Zi Faámelu was getting desperate. It was five days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, five days since President Volodymyr Zelensky had declared martial law, and the 31-year-old musician, artist, and Instagram influencer knew she had to get out of Kyiv — and fast. She’d been trapped in her apartment, listening to the shelling around her. She was running out of food and kept a knife by her side. She was the only person left in her apartment building and afraid of who might try to break into her home.
Like everyone else in Ukraine, Faámelu was worried that her building might get bombed next. But Faámelu’s fear ran deeper — she is one of many transgender women who fear for their lives in a war-torn country where, until just six years ago, people could be institutionalized for transitioning. Not only is Faámelu fighting bigotry and proving she’s a woman daily, her passport still classifies her as “male.” And with martial law, all men ages 18 to 60 were required to join the army. So not only was Faámelu afraid of being harmed by Russian bombs, she was also afraid of being forced to fight. “I don’t want to shoot people, I don’t want to kill anyone,” Faámelu tells Rolling Stone. “I’d rather die.”
According to a 2021 report by the United Nations Refugee Agency, LBGTQ people continuously face harm and violence when they try to flee their countries during an emergency situation. Transgender people in particular can have a hard time crossing country borders if their legal documents don’t match their identities. Often they will be body-checked, or can even be detained and suffer more abuse. Adding to that, in 2016, the year transgender institutionalization in Ukraine was abolished, the country ranked 39th on a human rights list of how 49 European countries are supporting their LBGTQI+ community, according to ILGA-Europe, a human rights advocacy group. Since then, steps in Ukraine have been taken to minimize the evasive protocols of transgender people. Now, transgender people are not forced to be hospitalized, according to the LBGTQI+ activist group KyivPride. However, transgender people are still required to have a psychiatric validation diagnosis of either transsexualism or gender dysphasia. Usually validation is about two weeks of tests and consultations with a psychiatrist.
“Transgender activists in Ukraine were fighting for years to make the procedure [to] transition much easier,” says Lenny Emson, the director of KyivPride.
Emson says that some people didn’t have the opportunity to change their gender marker, and, in the middle of the war, KyivPride is still working to get people the appropriate document changes to get them out of the country. Some transgender women, like Faámelu, never got the chance to get their passport changed and were still traumatized by the old requirements to transition in Ukraine.
Faámelu has 16,500 followers on Instagram and says she’s well-known in Ukraine. She was also on the main vocal reality show in Ukraine, Star Factory, in 2008. Then, in 2010, she appeared on Star Factory Finale. In 2018, after she came out as transgender, she was on The Voice Ukraine. Faámelu gained a fan base from the show for her strong voice and personality. Over the years, Faámelu has remained in the public eye in Ukraine. She believes, however, that her following is why she had a harder time leaving Ukraine: She was easily recognizable.
Faámelu was still determined to leave Ukraine. She reached out to her friends, asking if anyone could drive her to the Romanian border. A friend agreed, and the pair set off. They were stopped at the first checkpoint between the two countries, she says, because the border patrol knew who she was.
“They said, ‘You think you will go through? You will go back,’” says Faámelu. Her friend drove her to a cafe, where she says she stayed awake all night, coming up with a way out of Ukraine. In an attempt to get help, Faámelu turned to her Instagram followers, pleading for someone with “power” — or even the United Nations — to help. In one Instagram story, Faámelu wrote, “I left Kyiv! I will try to cross the border in the following days.” In another, she wrote, “Today I was crossing the border inside the country and the border guard said to my face ‘Go through, but know … we don’t like people like you.’” In a final story, Faámelu posted a video of her sitting in a car, wearing a brown hoodie, her blond hair tied back, and crying. “Can anyone help me?” Faámelu sobbed. “Any human rights organizations, help me.”
That didn’t happen. Eventually, though, Faámelu got in touch with friends in Germany, who sent a driver from Romania to her. “This driver took me to another Romanian checkpoint in another city,” says Faámelu. “We slept there for a night, and the next day we went to that second checkpoint.”
When Faámelu and the driver were stopped, they handed the border police passports and €3,000 to try to bribe their way out of the country, something Faámelu said is not uncommon.
They didn’t take it. This time, Faámelu says, she was forced to go to a military enforcement office, where she would be set to train alongside men for combat. That night, the office let her go to collect her belongings, with the order to return to the camp the next morning. As Faámelu and the driver got back into the car, he turned to her, and she remembers him saying, “Can you swim? It is the only option, to swim across the Sighetu border, through the Danube River, illegally. So you will be a refugee, but you will be breaking the law.”
After realizing that swimming was the only option, Faámelu says, she was covered in chills. They drove to a forest near the border. She wrapped her phone and her country and international passports together in a plastic bag and put it into her bra. The driver parked the car, she says, and the pair walked in the dark. When she got to the place where she’d jump, she remembers hearing soldiers screaming her name. In a life or death moment, Faámelu jumped.
“I ran for my life. I jumped from the edge, like three meters down to the ground full of stones,” she says.
Then, she crawled to the swampy water next to the river. Faámelu says she could hear the soldiers following her, so she hid in bushes before getting into the violent waters.
“I felt like a criminal, but I’m not a criminal, I’m a refugee,” she says.
While fighting the current trying to swim as fast as she could to Romania, Faámelu says there was a moment when she almost gave up. “[I thought], you’ve survived for so many years — maybe it’s OK to let go,” she says. “It’s OK if they get me, I’m done.” But then she pushed herself to continue, and reached Romania. “I almost drowned. I drank so much water,” she says. “I felt exhausted and was swimming [with] the last energy you have. I swam, and somehow I reached that shore, but I thought it was still Ukraine. There was a field next [to cross]. It was like a marathon.”
In Romania, Faámelu says, the police who found her were shocked that a woman had to swim to get out of Ukraine. They took her to a police station and asked her questions before bringing her to a refugee camp, where she was safe. Faámelu believes, however, that back in Ukraine, the man who helped her was arrested and is in jail.
Now, Faámelu is safe in Germany, where she has been since March 10. Although she’s now a criminal in her home country, she says that she felt the need to tell her story and hopefully inspire other trans women to find a way out of Ukraine. “Trans women are very invisible in Ukraine,” she says. “They are in danger. They’re waiting for my story to be out, how I cross the border, so they can do it.”