Tanya and Alexei’s love story may be unusual, but there’s no doubt they’ve found their beloved half. They look at each other with complicity and hold hands to face the difficulties of life. They’ve been through a lot – unemployment, HIV, discrimination – but their love makes them stronger and keeps a smile on their tired faces.
Tanya, who’s now 45 years old, met her partner three years ago in a shelter for people living with HIV, just after she discovered her status. “Learning I had HIV was a shock for me, but Alexei and my friends helped me cope,” she says. Alexei learned he had HIV eight years ago, but he says he feels well now “thanks to antiretroviral therapy (ART)”.
“You shouldn’t think your life ends with HIV. Life continues, you just have to pull yourself together and take ART,” says 40-year-old Alexei.
Time to adapt
Alexei and Tanya came to Bishkek from the Issyk Kul region this fall after losing their seasonal job at a farm. New to the capital, they asked to spend a few weeks in the shelter for people living with HIV, financed by the UNDP / Global Fund project together with UNAIDS.
“It’s great to have this place to give us the time to adapt to the capital, find a job and a place to rent,” says Alexei. “Here they help us receive documents, get medical help, give us a roof over our head and food. I even found my beloved half in a shelter like this.” Alexei looks for Tanya’s hand under the table as she grins from ear to ear.
Like the other clients of this shelter, Tanya and Alexei are actively looking for jobs. The shelter in Bishkek reopened in July, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, to house people living with HIV in difficult life situations.
“People living with HIV are a vulnerable group of the population, and they were deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place. They have no protection. This crisis has been hard on everyone, but even harder on our clients. So it was really important to open this shelter,” says Yuri, a social worker. “Here at least they have a minimum of services: a place to stay, healthy food, social and psychological support, medical consultations…”
A place to take treatment
“I wish there were more shelters like these around the country,” says Alexei. “You can’t live on the streets when you have HIV. If you’re on the streets, you have nothing to eat and you’re cold, how can you take your treatment? Some people really have nowhere to go to and no one to help them. This shelter helps us get back on our feet.”
Volodia, another client from the shelter, agrees: “There are a lot of people in need like me, but there’s not enough place in the shelter,” he says. The shelter in Bishkek has 15 beds, but social workers often add mattresses on the floor to welcome more clients. Volodia lost his arm and now has a lot of difficulties finding a job. He says: “This shelter saved me. I was just let out of jail and I had nowhere to go. If it weren’t for the shelter, I would probably be back in jail because I would have had no place to live in and no food to eat, so I would have had to steal to survive.” Volodia also started taking ART now that he lives in the shelter and he’s already seeing an improvement in his health.
On top of the material help it offers, the shelter gives clients a heartwarming place to live in where they don’t feel ashamed of their HIV status – and that’s something quite rare for people living with HIV.
Facing stigma and discrimination
“HIV doesn’t keep us from being together,” says Alexei, whose eyes shine when he looks at Tanya. “I live the same life as I did before my diagnosis. The only difference now is that it’s harder to find a job,” he admits.
Stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV bring many additional difficulties into their lives. People living with HIV sometimes have problems accessing social or medical services, finding a job, making friends or suffer from rights violations.
“I found a job as a dish cleaner in a café but the owner asked for a medical check-up. And as soon as they learned I had HIV, I got fired,” says Tanya. “It’s always almost like this. Most people don’t understand anything about HIV or how it’s transmitted. Some people are even scared of talking to me,” she sighs as her eyes fill with tears.
“I wish people would learn more about HIV and have a better, friendlier attitude towards those who have HIV,” says Alexei. “It would be easier for everyone.”