by Jarred Bean

Despite controversies over border walls, separated families and the Muslim travel ban, immigrants are still striving for American citizenship. We Are Witnesses: Becoming an American is a series from The Marshall Project that tells their stories and the stories of those trying to help and hinder them.

“To survive in Soviet Russia, I had to hide myself. In Russia, you can’t stand out.”

For undocumented members of the LGBTQ community who came to the United States to flee sexual persecution, it can feel like you’ve traded one form of erasure for another.

For Alena Sandimirova, who emigrated from the independent Russian republic of Tatarstan, her struggle to gain acceptance and visibility came at a significant personal cost to her health and safety.

“When I was a teenager, when I was dreaming about who I become, who I want to be, I realized I couldn’t be myself. If you say you are gay or lesbian or transgender, it’s equating to being pedophile, and by the law is prosecuted. It’s not going to be accepted by most of my peers, not by the government, not by the police. I was one time attacked, so I had gimps on my leg.”

Alena decided to move to the United States in order to escape the choice of either hiding who she was or exposing herself to more retribution. She applied for a visa and was finally allowed to arrive about a year later in the summer of 2009.

Even though she held legal status at the time, she lived in fear. As is all too common among vulnerable people in immigrant communities, this made her a target for exploitation.

“The first year I was very, very hiding. Scared to go out or in public places. I found a job with a Russian immigrant. He had a jewelry store. They paid me four dollars an hour.

I could barely afford food, but I didn’t know what was the norm, what was the legal rules. Every time I asked for a raise, he would put me down and say like ‘You couldn’t find a better job, look at you, you can’t speak English, you can’t do anything, like, appreciate what you have.’”

Her boss also subjected her to sexual abuse, but even with these horrible conditions, she couldn’t imagine returning to the persecution she experienced in Russia. She decided to stay past her visa and became undocumented.

Luckily, she came across an ad in an LGBTQ center that informed her of an agency helping people attain refugee status if they faced persecution in their home countries.

“They basically do the case for me, I would never myself realize I was in a position to do anything like that. A year or a year and a half, my asylum was granted and after that I could apply for Green Card after a few years.”

She became a US citizen in 2017.

“There was a swearing ceremony. They called out the countries of everybody who was accepted as a citizenship. There were people from many, many countries, and then they say you would stand up and everybody would see. They give us the American flags. We said the oath together. I was like, yes, like the heaviest weight had fell from my shoulders. Like I can breathe fully. It felt like that.

After that, I actually started to go out more. I was not scared to go to protests.”

From a lifetime of experiencing the erasure of her sexuality to years of experiencing erasure due to her documentation status, Alena was finally able to be fully free.

“I am American citizenship now, so I pay my taxes, which a lot. I have rights to stand up for American, not just to be here. So now I’m not scared to say I’m refugee, I’m LGBT, I’m here and I want to be visible for others.”

Jarred Bean is a writer and analyst working in the New York City Department of Education. Coming from a working class family in North Carolina, he has gone on to live in and serve working class communities in the US and abroad. He has previously written for Brand New Congress.