“Life, unauthorized” is a series from WHYY/NewsWorks that looks at the personal immigration stories of individuals who are living in the Philadelphia region without legal status.
‘Alex’ and ‘Viktor,’ both 26, from Belarus
In Belarus, one worked as a mechanic for the subway system, and the other was an auto mechanic. Both were in college. They played in a band, toured throughout the Eastern Bloc and Europe, and were well-known as anti-fascist protesters. They say they were beaten and imprisoned multiple times when the government began cracking down on protesters following elections in 2010. Belarus has had the same president, Alexander Lukashenko, since 1994, nearly as long as it has been separate from the former Soviet Union.
The two friends (Alex and Viktor are not their real names) planned their trip to the United States, initially for a vacation — they came on six-month tourist visas. But after they left Belarus, Viktor was fired from his job, and kicked out of university. They knew their vacation was permanent after police started intimidating both of their families, seeking information about their location. The intimidation hasn’t stopped them from continuing to speak out about the Belarusian government.
On March 25, a holiday known as “Freedom Day,” thousands in Belarus defied a government ban and protested in the streets against a “social parasites” tax on the under-employed. Several hundred people were arrested, including some of their friends. To show their support, the two took part in a small solidarity protest on the Ben Franklin Parkway. Though they are still politically active, they remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from their home government.
They live in North Philadelphia with another roommate and are currently seeking political asylum. Only a few close relatives back home know their status.
They have at least a six-month wait before they are entitled to work permits and driver’s licenses as political-asylum applicants. Their lawyer, Larisa Tenberg, estimates that it takes five years to go from asylum applicant to permanent resident.
In their own words: Political protest
Alex: “Through our music, we expressed our opinion against the government. We were speaking about people who were put in jail. We were also beaten and also put in jail. …
“We were playing for many years, but back in 2010, there was a problem — there were peaceful protests because people knew that after the elections the same president would stay in power — they knew the result. There were old grandmas and grandpas, and young people were beaten as well. After that, we fought even stronger.”
Viktor: “My mother voted for this president, my grandmother voted for this president, and I would be the third generation that faces him in an election. When the USSR collapsed, we were hoping for freedom. We were looking forward to it. And Lukashenko was the first president after the collapse. He was an ordinary person. He was from a village. He was just like us, so we were hoping that he would change the situation in the country. And after the first term, we realized it’s not going to happen.”
Alex: “All those years the situation was pretty much the same, but lately, the last few years, the pressure on people who protested against the government started being more and more fierce. Our concerts were prohibited, the concerts of other musicians were prohibited. People couldn’t express their opinions — they couldn’t go to the protest actions. The government, the state, they read our personal emails. They read our personal correspondence on social media. For example, you go to some social action or concert and you see many police vans surrounding the area, ready to arrest people.”