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The Kindness Of Strangers: Struggling Belarusian Émigrés Get Help (And Hope) From Their Compatriots

Alina Nahornaya and Ihar Sluchak: "The [pro-Lukashenka people] are getting a break from us," Ilhar says. "But we will settle down and get to work."
Alina Nahornaya and Ihar Sluchak: "The [pro-Lukashenka people] are getting a break from us," Ilhar says. "But we will settle down and get to work."

Tens of thousands of Belarusians have fled the country since August 2020, when authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka launched a brutal crackdown on protesters who disputed his reelection in a presidential vote that was widely seen as rigged.

Some of those who left were able to do so in an orderly way, selling their property and raising enough capital to start a life somewhere else. Others had to leave so hurriedly that they departed with little more than the shirts on their backs.

Many Belarusian émigrés have since run into difficulties abroad, including those who have fallen ill in a foreign country without health insurance or funds to cover vital medical care.

With no end in sight to politically motivated repression back home, Belarusians all over the world have come together -- along with other kind souls -- to help their exiled compatriots who have fallen on hard times.

One such initiative is Bysol, which facilitates and organizes campaigns to assist those who have suffered at the hands of the regime. RFE/RL's Belarus Service spoke to some of those who have received help via this fundraising organization.

'At Least It's Not Scary Here': Alina Nahornaya And Ihar Sluchak

Alina Nahornaya and Ihar Sluchak recently left Belarus with their two small sons.

As tireless advocates for the Belarusian language, the social networks they had been involved with were branded as "extremist" by the authorities after the crackdown began in 2020.

As a result, they had spent the last few years living under the radar, constantly fearing arrest.

They say the stress of leading such an underground existence began to take a toll on their health. Also, as their children needed vaccinations, which they could only get at a state clinic where they might come to the attention of the authorities, they eventually decided to leave the country.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

Given the resources needed to undertake such a life-changing move, they appealed for help via the Bysol organization, asking for 5,000 euros ($5,435) to assist with such things as accommodation, items for the children, and medical expenses.

"We hoped that people would support us," Sluchak said. "Because our work to protect the Belarusian language was important for many."

It turns out that Sluchak was right in his assumption, and the couple received more than 6,000 euros ($6,500) in a short space of time.

"For us, this collection was a sign that people appreciated our work," he said. "It was needed."

With the help of this money, they have now relocated to Lithuania, where they are doing their best to make a new life for themselves in the capital, Vilnius, although they still face plenty of challenges.

"We had a good nanny in Belarus, but here there are different prices for such services," Sluchak said. "That's why we are taking care of the children all the time."

"The [pro-Lukashenka people] are getting a break from us," he added. "But we will settle down and get to work."

Sluchak admits that life was cheaper in Belarus, but that there are other advantages to living in Lithuania that cannot be bought.

In particular, they feel safer here than they did back home, where they "could be arrested and thrown into not entirely pleasant conditions," with their children being placed in institutional care.

"At least it's not scary here," Sluchak said.

'I Was Ashamed To Ask For Help': Mikhail Samborski

Mikhail Samborski had been working as a pediatrician in Babruysk when he took part in anti-government demonstrations after the disputed presidential election in August 2020.

He had also been an active volunteer for a samizdat publishing association and says he regularly did his best to provide help for political prisoners.

Given these oppositionist activities, it's hardly surprising that he was detained by KGB officers in December 2022. Although no charges were pressed, he says the government agents tried to recruit him as an informer and threatened to detain him and his wife while also taking away their children if he did not cooperate.

After warning his colleagues that the KGB had them in their sights, Samborski decided to flee Belarus with his family, first to Armenia and then to Poland.

After leaving his job and nearly all of his property behind, it's been a struggle to make ends meet.

Mikhail Samborski: "It's just incredible -- so much support. I am deeply touched by this!"
Mikhail Samborski: "It's just incredible -- so much support. I am deeply touched by this!"

Although a proud man, he decided to ask for assistance via Bysol, in order to get his children some warm clothes for the winter and some school supplies.

"I was ashamed to ask for help," he said. "That's how I was brought up. I was not very hopeful and didn't see myself as a victim. But my friends convinced me to apply. We had already bought the most necessary things that we needed."

Although, he asked for the relatively modest sum of 800 euros ($870), he has already received more than 4,500 euros ($4,890) in donations, which has exceeded his wildest expectations.

"I myself donated all the time, helped political prisoners, but these were very small amounts," he said. "Now I have been helped many times more! I used to think that I was somehow abnormal, because I helped even those who didn't deserve it. Now I see that I did not underestimate people! It's just incredible -- so much support. I am deeply touched by this!"

Besides being thankful for the much-needed funds, Samborski has been heartened by the huge response to his appeal, which has given him hope for the future of Belarus's embattled opposition movement.

"Money does not fall from the sky for anyone; everyone has to work and earn it," he said. "But they gave us such strong support! I think we are bound to win, since we help each other and stick with each other."

'These Are Dark Times For Us': Yauhen Hrekau

When anti-Lukashenka protests erupted after the strongman was controversially reelected in August 2020, Yauhen Hrekau took to the streets like many others, taking part in sit-downs and doing volunteer work for opposition organizations.

After he started receiving messages from the Belarusian police on his phone, he says it was becoming too dangerous for him to stay in the country, so he left for Georgia, where he now works as an English- and Chinese-language tutor.

Because Belarusians can only stay in Georgia without a visa for one year, those who want to stay must go to a third country every 12 months before reentering and "resetting" their visa-free status.

Yauhen Hrekau: "Because I believe that these are dark times for us, we Belarusians must stand with each other and support each other."
Yauhen Hrekau: "Because I believe that these are dark times for us, we Belarusians must stand with each other and support each other."

Consequently, Hrekau went to Turkey this year, intending only to stay a short while before returning to Georgia. Unfortunately, disaster struck when he was there while walking by the sea with some acquaintances.

"It was hot. We were standing on a pier and I decided to go for a swim," he said. "The water was so clear that I did not calculate the depth. I believe higher forces saved me, because I had wanted to jump into the water headfirst, but at the last moment I changed my mind and jumped with my feet, breaking my leg in three places."

That, however, was only the start of his troubles. When he was taken to the hospital in Istanbul and the Turkish doctors there found out that he had no health insurance, they told him that the leg required complicated surgery which would cost $10,000-$20,000.

When Hrekau told them that he didn't have that kind of money, they tried to persuade him to go back to Belarus for treatment, telling him that they would give him painkillers for the journey.

"It was difficult for me to explain why I couldn't go to Belarus under any circumstances," he said.

Luckily, his acquaintances found another hospital that agreed to fix his leg for $5,000.

As a language teacher who says he left Belarus with only one backpack, this was still a huge amount for him to pay. When he couldn't produce the sum demanded after the operation, the hospital threatened not to let him leave the facility until they got their money.

Thankfully, some friends and acquaintances lent him $1,500, which was the minimum amount that the hospital would accept before discharging him.

He has since tried to obtain what he needs for the hospital fees via a public appeal on the Bysol site.

Although he has not yet raised the sum he requires, he's hopeful that others like him will rally round to help.

"Because I believe that these are dark times for us, we Belarusians must stand with each other and support each other," he said. "We have a strong diaspora in Batumi [in Georgia]. We support each other here and believe in better times. We will return to our native country; it is simply historically destined. But we need more time."

Written by Coilin O'Connor based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service with contributions from Merhat Sharipzhan.
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