CHICAGO — When Leyla arrived in the United States after being smuggled over the Mexican border, she showed her passport to the Border Patrol officers who found her.
Then she said one of the few words she knew in English: “Asylum.”
The border guards may not have known it at the time, but the passport wasn’t just a travel document; it was stark evidence that Leyla needed refuge. It showed that she was born in the Russian republic of Chechnya — and that she was born and raised as a man.
The problems faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Chechnya, a tiny majority-Muslim part of southwest Russia, became a global story this year after reports that gay men were being detained and tortured in what appeared to be a state-sponsored purge.
Leyla herself has been harassed and attacked — even stabbed and left for dead in Moscow in 2015. For those who face violence, the safest option is usually to escape Russia.
Yet Leyla is one of only a small number of LGBT Chechens who have found refuge in the United States in recent years. Many more would like to escape to America, but Russian activists say the United States has offered only limited help — pushing people already at risk into ever-more-dangerous situations.
“The answer is obvious: Take them in, give them visas!” said Svetlana Gannushkina, a leading Russian human rights advocate who helped Leyla. “I can’t see another way.”
Leyla’s story has a happy ending. On Thursday, a federal judge in Chicago quickly ruled that she should be given asylum because of the risk of persecution at home. Leyla, wearing a white headscarf and a pink-and-green dress, cried with joy and relief as the verdict was read.
But Leyla wants to ensure that American policymakers do not lose interest in the persecution in Chechnya. In June, she and other activists went to Washington to visit the White House, the State Department and Congress to give their accounts of the persecution of Chechens.
Telling her story like this could put Leyla and her family back at home at risk, and The Washington Post has agreed to withhold some details about her life, including her birth name, because of safety concerns. Leyla is the name she goes by in day-to-day life.
A State Department spokesman said that the United States will “continue to raise our concerns about this situation with Russian authorities” and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had written a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about it.
Leyla is hoping her new home can do more.
A past in Chechnya
Chechnya wasn’t always as it is now. When Leyla, who is in her mid-30s, she was growing up, the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, with its secular public culture. Although she was being raised as a boy, she sometimes wore dresses in public. “The people were more tolerant,” Leyla said. “The Soviet system influenced us a lot.”
Many Chechens became more religious after the Soviet Union collapsed and the country fought two wars against Russia for independence. Leyla herself stopped wearing women’s clothes and briefly became attracted to Wahhabism, an ultraconservative form of Islam.
It was not until Leyla moved in 2002 to the neighboring republic of Kabardino-Balkar to attend college that she began to understand her gender identity better. She later moved to Moscow and began to live as a woman.
Things were not easy at that time for a Chechen in the Russian capital. Leyla said she faced problems whenever her passport was requested. In the worst incident, she said, police officers accused her of being a Chechen militant dressing as a woman to hide her identity. They threatened to share photographs of her passport with Russian media.
Details of Leyla’s story could not be independently confirmed, but human rights groups have collected numerous accounts of similar abuse suffered by LBGT Chechens.
Overall, however, she was happy. It was only in hindsight that she realized how much Chechnya was changing — and how much trouble those changes would soon bring her. In 2004, then-27-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov took power after his father was killed. He quickly became a key partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin, helping wage war on Islamist insurgents.
In return, Kadyrov received lavish federal funds to rebuild war-ravaged Chechnya, as well as unparalleled autonomy to bring its society in line with his ultraconservative beliefs.
“The war changed the society quite a lot,” said Tanya Lokshina, a Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch. Kadyrov “made a huge effort to reinforce traditional values. That possibly gave rise to extreme homophobia.”
As Leyla transitioned further, she stopped visiting Chechnya and kept her contact with home to a minimum. But in late 2015, her relatives began harassing her. Russian authorities offered little help: Leyla said that when her cousin turned up at her Moscow apartment demanding that she reveal herself, local police told her to “go to gay Europe.”
A few days later, while taking groceries from her car, she was stabbed in the back and suffered a collapsed lung. “We are so tired of you and your shame,” the attacker said as she lost consciousness.
When she woke up in the hospital, Leyla said a police officer told her that filing a complaint would be a bad idea — it would mean traveling back to Chechnya to go to court.
“Can you imagine?” Leyla said. “The judge would kill me himself!”
Leyla hoped the violence would stop. But a few months later she got news that photographs of her passport were being shared on social media and in messaging apps. Leyla said her phone number was posted in a comment on Kadyrov’s popular Instagram page, and she received death threats.
She was put in touch with Gannushkina and other activists who advised her to leave. In February 2016, they began contacting foreign consulates. But by April, disheartened by slow responses and scared by new threats, Leyla and a friend, another transgender woman from the Caucasus, booked a flight to Mexico City.
A future in Chicago
A few days later, they wandered across the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana, where a smuggler had dumped them alone in the darkness. They realized they were in America thanks to an automated text message: “Welcome to the United States.”
This had not been the plan. Leyla and her friend had hoped to fly on from Mexico to Argentina, but quickly realized they did not have enough money for the second flight.
The slow American response to her problem in Moscow had left her apprehensive about the country. But when the pair were picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol, Leyla was surprised by the agents’ graciousness.
“The first thing they said to me was, ‘Ma’am, could you please show me your passport?’ ” she said. “Their behavior showed me I was in the country that respects my rights.”
The women were sent to an immigration jail in Santa Ana, Calif., then the only facility with a dedicated transgender housing unit. (It has since closed.) With the help of the National Immigrant Justice Center, they were paroled after a few months and moved to Chicago, where they applied for asylum. Leyla’s friend declined to be interviewed for this article as her asylum case is ongoing.
Leyla is settled in the United States, yet she spends her days glued to her phone, talking to people about the situation at home. Early this year, she received messages detailing an unprecedented spike in violence against gay men in Chechnya.
The American response left her dismayed.
While such leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly raised the issue, President Trump was silent. In congressional testimony on June 15, Tillerson said he, too, had not raised the issue. (The State Department says Tillerson later wrote a letter to Lavrov voicing U.S. concerns.)
Though Kadyrov has spoken dismissively about the reports — telling one journalist that gay Chechen men should leave "to purify our blood" — a recent lull in state-sponsored detentions suggests Russian authorities were embarrassed by the backlash. "They had a panic attack about their international image," Leyla said.
But that doesn’t mean the threat won’t return — or that it has really subsided. In some ways, the international controversy may have created an even worse situation. “Even if you stay in the closet, people are talking about the issue,” Lokshina said. “People are hunting for gays.”
The State Department says it has been working to help vulnerable people escape, but activists say most LGBT Chechens have had to turn elsewhere. Many have instead fled to Europe, where a large Chechen diaspora presents its own risks for gay or transgender people.
Leyla hopes she can change that — even if she is a transgender Muslim immigrant in a country that seems increasingly skeptical of each of those things.
“I am very thankful for this one year and three months in the United States, as it made me feel like a human being,” she said. “A human being who has rights — and the power to change something.”