About Refugees, By Refugees


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Mirza Durakovic

My dream is still to be a singer.” Yosef (36) is a Russian refugee and LGBTQI+ activist living in France. “I have worked in different Human Rights associations in Russia. I received threats. And because of that, I decided to leave my country…I also left to be able to love freely.” He explains how he f elt when he decided to leave: “I felt almost nothing, and it’s kind of like the situation in war. You don’t have time to feel anything, you just have to do something.” Upon arriving in France, though, he felt “great stress. I felt like I was between two worlds. And me, I am neither in Russia nor in France on the inside.” To cope, Yosef says, “I wrote a lot. And I talked with God.” He credits God for his strength. “For me, it’s thanks to God I can live, I can do something…God is my strength.” Now, Yosef is learning French so he can go to university to study theatre. He enjoys the way engaging in art makes him feel: “I feel alive, happy. I feel love and…passion.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Right hi, Yosef.

Can you introduce yourself?
Well, my name is Yosef. I’m Russian. I live in France now, I came to France to seek refuge. I’m 36 years old.

Where exactly do you live? I mean, do you live in a house, in an apartment?
I live in an apartment in the suburbs of a big city.

Are you happy with your living conditions right now?
It’s fine, I don’t feel happy, but I’m… I’ve calmed down and I’m safe. And yes… What with everything that’s happened. Yes, I… Yes, I’m alright.

But you mentioned that sometimes it was a bit, a bit quiet where you were. That there wasn’t a lot to do and all that. Do you miss it a bit, being in a place where there’s more going on?
Oh yeah, it’s a really nice place. And also I rent from the landlady who’s a very, very good woman, and she and I are on friendly terms. She’s a lovely person. Really, really lovely! Where I live, with it being a small town next to a big city, yes, it’s a little quiet, because there aren’t any bars or anything like that, nor cafés, cinemas, art workshops, museums, or anything. Cultural things and so on… Yes, it’s a bit… there’s a lot of countryside and that’s all! The countryside is beautiful, but that’s all there is (laughs). There you go.

And as for yourself, you enjoy a bit of culture it seems? Like museums and cinemas?
Yes, this is very important to me because I was born and bred in St. Petersburg. It’s Russia’s culture capital. My whole life I’ve visited museums, gone to the theater, in particular to see opera. For example, I love opera and all that, so that is all very important to me. Even when you go out for a walk around in… in the streets, you can see buildings which are very beautiful, whether… It’s classic or modern architecture and so on. Art Nouveau and everything. That too is, it’s very important for my morale because it clears my mind. I can breathe and relax and it’s like a kind of atmosphere. It helps me to feel alive too.

And how do you spend your time during the day?
For the time being, I’m just (laughs)… I’m just studying French. Every morning and every evening I take my French lesson, because I am preparing to take the DELF B2 exam because after that, I would like to go, I want to go, I want to go to university to study theatre, so it is very important for me to learn French now. Because when I arrived in France, I didn’t know, I didn’t know any French. Not a word. I only spoke English, but nobody speaks English here. It’s a completely normal thing here in France, it’s like that in Russia, for example, nobody speaks English, just Russian. On the other hand, in comparison with other European countries, for example Germany or Sweden, people there speak English much more often. Most of them. Well, yeah, they can speak English, very often anyway. But not in France, and it’s funny. I was in a few situations like: if I tried to order something in a café, and… I don’t know how to say it in French. It was like the waiters told me: “Ah, sweetheart, you have to learn French, you must speak French, you know!” Yes, it’s true, but anyway, there you go. Every day, I try… I’m learning French. Right now, that’s all.  And also, because of the lockdown, all my classes are only online. It’s not great. But it is what it is and it’s better than nothing, anyway. Anyway that’s it, so at the moment it’s French.

And before COVID, did you go to cultural events?
Yes, I went to the cinema a lot, I’d go to the theater, to the museum or I’d just wander around ____ [location not disclosed in accordance with the interviewee’s wish]. That’s it, really. I visited many, many museums because I love all that kind of thing and you know… Yeah, now that… Maybe…  After the second lockdown, the museum will open again. But who knows?

