the airport and took me to Losino-Petrovsky, where I still live. I immediately started worked in the sewing workshop. My father had been a tailor, so I already had some skills.

During the fifth month of my stay in Russia, I applied for refugee status. The [UNHCR] helped me prepare the papers for the FMS, where I had to have an interview. I was asked about my family’s financial state, whether I had served in the army, and about my political stance. A few months later, I received temporary refugee status, but it lasted for only a year.

I lived in Moscow Region and worked in the workshop. I tried to keep in touch with my family and friends. One day, a friend called me and said our house had been bombed and everyone had been killed. So only two members of my family, which had consisted of eleven people, have survived: my sister, who got married and lives in Istanbul, and I.

When my refugee status ended, I went to the FMS and asked for an extension. This time round, my case was handled by a different officer. He also asked me questions about my origins, financial state, and political stance, but then he asked why I had not gone to Iran, Turkey or Europe. I said I liked it here. I also told him that, over the past year, my mother,  brother, and all my brothers and sisters had died, except one. I was given a certificate, valid for one month, and then I was turned down. I was told the situation in Syria had normalized, that I was in no danger and could return home safely. But I had nowhere to return: my home and family were gone.

I was given three months to appeal against the refusal. I made four attempts to appeal it, but to no avail. Finally, I went to a Syrian man who said he had friends with pull. He promised to help me for 70,000 rubles [approx. 1,000 euros]. Ultimately, however, I was turned down once more, and never saw the guy again. Now I am in Russian illegally, and for the time being I have managed to avoid problems.

The police often stop me under the pretext of checking my papers, but they have a pretty good attitude to Syrians. Previously, when my papers were in order, they would haul me down to the precinct and take my fingerprints before letting me go. The situation has now become more complicated, and I often have to bribe them. It is usually not in Moscow where the police check my papers, but in Losino-Petrovsky itself. The local police are well aware of where the migrants live and work. They know our routes and when we get off work. So at least one or twice a month they detain one of us.

I rarely leave my own neighborhood. I work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and have almost no free time. But when I have the time and energy, I go play football with my friends, either in Noginsk or Moscow. I speak almost no Russian. At work, I get by with Arabic and a few words in Russian, since I work with Syrians, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. I sometimes chat on the phone with my sister in Turkey and with friends who have left Syria and gone to Turkey and Europe. I used to really miss my family and my home in Syria, but not anymore. I have lost my family and simply see no point in life. I even think it would have been better had I been with my family the day the bomb fell on my house. It would have been better to die with them than to hear about their deaths over the telephone.

yasmin

Yasmin, an 18-year-old refugee from Yemen

This is the second war my parents have fled. My father is half Vietnamese, half Yemeni. My mother is a Vietnamese Muslim. When the war between the US and Vietnam ended, they found themselves in a refugee camp in Yemen, which is where they met. My mom was seventeen then, the same age I was when I came to Russia.

Life in Yemen had always been hard for our family. Because my father speaks Arabic poorly and cannot write it, he could never count on a good job. On the streets, people would always point at us and say, “Look! There go the Chinese.” Everything got complicated after the 2011 revolution. Some government offices ceased to function, and foreign companies gradually left the country. A year later, the German firm for which my father worked as a driver closed its office, and he lost his job. It was hard to find another job. Ultimately, my older brother had to quit school to support us. He spoke the best Arabic in our family.

War broke out in Yemen in 2014, but we were affected by it only in 2015, when the heavy bombardment began. We lived in the city of Taiz, but our house was not far from a rebel camp, so the planes targeted our neighborhood. We took our things and left for Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to stay with relatives. It was much safer there, and we livef peacefully for two weeks or so, but then the bombing recommenced.

In Sanaa, we lived near the Russian Embassy. After one of the bombing raids, we went there to ask for help. The embassy officials told us a Russian Emergencies Ministry (MChS) plane would be leaving [soon]. They explained where to go and when, but they did not promise we would be taken aboard. On the right day, we arrived at the appointed time at the airport, where we saw a team of [Russian] rescuers. They put our family on the plane. We had no visas, but we had passports. All the others who wanted to go had no papers and were left behind.

There were lots of Russian citizens on the plane with us, but there were also Yemenis, Syrians, and even a few Americans. We made a stopover in Djibouti, and there we were given the right to choose: stay behind or fly on to Russia. Since we had no family in Djibouti or other countries, we decided to fly to Russia. First, we were taken to a military airport, and then to a civil airport, where we had to wait for a consul. He gave us ten-day entry visas and ran off.

