Eliana’s fight to be herself

Eliana’s fight to be herself

August 27, 2020

Loneliness and isolation are often experienced by asylum seekers in New Zealand, but few people feel it as severely as rainbow refugees. For some, like Eliana Rubashkyn, freedom only comes with a very heavy price.  

“When you are alone, completely alone, that even if you died, and you died in your apartment, no-one would even realise that you died, that’s the level of loneliness I’m speaking about.” 

Eliana Rubashkyn is a trans woman who was granted asylum in New Zealand in 2014.  

“That’s the level of loneliness that many LGBTQI refugees experience, because they are totally disconnected from their families, totally disconnected from any community that could help them in New Zealand, just because they are afraid of the level of prejudice and discrimination they can experience for being who they are.” 

Eliana’s life story seems unreal. Born with an intersex variation in Colombia, she was forced to grow up as a boy, even though she felt much more a girl from the beginning. It wasn’t until her late teens that she gathered the courage to openly express her gender. But it wasn’t supported. She was violently assaulted several times, and ultimately fled. 

“While dressing as woman and walking in the streets I was attacked, which is something which happens very often, and I didn’t know how often until it happened to me. It needed to happen to me to make myself aware that if I wanted to continue my journey as a woman I needed to leave my country… I don’t know if that would be the same experience in another part of my country, but one thing I know is that a lot of friends I used to have died for being who they were. So, that’s something common in Latin America. Specifically in South America, 85 percent of transgender people are murdered. In other words it’s just in South America. So, it’s the worst place to be trans in the world.”

In Taiwan, Eliana found peace, and began hormone therapy to assist her transition. This triggered what should have been a simple gender change on her passport, but prejudice and bureaucracy intervened. On a trip to the nearest Colombian embassy, in Hong Kong, she was detained on arrival.

“My time in Hong Kong was a really dark time, I experienced the worst things that I can remember in my life in Hong Kong. When I arrived… and I managed to leave the airport I was thinking that was it, I would find a way out of the situation, but things became more complicated when the only way I would find a way to leave without being deported to Colombia was to get protection from another country."

It was almost 11 months of hell. To avoid being sent back to Colombia, Eliana renounced her citizenship and became stateless. She applied for refugee status through the United Nations, and within a month fell under its protection. But things didn’t get better. With identity documents incorrectly reflecting her gender as male, she was moved from one men’s facility to another.  

“I was sent to Yuen Long, which is on the outskirts of Hong Kong, very close to Shenzhen, that’s when my life started to become very horrible.” 

The only solution was to be recognised as female, so Eliana sought a UN declaration on her gender. In December 2013 she became the first trans person officially recognised by the United Nations, which demanded she always be treated as a female, despite not having undergone gender reassignment surgery.  

“This kind of abusive treatment they were justifying based on what my passport said, I was a man, was seen by the United Nations as a violation that needed to stop, and they noticed that because I surrendered my citizenship, as a Colombian, they only way the abuse could stop was if the United Nations recognised my gender. “ 

In 2014 New Zealand was one of very few countries with gender identity laws strong enough to provide Eliana with a safe haven. We opened the door to her, finally giving her the protection she needed. At first she wallowed in the relative peace and security here, but was soon reminded that rainbow refugees face unique challenges no matter where they are. 

“Being a refugee is by itself really challenging, but when somebody is a rainbow refugee, that challenge doubles or triples, it becomes more difficult. It's like you become a refugee among refugees…Someone like a trans person can experience a lot of harassment, especially if they are placed in camps that are not matching with their gender. So trans women would be placed with men and trans men will be placed with women. So that's a prolongation of the suffering, but in refugee camps. And that's very challenging when you are living with these people 24 hours of your day for seven days a week, constantly sharing toilets, sharing facilities.” 

Eliana explains that rainbow refugees are not just fleeing an environment of persecution, they are usually also fleeing from their families, communities and religions - almost everything that makes up their identity.  

“Here you can be who you are, but here you don’t have family, and you don’t have anyone who knows you, so you are completely alone. Other refugees who come here, often come with families, and often have families that are supporting them, so even if they are alone here they still have family or they have someone who looks after them. But somebody who is LGBTQI is completely alone, and they are completely isolated. There is no social network or anyone who cares about them, and they lose, most of the time, all the social connections that they have in their country.” 

Over the years here Eliana has become an advocate for the rainbow community. She uses her own experiences to helps others. 

“That feeling of safety is something that I can’t describe. The feeling of ‘I’m walking in the street and I’m not going to die, I can do whatever I want, I can put whatever colour of lipstick, whatever heels, whatever clothes, anything, I’m not going to die’…and obviously that feeling is millions of times more important than the feeling of isolation and loneliness, but the more you are in New Zealand, the more time you spend here, the loneliness and isolation becomes stronger, because you just take for granted your safety, because everyone enjoys the same level of safety, but not everyone has the same feeling of loneliness.  

Eliana says it’s about finding a way to replace what’s been lost. 

“So, slowly, slowly you find ways. You try to connect with people that you feel are not going to judge or say anything about you. And this is how you start to create your own family, which are actually friends, but you consider more family than others. And that happens to many of us. We create our own family…Some of us never get to that point. Some of us stay alone. But the only thing that I want in my life is to ensure that my refugee family has someone that always will be looking after them, they will not be by themselves and alone.“


More information on New Zealand’s rainbow communities: 

Link to our Pride Report and Rainbow information