How does that make you… how do you feel when, when you’re in a museum, when you’re in a movie theater? What do you feel like when you watch a movie or look at a painting, a piece of art?
I feel…  I feel alive, happy. I feel love and… passion. And love and life! Life in general.

Do you want to tell us about what you did before you came to France and why you had to flee your country?
I’m… I have worked in different Human Rights associations in Russia and so you know…  I was… I had my project too, which was a theatrical project I was working on as an actor. That was my life in Russia. So you know, my life wasn’t too bad in Russia, because I had my passion such as my theatrical project. I worked in the field that I enjoyed very much, in Human Rights… So, but… Given the fact that, well in Russia it’s a bit of a complicated topic: Human Rights and Women’s Rights especially, for example in the Northern Caucasus. And I was working in that field and so because of my line of work, I got threats.

You received threats.
I received threats. And because of that, I decided to leave my country because… You know… Because either I have to say no, my work is crazy, it doesn’t matter, it sucks, or I stay and I don’t know what will happen after that, to me, to my body, and everything else. So yeah, I decided to leave Russia, but also to…  How can I put it?  In Russia, freedom is… You can’t live the way you want to and you can’t love the way you want, whomever you want to and that too, is complicated. So for example, I also left my country to, for example, to be able to love freely. So yeah, that too.

Right. And how did you feel when you realized that you had to leave your country, when you made the decision? You said you decided… How did you feel at that time?
At that moment, it was… I just felt… I felt almost nothing, because it was the situation that was dangerous and I had to do things very precisely. And so, it’s kind of like the situation, like the situation in war.  You don’t have time to feel anything, you just have to do something. It was very, very fast. Once I decided, I left.  It was very fast. And so… It was also… Maybe it was also because of my mental state, but I reacted afterwards. Someone, for example, when… If something serious is happening, the situation is bad for example, I feel nothing at that moment. I can be very effective in that moment because I’m feeling nothing. But afterwards? After, of course,it’s the reaction that comes after. It hits you after.  And later, when I arrived in France. Erm the two first weeks. It was two weeks, two weeks ago, when I arrived, it was really difficult  for me. In reality, I felt like a wild animal in a cage because it was like there was a wall, wall, you see. It was like that. It was… Ah, “I want to leave France, I want to return to Russia. Yeah, I know, it’s dangerous and all that. But no, I don’t want to be here. Why did I leave Russia?  But no…” It was like erm, a lot of emotions, these emotions inside me and I wanted to go back. But always in my head, there was the very “smart” voice, which told me, “clever” voice, who said, “No, it’s okay, it’s okay, don’t worry. It’s okay, calm down.” So yeah, and it’s always like that. It’s like… Inside me, in my heart, it’s like the child, and in my head it’s like the father.  They are always dialoguing with each other. So yeah, and my father was… In my head, my father was right, he was right, he said: “No, no, no, calm down! Calm down! Calm down! Calm down! Stay! Stay! Stay!” You know. But yes, the first two weeks, it was crazy, it was very, very hard. After, after a year and a half, it was also… It was very difficult. I still wanted to return to Russia. But… But no, I’m still here. So yeah.

And how do you feel when you think back to what happened to you? Do you think back on it often? Are you doing things today in connection with what happened to you? I mean, you’re still fighting today. You said you worked in human rights. You were a Human Rights activist?
Yes, I often think about it, but then… I need to do something here because I know, I know this subject very well, Human Rights. Especially, rights for LGBT people. I had a lot, a lot of emotions inside me that wanted to be let out. And so I created an association here for Russian-speaking LGBT people. It’s not just for refugees, it’s for all Russian-speakers, and it’s very important that it’s not just for Russians, but for all Russian-speaking people, because the Russian language, as well as Russia was like… It was…

