“My jeans. My passport. My phone,” Andrew said, listing off the things he carried from Ukraine to Berkeley. “That’s it.”
In June, two months after Russian troops invaded Kharkiv and shelled his college dormitory, Andrew, a 22-year-old gay man, set off on an odyssey across continents searching for freedom and acceptance.
Months later, he found both — in an idyllic community high in the Berkeley Hills near the Kensington border. Two people have hosted him and a network of others, most significantly older than Andrew, have taken him under their wing, sharing food, clothing and community. Since arriving in December, he has gone to his first drag show, met gay Afghan asylum seekers and spent a lot of time walking the Berkeley Hills’ winding streets in a sun hat.
But Andrew’s hold on the place he calls “heaven” is tenuous. When he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in late November, he applied for LGBT asylum, a process that takes years, due to a massive increase in the number of people seeking asylum and a backlog of cases. His first court date has been set for January 2026. In the meantime, his work permit hasn’t come through, making him reliant on the generosity of strangers. He is grateful, but the state of limbo and dependance has worn on him.
“I’m 23 and I can’t properly rent an apartment,” Andrew said. “I’m ashamed.” Multiple interviews with Andrew were conducted in Russian and were translated into English. Berkeleyside is withholding Andrew’s last name and has anglicized his first name at his request to protect him from his father.
More than anything, Andrew wants to work, get his mom and sister to come from Ukraine, and become American. Like the list of items he brought, he repeats these dreams over and over, seeming to try to will them into existence.
In some ways, Andrew’s story is typical of the hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in the United States each year. He shares their struggles — the mandatory six-month wait for a work permit, the years of uncertainty — and their hopes — a life free from persecution. (My own family fled Ukraine in 1997 as Jewish refugees, staying with family while my dad looked for work as a computer programmer and my mom applied for law school while learning English.)
In other ways, his story is uncommon. Today, LGBT asylum is a rare path to legalization, though the United States has considered sexual orientation a legitimate reason to be considered for asylum since 1994. Gender nonconforming identity and transgender identity were added in 2004, also based on case law.
Being LGBTQ+ can isolate asylum seekers from the traditional diaspora support system. Fearing being ostracized by fellow Ukrainians, Andrew has built bonds with Americans in Berkeley instead. When he meets fellow Eastern European immigrants, he often remarks on whether they have a “Soviet mentality” or a more progressive one.
Ukrainian society is still rife with homophobia: Pride parades are often attacked and crimes against LGBTQ+ people spiked in the first half of 2021. But many in the country are also becoming more accepting, according to opinion polls. Members of parliament recently introduced legislation that would legalize gay marriage.
In Andrew’s case, he has been afforded kindness, both from neighbors who have supported him and the American legal system, rarely extended to people seeking refuge from other countries.
For his first four months in the U.S., Andrew stayed with John Newton, an introverted Kensington home designer, before moving in with Bobbie Steinhart, an 83-year-old retired Berkeley social worker. He has received enough donations to fill a small closet with clothes and Newton has helped him find legal representation. Andrew lovingly calls Steinhart his Jewish grandma and Newton his adopted dad.
Though he worries about overstaying his welcome, Andrew’s supporters say they don’t see their generosity wearing thin anytime soon. Elly Skarakis, a retired human resources worker at the University of California, regularly makes Andrew sandwiches for lunch. “I keep trying to give him things,” she complained. “But he won’t take them.”
Seeking permanent legal status
The origins of the modern refugee and asylum system date back to World War II, when the West was confronted with millions of displaced Europeans and the United Nations recognized the right of refugees to seek asylum in other countries.
To be granted asylum, “you have to be able to show that you’re fearing persecution because of the person that you are,” explained Brett Snider, Director of Legal Services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which operates in San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin and Sonoma counties. People are granted asylum based on their nationality, race, religion, political views or membership in what’s called a “particular social group.”
The initial process required that asylum seekers wait for their case to be heard in detention, a process that usually took a few months. That changed in 2009, when people determined to have a credible fear of returning to their country could wait freely in the United States.
As more people sought asylum, wait times for court cases ballooned. The share of rejections rose, too, and the asylum system became increasingly politically fraught. Last year, the number of applicants tripled, from 210,000 in 2021 to 750,000 in 2022. It’s now typical for asylum seekers to wait five years for their case to be heard. The policy allows them to stay in the country legally for a long time, but leaves them in limbo, and many drop out altogether.
