Seizures, arrest and a river crossing: Queer couple with autism recounts risky escape from Ukraine
Like many Ukrainians, Alice Chuvnik knew a Russian attack was possible but thought it very unlikely — until it happened.
“The day the invasion started, I woke up to explosions,” Chuvnik, 24, says via WhatsApp from Europe, while recounting a treacherous journey for Yahoo Life. In the following days, she recalls, stories of Russian forces infiltrating the city spread quickly, and “fear and panic were palpable.”
It was clear the war had begun. Chuvnik, who has autism, was considering fleeing the country for safety. But there was one problem: She is a transgender woman, and her passport still says “male.”
With all able-bodied Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 required to stay and be ready to fight, that meant Chuvnik, who has lived as a woman for nearly five years, could have to take up arms alongside men who, she felt, would view her as “less than” and could potentially place her in more danger.
“In general, it's confusing for other people to deal with, which makes us a target of direct and clear aggression,” Chuvnik says of transgender life in Ukraine, where some anti-discrimination laws are in place for LGBTQ people, but cultural acceptance of trans people is still a slow burn. “It’s like being second or third-class.”
She adds, “I had to get out of Ukraine.” But there was still the matter of her passport — which she had yet to get updated to “F,” despite having updated her birth certificate after undergoing the required psychiatric evaluation and receiving a physician-signed document that classified her as living with gender-identity disorder (officially labeled "F64"). Adding to the complication, though, was that her birth certificate is Russian (one of her parents is Russian), despite being born in Ukraine.
But time was running out.
“I decided to get a train ticket,” she says, “and go to the Polish border.”
Meanwhile, more than 1,200 miles away…
At the same time, in the Netherlands, Chuvnik’s long-distance partner, Robin Boon, 29, had been texting Chuvnik about her decision to leave the country with a great deal of concern.
Boon, who uses they/them pronouns, also lives with autism, which at times limits their speech. They also deal with severe anxiety that requires daily medication. The couple had met on a dating app over a year ago and forged a deep connection despite not yet having met in person.
Out of concern for Chuvnik’s safety, Boon, who, like Chuvnik, rarely leaves their apartment in order to avoid overstimulation, bravely decided to make the trip to the Ukraine-Poland border, innocently assuming that Chuvnik would cross into Poland and join them to drive back to the Netherlands. Because they don't have a driver’s license, they “had to convince two friends” to drive them. So, with a limited supply of medication and plenty of fear, Boon and their friends set off on the 25-hour trip to the border.
Over in Ukraine, Chuvnik was starting to realize the gravity of her situation.
Meeting at the border
“The railway station was so full of people that I had to go to the very edge of the platform, squeezing through the crowd with my bags,” Chuvnik recalls of her arrival in Kyiv. The train never came, and air raid sirens were getting more deafening as Chuvnik began to weigh other options. She was advised to try the bus station instead, but when she got there, she found that no buses were heading out. Her only hope then was to hitch a ride to the border checkpoint.
When she got as close as she could to the border, though, “there was a [13-mile] long line of cars” attempting to enter Poland, she explains. Chuvnik says she walked up the entire line, and that, every once in a while, passengers would see her struggling and invite her into their cars “to heat up for a few minutes.”
“I was told to ask anyone to give me their child,” Chuvnik remembers. “To have a child sit on my knees and pretend I was their mom or sister, which I did."
When she finally reached the checkpoint, on foot, she says border agents failed to recognize her passport and additional documents — including her physician-signed F64 document and updated birth certificate — and told her to turn back. This left her with little hope of reaching Boon, who was in their own precarious situation.
In Poland, Boon, who has a Netherlands passport, had been receiving text updates from Chevnik and was considering crossing into Ukraine to assist her, thinking it could help her case if a second person were to vouch for her in front of border agents. That idea wasn’t sitting well with Boon's friends.
“One of my friends completely freaked out and pulled a knife on me,” Boon says, clarifying that it was out of fear for their safety. The scene escalated quickly, and police ended up temporarily detaining the friend — allowing the other friend to see an opportunity. “This is your chance,” they told Boon, who made a run for it toward the checkpoint, leaving behind their two friends, who soon after drove back to the Netherlands.
Boon made it into Ukraine safely, where Chuvnik was waiting with an extra layer of fear. “Now my girlfriend is in a war zone,” she recalled thinking. "But at least we were together."
It was the first moment they met in person, and also the first time Chuvnik told Boon she loved them, to which they replied, “I think it’s clear that I love you, too.”