An empire?
Yes! It was the empire. Because of this, lots of countries like Ukraine, Belarus and even Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and all that. They… Lots of people can speak Russian. And so, they speak Russian very well, and very often it’s like a second native language. And so it was very important to organize something for everyone that speaks Russian. And so I created this association. I also found a friend here who is also, she’s also a refugee here. And so I just erm… I proposed that she… I… I said… so yeah anyway, I said to her: “Do you want to join me on this?” She said: “Oh yes, that’s very interesting.” And so we created all this together. But it was… All this started in September 2020, so not very, a few months ago. Yeah, a few months ago. But well, it was… And we didn’t do much, because on the 30th of October, the second lockdown happened and well… But we organized meetings, we organized a demonstration in front of the Russian embassy. And also the media has written about this event as well, and about our association. So yeah. It’s like… It’s not like a hobby, of course, this project. But on the other hand, it’s not the same as in Russia, because in Russia working in associations… In LGBT associations, it was really my job. It wasn’t volunteering. But here, yes, in my mind my favourite thing is going to university to do theater studies. So, this project is volunteering and so it’s… But I’m trying to do this professionally too.

You mentioned studying theater, and that is something you want to do? But for now, you’re not a university student yet?
No, I’m not a student right now. I go to the École normale supérieure to learn French; there is a program there for refugees, to learn French at B2 level. So yeah, it’s a really wonderful program. And after that, when I pass, hopefully (laughs), the DELF B2, I’ll be able to go to university to be an actual student.

You were telling me about culture earlier. Was it a source of strength to help you to integrate, I mean, to stay in France? You mentioned, I think, also that you wrote a little bit too?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I wrote, I write short stories and also I write in Russian and I write a lot, just my feelings and so I can talk with myself. But in fact, it’s not really with myself, because I… How to say in French? I believe in God, and… It’s… For me, it’s thanks to God I can live, I can do something. For me it’s…  God is my strength. I’m not Orthodox or Catholic or Muslim or Jewish, I’m not practicing. On the other hand, I am, how can I say? Erm, okay, I think.

No, no, not mystical, that’s something completely different. I believe in God and it helps me a lot. Because for me, it’s not possible to not have a tomorrow. Tomorrow always exists. It’s a… Actually, I think it’s our choice to believe that tomorrow exists or tomorrow doesn’t exist. Like the future, like life. And thanks to that, I feel… It’s, how can I put it? There is always a reason there for me. Yes, life is complicated, life can be very dangerous. But… But everything! If you have, if you have hope, if you have hope for God, in my opinion it is much easier for people who believe than for people who don’t believe. I think. Even psychologically. And so yeah. So yes, culture is very important to me, because I… music, literature is very important to me, for example, because I sing, and also when I was young, I write. But it’s… So art is very important to me. But for me, art is just the instrument for explaining the things of God’s. You know.

Okay, right. and that’s something that, this, your belief, it’s something that helped you a lot when you got here?
Yes, yes, I think so, it’s one thing that helped me, because all the people I met here… For me, it’s always thanks to God. It’s not by chance. “By chance”, it doesn’t exist for me. And every morning and every evening, I say thank you for this, that, that, that, that. And how do you say? God bless…

I bless.
I bless him, and her, and him, and her… And here, it’s… Yeah, so uh, it’s… With all of this, I can’t imagine if… No, it’s not possible to imagine, for me, if I don’t believe… I think maybe it would have been suicide too, because I had very, very difficult things inside me and it was hard to deal with. I thought about suicide, but it was abstract thought. It wasn’t like, “Oh yes, how can I do it?” Yes, I know today it was very, very difficult. I feel a lot of pain, for example, etc. But I always know why. Always. And I know now it’s over. Still, everything, everything is over and after, it’s not possible to not see the after. Afterwards still exists, and this afterwards, it’s always sunny for me. And that helps me a lot, of course.

Are there any difficulties in particular, here you already talked about many difficult things you experienced when you arrived in France. Are there any difficult moments here you want to talk about? You told me about the first few weeks?
Yeah, but it was things, it was great, great stress. Ah… it was… (sigh)… almost a year and a half, I felt like I was between two worlds. Russia and France. And me, I am neither in Russia nor in France on the inside. And this is complicated for me. It’s like neither “hell” nor heaven, it’s…

Neither hell nor heaven? It’s like hum… Purgatory?
That’s it! Catholics believe in something… in something in between.

