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On Guam, female Russian asylum-seekers treated 'like an addition to men'

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HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — A half-dozen men and women, wearing face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, gathered around a table in a makeshift apartment at the back of a house in Piti, to discuss how it is they came to be in limbo on an island, unable to move forward with their lives and with going back to where they came from no longer an option, they said.

They each have a unique story of how they came to Guam from Russia, but they share a common hope: that they will be granted asylum in the United States.

Egor Elkin, 25, did much of the talking, as his English is the strongest, and he stepped in to translate as the others' English faltered as they told their stories.

Elkin presented himself as earnest and intelligent, a former teacher who came to Guam in May 2019 because, as a member of the LGTBQ community, he said he is not safe in Russia, where it is illegal to openly identify as LGTBQ or to publicly speak on gay rights.

He explained that the members of the group, who were also part of a protest in front the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Tamuning earlier this month, are seeking help in moving their cases forward, some of which have stalled for years.

An even greater issue, Elkin said, is that the women in the group have allegedly been treated very differently than the men.

The women The Guam Daily Post spoke with said none of them have been granted a "credible fear" interview — the first step in the asylum process.

Elkin said the men, including himself and the two other men at the table, were interviewed after being detained on Guam. Elkin has been granted a work permit, but his master hearing, the next step for him in the process, has been repeatedly rescheduled.

While Elkin is concerned for his own future, he said the plight of the women is an even greater concern since they can't acquire work permits in order to support themselves during the asylum-seeking process.

Viktoriia Lobova, 31, said she and her husband were treated very differently when they arrived together from Russia in April 2018.

According to Lobova, she was the main applicant for asylum, asserting persecution for her political views in her home country, but it was her husband who was granted asylum.

 

Julia Panfilova, right, and her husband Denis Panfilov, said they endured harassment and beatings in Russia for expressing beliefs opposing the Russian government. Photo by Norman M. Taruc/ The Guam Daily Post

"My husband was granted political asylum by the judge within three months, she said. "But for me, nothing happened, although I was the main applicant for asylum from the very beginning. My husband was not persecuted in Russia."

Her now former husband eventually returned to Russia and Lobova is no closer to a resolution of her status than the day she arrived, she said.

"Almost three years have passed since my asylum request was simply ignored, she said. "I was left without any rights. I have no right to work, and it is impossible to get it until the first immigration court hearing, that I wasn't even scheduled for."

Lobova said she questions how the two cases could be handled so differently.

"How did it happen that my already ex-husband received political asylum, because I was persecuted in Russia and he was not?" she said. "Why (do) Guam's immigration authorities treat women like an addition to men, as a supplement? Why does a woman asylee not have the same rights here as a man asylee? Why are we discriminated against?"

She and the other women said they were told by immigration officials that there was no room to conduct the interviews.

"When I came to the ICE office to ask what I should do, one of the officers answered my question that if I do not like my situation, I can return to Russia. That this is his country and he doesn't like the fact that I'm here," said Lobova. "But I can't go back, I flew here to save my life."

Iuliia Panfilova, 23, and her husband, Denis Panfilov, 33, said they too were treated differently from one another when they sought asylum after coming to Guam in May 2019.

"We are also asking for political asylum here because of our political opinion," Panfilova said. "We do not agree with what is happening (in Russia)."

She and her husband have been violently physically attacked for opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin, and taking part in political rallies for his opponent. She pulled photos of their injuries from a folder of evidence she plans to present to an immigration judge, when given a chance.

She said her husband was placed in detention on Guam for two weeks and granted a credible fear interview.

She is still awaiting her interview, more than a year after she arrived.

"People here they have been raised that they can believe anything, they can speak about anything. … And maybe this is why it is that they cannot understand how it is to be persecuted in your own country just because (of your views)" she said.

The stakes, she said, could not be higher.

"I believe for my situation, only this can save my life," Panfilova said.

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