San Francisco nonprofit helps Ukrainian LGBTQ refugees
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Amid war in Ukraine, a San Francisco-based nonprofit is working to provide refugees from the LGBTQ community with a safe haven in Poland and Romania, where discrimination remains widespread.
“All of these displaced refugees were fleeing to very homophobic countries,” said Safe Place International founder Justin Hilton.
Safe Place International was founded by Hilton in 2017.
“I was working in India and all over Asia on women’s and girls’ education and LGBTQ rights and I was passing through Istanbul, and on one of my visits to Istanbul, a trans person was murdered in the street She was beheaded by a mob,” Hilton said. .
Shocked and horrified, Hilton says he began to learn about the plight of LGBTQ refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries.
“They were meeting the same people in Istanbul that they were running from in their home country,” Hilton said.
Shortly thereafter, he established Safe Place International, which provides LGBTQ shelters, community centers and services for refugees and asylum seekers in parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. Currently, the association is present on the ground in Poland and Romania. Iryna Umantseva and her girlfriend Hannah Levashova are among the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees the association has helped since the start of the war. The couple fled Ukraine in late February on the second day of the Russian invasion.
“My parents and I really heard the missiles, the explosions and the airborne alarms, and we were really scared,” Umantseva said.
With just the clothes on their backs, the couple boarded a packed train to Poland, leaving their parents behind. Hannah’s parents are now in the occupied Russian region of Donetsk.
“I see the news, and I’m pretty scared about it, and it’s stressful for me,” Levashova said.
“There were bombs near Hannah’s house, and she doesn’t know at any time if they are coming to her parents’ house,” Umantseva added.
Adding to their initial stress is the reality of arriving in Poland, a country where discrimination against the LGBTQ community remains widespread. This is where Safe Place was able to help.
“The ability to communicate with them and communicate with someone really friendly makes us feel in a safer space,” Umantseva said.
The nonprofit helps the couple connect with Poland’s LGBTQ community, pay for an apartment, look for work, and attend therapy.
Iryna and Hannah say they don’t know how long they will be in Poland. They plan to donate part of their salaries to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.