Every year, Oasis Legal Services, a Berkeley-based organization that provides pro bono legal services for West Coast LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers, files about 200 applications, making it the second-largest provider of LGBTQ+ asylum services in the country. Most of the people are from Latin America — Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Peru — as well as some people from Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
Less than 2% of credible fear interviews conducted between 2008 and 2017 were related to LGBTQ+ status, required for people seeking what’s called defensive asylum in the U.S., according to a report by the UCLA School of Law.
There’s no rule specifying that LGBTQ+ people can seek asylum; they can qualify, based on case law, by proving they are members of an LGBT social group that is persecuted in their country.
Many asylum seekers are homeless while they wait for their work permits, living on the street or moving from one couch to another, according to Rachel Kafele, who leads the legal program at Oasis.
“They live very precarious lives,” she said. “Everyone should be welcomed like” Andrew has been.
Asylum is not designed for people fleeing war. For that, the United States has established programs offering temporary parole.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, the U.S. quickly established Uniting for Ukraine, allowing Ukrainians fleeing the war to temporarily move to the U.S., as long as they get a sponsor. Some 267,000 Ukrainians are living in the United States under the program. (Andrew considered applying for “U for U” but decided instead to apply for asylum and seek permanent legal status.) By comparison, Kafele said, the United States has had a much more limited response to the immigration needs of people fleeing Afghanistan.
In May, the Biden administration announced changes to the asylum process that would make it illegal for people to enter the country the way Andrew did. At the same time, the administration expanded access to work permits for people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Called the Circumvention of Lawful Pathways Rule, the policy was designed to encourage people to apply for legal status in the United States while still in their home country. It requires people arriving at the southern border to make an asylum appointment using a mobile app, but demand exceeds the approximately 1,000 spots available each day. People who had traveled through other countries must prove they had been denied asylum there.
The policies have been criticized on the left and the right, both for allowing too much legal immigration and for limiting access. Immigrants rights groups and 20 Republican states have already challenged the changes in court.
Too tall for the bed in the attic
Newton was home in Kensington with his adult daughter late at night on Dec. 2 when his phone lit up with a message.
Newton had made an account on I Can Help Host, a website that pairs people with spare rooms with Ukrainians in need. Refugees had started reaching out to Newton, multiple times per hour, asking for a place to crash for a few weeks. He had already agreed to host Lillia, a Ukrainian woman who came to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine.
“The hotel was already kind of full, in a way,” Newton said, joking.
Community members organized a GoFundMe to raise money for Andrew while he waits for his work permit
But Andrew’s situation was pressing. He said his plans to stay with a sponsor in Sacramento had fallen through and he was stranded at San Francisco International Airport. After some deliberating, Newton sent an Uber to pick him up.
It was late at night when Newton opened the door to his house to find a young man, seemingly barely older than a teenager, wearing a pair of shorts and torn flip-flops and carrying a small backpack. He didn’t know about the six-month journey that had brought him there, but it was clear he had a long story to tell.
Newton intended for Andrew to stay for a few days. “And then when I saw, it was like, I can’t … What can I do? I can’t throw him to the wolves,” Newton said.
The low-ceilinged attic room didn’t fit the 6-foot-6 Ukrainian, so Newton offered Andrew his bedroom. Days turned into months. An introvert by nature, Andrew’s company tested Newton. But the pair also grew close. Newton taught Andrew to make chili and helped him find a lawyer to represent him for a reduced fee. The complicated intricacies of the legal process impressed Newton, who designs homes in the region through his Oakland firm.
From Moscow to Minsk to Madrid to Yuma to San Francisco
Over time, Andrew told Newton the story of the odyssey that brought him here, beginning with his decision to leave Kharkiv, which had been occupied by Russian forces. The war was the last drop, as the expression goes in Ukrainian, motivating Andrew to flee, though he had long considered leaving.
Now that his city was occupied, he feared death by Russian troops, but worried about persecution if he joined the Ukrainian military, too.
