SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Amid the war in Ukraine, a San Francisco based non-profit is working to provide refugees from the LGBTQ community safe shelter in Poland and Romania, where discrimination remains widespread.
"All of these displaced refugees were fleeing into countries that were very homophobic," said Safe Place International founder Justin Hilton.
Safe Place International was founded by Hilton in 2017.
"I was working in India and across Asia on women and girl's education and LGBTQ rights and was coming through Istanbul, and in one of my visits to Istanbul a trans person was murdered in the street. She was beheaded by a mob," said Hilton.
Shocked and horrified, Hilton says he began learning more about the plight of LGBTQ refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries.
"They were meeting the same people in Istanbul that they were escaping from in their home countries," said Hilton.
Soon after, he created Safe Place International, which provides LGBTQ dedicated shelters, community centers, and services for refugees and asylum seekers in parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. Currently, the non-profit is on the ground in Poland and Romania. Iryna Umantseva and her girlfriend Hannah Levashova are among the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees that the non-profit has helped since the war began. The couple fled Ukraine in late February during the second day of the Russian invasion.
"My parents and I really hear the missiles, the explosions, and the air alarms, and we were really scared," said Umantseva.
With just the clothes on their backs, the couple boarded a crowded train to Poland, leaving behind their parents. Hannah’s parents are now in the Russian occupied region of Donetsk.
"I see the news, and I’m pretty scared about this, and that’s stressful for me," Levashova.
"There were some bombs near Hannah’s, and she doesn’t know anytime if it comes to her parent’s home," added Umantseva.
Adding to their stress initially, the reality of arriving in Poland, a country where discrimination against the LGBTQ community remains widespread. That’s where Safe Place was able to help.
"The ability to communicate with them, and to communicate to somebody who really friendly, makes us to feel in more safe space," said Umantseva.
The non-profit is helping the couple make connections in Poland’s LGBTQ community, pay for an apartment, look for work, and receive therapy.
Iryna and Hannah say they don’t know how long they’ll be staying in Poland. They plan on donating part of their salaries to the Ukrainian armed forces.