In French, it’s “purgatoire”. That is where you wait to be judged.
That’s it! And so yeah, it’s very, very difficult to be like that. It’s complicated too, because the first thing is stress. Second thing, you left everything, everything, everything that you love. Everything you know: people, streets, everything. And what. But you haven’t arrived yet and yes it’s… I, especially, before, my life was always, before I worked with dangerous issues, before I had always had a very, very stable life. Well, when the USSR collapsed, it was not very stable, but I was a child. It’s something else. It wasn’t my problem… my problems. That was my mother’s problem. But I still had a stable life in my house with my mother who loved me very much, a lot, a lot. We were very, very close. And… Yeah, and I was an only child. And she loved me very much, and so did I. Also, I had the animals. It was my world, my life. I’ve always lived with my mother. And yes, later she died. She died in 2017, something like that… Yes, in April 2017 and then… And then, when she died, I started doing dangerous jobs. So I wanted to say that I was always someone like… There are wild animals, there are domestic animals. And I was a domestic one, always. And I lost all that. And this is a life I don’t know. I have to do… I don’t know anything, I don’t know the language… I don’t know any people. I have to rent, I have never rented before, because I always lived in my own apartment. My own apartment. It was my mother’s apartment, but it was my home. And so yeah. And a lot of stress. In Russia, it was fear. After that, I left Russia. Here it was great amount of stress. And then it’s just stress, stress, stress, stress, stress…

How did you get out of that spiral of stress? Do you remember, was there a moment or was it gradually, little by little…?
How did I get out of it? I wrote, I wrote a lot. And I talked with God, I wrote a lot, I spoke with my friends as well via the Internet. And that’s it, that helped me.

It’s that in particular, you mean. Ok, what did I want to ask you? Well, yeah, it’s been 34 minutes so I think… Is there anything you wanted to add on the topic of refugees in general? Or in particular, if there’s something you want to say…
I would like to say that… I already said that. When we created the association for Russian LGBT people, when it was a demonstration I already said there that… Regarding refugees, in France, yes in France, there is a big problem with refugees because many refugees here. Many asylum seekers here. It’s really, it’s the problem. But I think that in France. Erm, how can I put it? There’s international law, the Geneva Convention, all that. But we know that not many European countries really do, do… ah it’s complicated to explain all this…

Who respect them, you mean?
(who) Really respect this condition. Not the theory, but in practice. France is trying. It’s very complicated, but France is trying…As a country it’s trying to do something for people, that’s true, but not just the state. The state too, but I would like to say is that for me, what is very, very important is that it’s the French people who do a lot. Really. A lot of associations that help homeless people, asylum seekers, [people] who demonstrate, who do a lot of things. It’s just French people. For example, I know that… For example, in Sweden, it’s not like that. Not at all! But here, people really help, everything, all the help I have had and I have now is thanks to the French people. The state is an administrative thing, it’s something administrative. Yes, the procedure can be very long. For me, it was really very, very fast, but that’s how it is, it’s something administrative. But for example, I lived in… My first year, I lived in [location not disclosed in accordance with the interviewee’s wish] ____ for free. Thanks to people. Just because they said: “Yes, you can, you can live here…” That’s all. For example, after that, I found a room where I live here now. That too, it’s very cheap, because she’s a lady who volunteers in the associations who help with refugees. So it’s kind of like volunteering for her. It’s not free, but it’s… It’s really not very expensive. And so you see, it’s thanks to people… And there you go. What I could say is just: “thank you very much!”.

That’s a great message. Thanks, thank you very much Yosef. Can you say, you know the thing I was explaining to you at the end, where people are asked what their dreams are? What were your dreams before you had to come to France? Before you had to flee your country?
My dream is still to be a singer.

Is it still your dream today?

So can you say, “My dream today would be to be a singer.”
Yeah, my dream today is still to sing, to sing and be on stage.

And you can also say, “My dream before coming to France…”
Yeah, it was the same.

Okay, can you just say the sentence?
Before I arrived in France, my dream was to be a singer, being on stage and it hasn’t changed. It’s still the same thing. I want to be a singer, I want to sing on stage. I want to sing songs in French, Italian, Russian. I can sing a lot of things. That’s it, that is my main dream.

Thank you very much, Yosef.
Thank you.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.