‘They thought I was a Russian spy’
With a short supply of daily medications, clothing and food, Chuvnik and Boon spent the next two weeks hitchhiking to various checkpoints along the Ukraine-Poland border. Each time they attempted to cross, Chuvnik says border agents failed to recognize her documents and turned her away.
Says Boon, “I wasn’t going to leave her.”
By day four, things were starting to take a turn for the worse. Both had run out of their medication, causing Boon to experience minor seizures and Chuvnik to have moderate anxiety attacks as they slept in various refugee camps.
“We went to greenhouses [temporary tent housing set up by local organizers] and refugee centers to sort of make sense of what was happening, and to plan our next move,” Chuvnik remembers of those cold nights. It was during this time, she adds, while they were “laying on trash bags on the floor of a greenhouse,” that they shared their first kiss.
The couple ended up connecting with queer refugees on the ground and on social media, who connected them with Rain Dove, a nonbinary model and American activist who was leading efforts to get LGBTQ and other vulnerable people out of Ukraine through their organization Safebow. Dove had been on the ground for a couple of weeks when they connected with Chuvnik and Boon in Lviv, at which point the couple had been off their meds for at least 10 days.
“They had been traveling so much and things were not great," Dove tells Yahoo Life. "It was becoming a dire situation for them.”
Dove says they made the risky decision to accompany Chuvnik, Boon and a few other LGBTQ refugees to the Polish border as an individual, and not as a representative of Safebow. But, as with all other attempts, Chuvnik says border agents failed to recognize her legal documents. At one point, because her updated birth certificate was issued in Russia, she was even accused of being an enemy.
“They thought I was a Russian spy,” recalls Chuvnik, who was detained by border agents while Boon and the rest of the group were interrogated by police, as heard in recordings shared with Yahoo Life.
Chuvnik was forced to separate from the rest of the group, staying the night in Yavoriv while the others crossed into Budomierz, Poland. As they started plotting their next move via text message, things took an ugly turn when Russian bombs began to drop in Yavoriv.
A harrowing escape
Following the bombings, the group weighed the risks and legalities before coming up with an escape plan: Chuvnik and another person Dove was in touch with, a gay man who was with Chuvnik in Ukraine, would pass the Yavoriv military base and attempt to cross the forest and river into Poland — where Boon, Dove and others would be waiting to lead them inland.
Chuvnik and Boon say they were well aware of the risks before agreeing to the escape attempt, which included Chuvnik and her male companion having to hold hands and pretend they were a straight couple at one point and, at another, hearing barking dogs and seeing armed guards nearby.
When she arrived at the river, Chuvnik started having a panic attack. “I lost all ability to speak for several seconds,” she says. Dove says Boon, who was with them on the other side of the river, leaped in to help Chuvnik. Dove followed, and helped lead them out of the water.
“I remember someone grabbing me,” Chuvnik says. “My vision was rather blurry and I wasn't able to see. I remember that Robin hugged me and was, like, pushing me to the ground to [tell me I was OK] because I was feeling very panicked. I was breathing really fast and it was really cold.”
Once over the river, the group says they hiked nearly two miles before Boon waved down a car — which turned out to be that of a Polish border patrol officer, who drove them back to the checkpoint.
Dove says the Polish border patrol placed each member of the group into solitary confinement, and that Boon wound up having a minor seizure in their jail cell. Chuvnik, though, says that Polish officers were “very respectful” and “took pity” on them after hearing their story and realizing they were both living with mental health challenges, allowing Dove to sit in the cell with Boon to calm them down.
In the end, Boon, who'd never been convicted of a crime before, was sentenced to two years probation, meaning another crime committed in Europe could get them sentenced to eight years in prison. Chuvnik received one year of probation.
Dove, who is also on a two-year probation following the events, says that Chuvnik and Boon’s love story highlights issues that are often overlooked in the refugee crisis.
“Disabled people are being disproportionately disenfranchised by this crisis,” Dove says. “In a lot of cases, [mentally disabled people] are being told they are not fit for the military, and yet they are not allowed to leave the country” because of martial law, “They lost their entire lives,” they say. “There’s no jobs for them, there’s no housing for them. Where are these people going to go?”
For now, at least, Chuvnik and Boon are safe in Europe, though they’ve chosen to not disclose their location out of safety concerns.
Earlier this month, they became engaged to be married.
“I’m happy to be alive,” Chuvnik says.
She emphasizes that the reason she chose to share her story is to keep others from attempting such a dangerous escape. “I decided, if this is going to help at least a single person,” she says, “I should talk about it.”
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