We did not know a word of Russian or English, we had no money, and we were hungry.  I don’t know what we would have done if it had not been for the Syrian who was on the plane with us. He spoke Russian and interpreted for us. Then he gave us two hundred dollars and ordered us a taxi to the Yemeni embassy. For some reason, the taxi driver took us to the Egyptian embassy, not the Yemeni embassy, and on top of that he made us pay him fifty dollars, not thirty dollars, as we had agreed. But it was a good thing the guard at the embassy spoke Arabic, since it was cold and we had no idea where we were. He called us a cab to take us to our embassy, and the next driver, an Egyptian, did not even charge us.

At the embassy, we were given a room where we lived for approximately two months. During this time we put together papers for obtaining refugee status, which we applied for at the [UNHCR] offices and the FMS. Later, the Vietnamese ambassador came to see us. He helped us get a room at the Hanoi Moscow Hotel, where we have been living ever since.

Our application for refugee status has been turned down twice. We have appealed the decision and are now awaiting the outcome. We need the status in order to be able to work and somehow organize our lives in a new place, because for over a year we have been living solely due to support from the Vietnamese. We have nowhere else to go. The war and bombing are still going on in Yemen, and there is almost nothing left of our home and neighborhood in Taiz. Everything there is like a horror film now.

didie

Didier, a 23-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Before leaving Congo, I lived in Kinshasa, our country’s capital, and was studying psychology. I left not because I was starving, but because I feared for my life. When my father died, I could not even go home to mourn and bury him. Instead, I am here, but I don’t know how much time I have left in Russia.

In 2015, I attended a rally against changes to the electoral system that would have enabled the president to serve another term. It was a major protest rally, for which a thousand and a half students and staff from my university showed up. The authorities responded by sending in the army, police, and large army trucks to kettle the protesters. The police and soldiers shot to kill. At some point, we were herded into a corner where nothing was visible, everything was covered in flames. Twelve people were killed between January 19 and January 25. Two of them were my friends. We were at university together.

The best thing that happened to many people involved in the protests was that they simply disappeared. I managed to hide from the police at the place of some acquaintances. I could not go back home or to the university, because secret service officers were surveilling the demonstrators. They were especially interested in the people who had incited university students and staff to take part in the protests. I was a ringleader, and at the time I was already a member of Congo’s second largest opposition party.  I did not want to leave the country, but my parents insisted. They were worried about me, since a lot of people were disappearing at the time.

Why did I leave for Russia? I knew people who had friends with connections and helped me get the necessary papers. This took a while, but the situation got worse and I had to leave urgently. I left Congo on a night flight after convincing the police I was somewhere else. In Russia, I had the contacts of the people who had helped me get a student visa. The first six months, I lived in the place of a friend who had gone home, and then I lived at the People’s Friendship University, where I met a lot of people and was advised to go to the Civic Assistance Committee. They helped me obtain temporary refugee status, which is issued for a year, and now I am trying to extend it.

There is a small Congolese diaspora in Moscow, but I do not communicate with them. I do not want to disseminate information about myself. I deliberately limit my dealings with other people, and I do not maintain contact with people from the Congolese opposition movement. I know that people in the Russian opposition are also detained, and I am scared my country’s authorities might send an official extradition request. In Congo, I would definitely go to prison.

Russia is a “white” Africa. People here live in greater safety than back at home, but you are also unable to assemble and protest. You fear the police, who help implement the policy of dictatorship. Nevertheless, in Russia, you can find a job easily, you can buy a flat, and get a loan. The government thinks about its people at least a little, but not in Africa. The regime has complete forgotten about people. The president works only to benefity his own family. He stuffs his pockets and takes holidays in the States and Canada, while the populace suffers. Only officials, the people who stuff his pockets, live well. They should all be in prison. God needs to descend and free my people.

People in my country continue to protest, but they are few and the police arrest them, including members of our party, which they are trying to bleed to death. Some of my comrades have left the country, while many have been arrested.

I would like to go back to Congo to fight for human rights and give people back freedom of speech and the right to vote. I want to give them the ability to speak their own mind freely. I can tell you that right now in Congo women are being raped, people’s heads are being cut off in markets, and people are being shot at.

