Gay, Proud, and Secure: Illia’s Story
“Don’t let anyone keep you from being yourself.”
Illia Matviienko, an LGBT client of HIAS PA’s Youth Team, spoke with us about being a gay immigrant in Ukraine and the United States, the importance of following your dreams, and how working with HIAS Pennsylvania has changed his life.
What was it like for you being gay in Ukraine?
When I was a child, I saw homophobia in books and movies, and saw how it affected children, but I still had that distance where I wasn’t affected. But the second time I visited the US and went back to Ukraine, my experience was different because of the school system: a few classes were merged in my high school, so new kids were in my class, and I was bullied a lot in this new environment with new people.
The climate in the Ukraine is also a false promise – after the revolution in 2014 there was kind of a promise from the government to move forward from the USSR era and the Russian way of thinking, but, in reality, nothing changed with regard to people of the LGBT community. People were still getting bullied and fired from work for being who they are. It felt like the government held a carrot in front of its people, but then would pull it back. They’d say they’d reform marriage laws, but still nothing happened.
Even now, in 2021, people are still being oppressed, killed, and harassed, while the police do nothing. Despite my stature – I look like an adult man, but I’m still only 18 – I never felt secure when I was walking down the street at night. Not only did I not feel secure, I knew that if something happened and police came, they would do nothing, even if I filed a report, because I’m gay. The report would be “misplaced” or the information wouldn’t even make it to the official report. It was scary to be there.
What is your immigration story?
I came to the US in 2019 with my family. I was sixteen years old, and my situation as a gay teen in Ukraine had gotten bad enough that I knew I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t stand it in Ukraine.
My mom and I met with a local immigration lawyer in Northeast Philadelphia. The lawyer was also an immigrant, and I asked if I had a case and should apply for asylum. She told me not to, because she thought claiming asylum because I’m gay would damage my chances, and it was heartbreaking. When I asked for help, I got a rejection. I felt destroyed. Broken.
One night at 2AM, I wrote an email reaching out to a lecturer at my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), and he connected me to HIAS Pennsylvania. It was during the pandemic and I was worried that my family would go back to Ukraine, but I knew I couldn’t go back – it would be suicide for me. In tears, at 2AM, I wrote that email asking if he could refer me to anyone, and he referred me to HIAS PA.
How has HIAS PA helped you with your immigration journey?
I have never met as friendly people – of course I haven’t met many attorneys besides the one in the Northeast – as at HIAS PA. I’m so glad that I was referred to HIAS PA. My case was taken by Stephanie Lubert, and everything has been very smooth. She’s very supportive. I’ve also worked with interns at HIAS PA, and the amount of support I’ve received – I think I cried every time I shared my story because I’d never gotten the chance to share my story so openly before, and not be afraid that someone would come for me. It was awesome. I felt like myself.
I’m waiting for the initial asylum interview, but I’m so glad that I can be doing this process with HIAS PA, and that I can ask Ms. Lubert questions if I have them. It’s an honor for me to be a client of HIAS PA and to participate in the activities.
What is it like being a gay immigrant in the US?
Each time I visited the United States before moving here felt like a breath of fresh air. The more time I spent here, the more I understood that not only being myself was completely normal, but that people like me don’t have to hide in the shadows. We can walk together in the street, hold hands, and show affection in public.
I’m really glad I’m here, and that I found the GSA when I came to this high school. I’m glad I could be a part of that and be part of a community. The teacher who ran the GSA proposed that we take part at the Philadelphia Pride festival.
I’m glad that I don’t have to arrange dates at night when no one will see us. I can be myself, and I can express my feelings totally without fear of judgement or that I’ll be beaten. I’m glad to be in Philadelphia. I think Philadelphia is one of the most progressive cities in the US, along with other big cities on the East Coast. Since moving here, I’ve felt like a normal person. In the Ukraine, I felt like maybe who I was was wrong, but since moving here, I feel like myself, and I can act like myself, emotions-wise and behavior-wise. I think it’s going perfectly as of now.
What is it like being a Klasko Scholarship winner and attending school in the US?
I got into university in PA, and I’m so glad that I got the Klasko scholarship from HIAS PA and the Klasko Family. I’m pursuing my Bachelor’s degree at Temple starting in the fall, but I had taken a few college programs during my senior year of high school. This past year, I was a full-time student at CCP and a part-time student at UPenn. I’ve taken every opportunity available to educate myself as much as possible.
Regarding the Klasko scholarship – it’s an amazing opportunity for HIAS PA clients. As an immigrant, I couldn’t take out a big loan for my studies, so every penny counts. I’m honored that I got the Klasko scholarship, and I hope to be able to contribute to it in the future.
As a student, my high school and all of the colleges I’ve applied to have been very understanding of my situation, so – as of now – I haven’t had any obstacles or mistreatment as an immigrant. I’m grateful that Philadelphia continues to pride itself on being a safe city for immigrants.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I have a message to youth. When I started thinking about escaping from Ukraine, I was fourteen or fifteen, and started talking to immigration lawyers at sixteen, so to teenagers, I would like to say: don’t let anyone keep you from being yourself. Also, not all adults have as much authority as they claim to have. As my own history proved, even an immigration lawyer with a degree and authority might not have all the answers. So, if people think that they deserve help and they need it, they should not be afraid to ask for it. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing what your heart and mind feel.