Propelling him forward was the desire for relief from the discrimination that had followed him throughout his young adult life. After a photo of him at a pride parade appeared in a newspaper, his father threatened to kill him and he was taunted incessantly and physically abused by his peers at university.
“I told myself that if I turn 23 and I’m still in Ukraine and nothing has changed, I’ll just kill myself. Because what’s the point?” he said matter of factly.
Andrew was no stranger to war. He was a teenager in 2014 when his family fled their city in the Donetsk region at the outset of the war in eastern Ukraine. Shelling destroyed their family home and fractured his family. He blames the war, in part, on his father’s abusive behavior. In Berkeley, Andrew instinctively did not unpack his suitcase, afraid he would have to leave again.
His journey to Berkeley took him from Kharkiv to Moscow, through Minsk to a Warsaw refugee camp, to a town in Ireland full of Ukrainian migrants by way of Madrid, through the waist-deep waters of the Colorado River to Yuma, Arizona, and finally, to San Francisco, which, he hoped, would be the haven for LGBTQ+ people he heard it would be.
“I know that I want a future for myself. I want kids. I want a partner. I told myself, ‘I have to make my future. I have to leave,’” he said.
While Andrew isn’t shy about sharing his story, he worries about judgment. “Some people say I betrayed my homeland. They have a right to think that,” he said. He said he did not want to give back to a country that, to his mind, had never accepted him.
Within less than a year of arriving in Berkeley, he felt more welcomed in the U.S. than he ever felt in Ukraine. He is considering military service or joining the police force, an idea he knows baffles others. He was a civil engineering major, but he loved theater and left Ukraine before finishing his degree.
“You’re a gay Ukrainian guy and you want to be a police officer? Is everything all right with you?” he said people jokingly ask him. But he feels a strong moral obligation to give back to the country that took him in.
A selfie in the rose garden
To Andrew, his immigration story isn’t special. “Hundreds of thousands of people cross the border,” he said. He had met Russians fleeing the draft, Mexicans escaping violence, a man who said he walked from Brazil by foot.
“But what they did,” he said, referring to the generosity of his hosts who he said “saved” him, “that is special.”
Andrew stayed with Newton for four months before Steinhart offered him the spare room in her house.
In that time, Newton said Andrew’s presence put a human face to an international conflict 6,000 miles away. He follows the war closely, but nothing compared to coming home to Andrew talking on the phone with his friend on the frontline, who would occasionally pause the conversation by casually apologizing for the noise from a bomb exploding.
To Steinhart, his story represents resilience. “When I hear him talk, I think, ‘This is why the Ukrainian people are prevailing,” Steinhart said, referring to Andrew’s tendency to look on the bright side and his way of turning things into a joke. (At one point, he joked he should write a book called How Not to Be Homeless in Europe.) His story is a reminder of her privileged life, she said.
With help from his hosts, Andrew has begun to carve out his own space in a community of neighbors and LGBTQ+ people and allies. He celebrated his 22nd birthday with Joe Rodriguez, who runs a small organization called Freedom Connection helping resettle LGBTQ+ refugees, and a small crew of friends. He tried dating apps, but prefers connections in real life. A self-described old soul, he’d rather listen to George Michael and Elvis Presley than hit the dance floor at a club.
He worries about blending in: Are his teeth straight enough? Are his clothes American enough? He is taking English lessons from a neighbor (he struggles with Ws and Vs) and trying to improve his accent: “Where do you think my accent sounds like I’m from — Eastern Europe?” he asked.
His only direct contact with Ukraine is through a close friend, who he calls on FaceTime, and his mom and sister, who he hopes will be able to come to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine. On Google Maps, he marked Orlando, home to a Ukrainian family that agreed to sponsor them, with a heart.
The messages between Andrew and his mom offer snapshots of his life in Berkeley, which he is building while trying not to leave his family behind. There are photos of him on a boat on the American River, a selfie in a rose garden, a picture of him hugging Steinhart — interspersed with anxious texts about the immigration process, mother and son alternately comforting the other.
“Everything is fine. You can go to sleep,” he texts her. “Thank God,” she responds. Another time, after discussing their application pending with USCIS, the roles reverse, mom calming her son’s anxiety.
Now, as urgently as Andrew wants to get on his own two feet, all that he, and the community that’s sprung up around him, can do is wait.