In this year shelter activities were supported in cooperation with UNAIDS. It can welcome up to ten residents at a time, and offers free housing, food and different types of counseling for those in need. The NGO in charge, “Ishenim Nuru”, also helps its guests to receive necessary medical examination, adequate treatment, solve legal problems, find a job and, at the end of the day, get on with their lives.
Aliona sips tea in the small counseling room in the shelter. She locks the door behind her. No sign outside indicates this is a shelter for HIV positive people: it looks like any of the other one-story, shabby wooden houses of this main street in Bishkek. There’s one bed in the room where she spends the night when it’s her turn to look after the shelter. Aliona is one of three employees who work here; she knows all of the residents like her own family, even the ones who arrived yesterday, and pushes them to get back up. This is more than a job to her: she cares about these people, and does everything in her hands to make sure they don’t fall, like she once did.
Life-saving peer support
“Most of the people who stay here don’t have anything: no home to go back to, no family or friends, no passport… Even their mothers abandoned them. So who else will help them, except for us?” - says 52-year-old Aliona. Her curly hair is pulled up by a hair band.
She herself has HIV. When she learned her diagnosis in 2013, she wanted to put an end to her life. She had a job she liked in Russia, but she needed to go back home to Kyrgyzstan to benefit from the free treatment. “I’m still not sure how I got sick. I asked myself a lot of questions,” she says, softly. Like many others, Aliona had never heard about HIV before the doctor called her in. She wouldn’t even have gotten tested if it wasn’t obliged by her employer.
“I went on the Internet and I read a lot of negative things on HIV. The first week after my diagnosis, I drank day and night. I wanted to die,” she recalls. But with the help of online forums and peer support, she was able to understand that HIV wasn’t a death sentence. She’s been taking daily treatment since and enjoys her life, she says: “HIV isn’t that scary if you watch after your health.”
Aliona has three grown-up sons who keep her going, and this shelter, where she’s able to help others in the same situation. This job helps her forget the difficulties she faced in life, including ten years of forced labor.
The only place to go to
Aliona shows us around the shelter, which is now like her second home. There’s one room for women and two for men, a small kitchen with a stove where Michael is baking bread. “We have shifts for cooking and cleaning. We help each other around,” he says. Michael arrived in the shelter one month ago, after being freed from a detention center.
Michael was incarcerated several times for short periods. It’s in prison, where he was using drugs, that he got infected with HIV. He started treatment but when he was liberated, he had nowhere to go and he stopped taking his pills. He lived in the streets and couldn’t even get his hands on some bread.
Back in detention, he switched to the methadone substitute treatment. Provided for free by the Global Fund, it is a legal drug that helps people give up injectable drugs, without causing euphoria or aggressivity, protecting them from HIV infection, saving from possible overdoses. He went back on anti-HIV treatment as well, because he was sick and weighed only 30kg then. Now Michael feels well, but he needs to rebuild his life entirely.
“I have no one and nothing left,” he regrets. His wife, who had been by his side regardless of the drugs and the time in prison, left him when he said he had HIV. Michael has no parents or relatives: he grew up in an orphanage. He’s determined to change his life for the better, but it’s not easy. “I don’t have a passport, I’m an ex-prisoner and I have HIV. I can’t find a job. They won’t even hire me to clean up streets.”
“We live like a family”
The NGO helped Ruslan, another resident, get a passport and social pension for the 4th stage of HIV infection (AIDS). “We need more shelters like this,” he says. “There are hundreds of people in my situation. You can take treatment when you have where to go and what to eat. But why would you need pills if you don’t even have food for the day?”
Ruslan, now 46, was incarcerated on-and-off for 20 years total. Now he’s completely alone, and that’s due to his HIV status. “I used to talk to my sister. But when I told her I had HIV, she even blocked me on Facebook.”
He learned his status when he was hospitalized for tuberculosis: “I was dying and honestly, I didn’t care what killed me first: TB or HIV. Doctors literally pulled me out of the grave.” Now Ruslan is working as a volunteer in the shelter, he feels well, and encourages people to get tested and treated for HIV.
“It’s important to be able to talk to others who are HIV positive. They’re an example for us, they give us hope,” says his friend Ramil. “You can open up to them. And they help you avoid making the same mistakes they made.” He was recently cured from TB.
For many, the hardest is to accept this HIV diagnosis. Murat, for example, got tested three times and fell very sick before acknowledging he had to get treated for HIV. “I didn’t believe it. I thought they had made a mistake,” he says.
Many here were left alone because of their diagnosis. It’s often a cause of depression as well. “I wanted to hang myself,” says Samat. “I couldn’t believe it and I asked to get tested again.” He chose to leave his wife and daughter: “I want them to have a normal life.” Aliona tells him he, too, can have this normal life with treatment, but it will take time to convince him. Thanks to the shelter, Samat still finds hope to brighten his darkness: “We live like a family here.”
Under the Global Fund grant, the UNDP provides prevention, diagnosis and treatment for HIV in the Kyrgyz Republic.