More than ten million people have been killed in my country to date. It is the most dangerous country in the world for women: there are a huge number of rapes, and war is going on almost all the time. But if you dare talk about it, you are lost. Most of the people who can talk about it are in Europe. They upload short videos to the Internet and talk about the atrocities occurring in Congo, but if they went home they would be detained immediately.

And that is why I would like to tell Mr. Putin personally what is actually going on there. Our situation resembles the one in Syria right now, if it is not worse, but everyone talks only about Syria, and not about Congo. You white people in Russia, Europe, and the States, you are well aware of what is happening in Africa, but your governments would rather not doing anything about it. They only support the criminal regimes that rule our countries, getting money from them or investing in them. The whole world buys our diamonds: France, Belgium, and the US. Even you Russians are involved in diamond mining in Congo, which is always accompanied by war. Many people are afraid to talk about it, because they are afraid of disappearing. But I am not one of those people. I like telling the truth.

muhamed

Muhammad, 28-year-old refugee from Syria

I am from the city of Kobanî, on the border with Turkey.  I am a Kurd, and I left Syria five years ago, in 2011. I had just finished my military service when opposition rallies took place in Syria. It was all quite peaceful, and the situation in Kobanî was calm, but I sensed something serious was going to happen and decided it would be better to leave the country. I worked in the clothing industry, and a friend of mine invited me to Russia. I got help getting a yearlong business visa: that was how I ended up at the fabric in Noginsk. Initially, I came just to sit things out, but it has dragged on for five years, and there is no telling how much longer it will last. The first year I lived on a visa, and then I went to Egypt  to extend it. Subsequently, Egypt changed the rules of entry for Syrians, and I was unable to do the same thing a second time.

‏Meanwhile, Syria has shifted into a state of war. One of my little brothers was captured by Islamic State when he was traveling with other schoolchildren to take exams. He was freed several days later, but I lost contact with my relatives when fighting broke out in the Kobanî area. There were heavy battles near the city, and my family were forced to flee to Turkey. Some of my second and third cousins stayed behind to fight Islamic State. Ten of them were killed, and my brother was seriously injured.

‏All this time, I was working and living in Russia, trying to formalizing my status as a refugee, but I was not having any luck. I would come somewhere with papers, but I would be sent first one place, and then another. An appointment would be made for me, but then it would be postponed: I would be told to come back in fifteen days, and then in ten days. I was once told to come at nine in the morning. I came half an hour early, but to no avail. I was told the queue was already too long and I had better come the next day. But they could not see me the next day, since I had been in the previous day’s queue and had not shown up, allegedly. They toyed with me like this for several months. I decided to ask the [UNHCR] for help, but nothing changed. During the nine months I was going to the FMS, I was unable to file an application for refugee status. Finally, I gave up and stayed on illegally. ‏

I met a Lebanese man who promised to help solve the problems with my papers if I went to work for him at a construction site. I went, but my problems were not solved. Instead, the police caught us. They beat us up right at the construction site. There were even some reporters with policemen, but they were told to turn their cameras off. We were thrown on the ground and beaten on the feet. They beat us so badly I could not walk normally for five days or so. They wanted us to sign some papers. We did not know what was in the papers, because they were in Russian, but we were forced to sign. After that, they stopped beating us and took us to court. We were not provided with an interpreter and so we did not understand most of the proceedings. I do remember, however, that the judge tried to find out what was up with us. He could see we were in a bad way. But we were unable to tell him what had happened, and the policemen told the judge that we were just tired from working.

‏After that, I returned to the factory and started working night shifts, since there are fewer chances the police will catch you. However, I am still sometimes detained on the streets anyway. I always try and have money with me to pay the police off. Usually, I take a five-hundred-ruble note with me: that way they cannot take too much. But I rarely go outside. I work almost seven days a week, and I have no energy to do anything else after a shift of twelve to fifteen hours. I only sleep and work, and the money I send to my family: they need it more. I would like to be near them, but we Syrians now need visas to get into Turkey, and I cannot get one anywhere. Nor can I return to Syria. I have no one in Kobanî, and there is almost nothing left of the city.

Furfur thanks the Civic Assistance Committee and translators Igor Farafonov, Alexander Khodunov, and Muhammad Haled for their help with this article. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up

Read more about the treatment of Syrian and other refugees in Russia: