50-year-old Zebo from the southern Khatlon region of Tajikistan is a former labor migrant. She took a brave step and made a statement at the 22-nd International AIDS Conference-2018 in Amsterdam about her HIV-positive status – the fact she had been silent about a long time and kept to herself. Zebo once again drew the attention of the international community to the problem that labor migrants are one of the groups most vulnerable to HIV.
AFEW held an interview with her in Amsterdam, immediately after her speech at a session on HIV in the area of labor migration.
– Zebo, how did you decide to leave for work in Russia? Usually, this is considered the men’s choice.
– In 2004, after a divorce from my husband, I was left with three young children and on my own – the eldest were 9 and 6 years old, my youngest daughter was 3 months old. I worked as a nurse in the district maternity hospital, the children grew, and spending grew along with them, my earnings were not enough to support the children. The former husband made a new family and did not help. Many of my fellow countrymen were on labor migration to support their families. I also made up my mind to do this. So we with the children went to in St. Petersburg.
– Is it difficult for a woman to be a labor migrant?
– Very difficult. I went literally to nowhere out of despair. The first days I used to spend the night with the children at the railway station, on the street. Casual people helped me, they would give some food or money. Once we saw a woman from our country working in St. Petersburg, she took pity and let me live with the children at her home. I started to bake and sell pies, started earning money. Over time, orders became more: I baked pastries, and the older daughter sold them in the Sadovyi Market. Fortunately, the demand for the pastries was high. But I had to work hard.
I tried to arrange my life again, because it was too difficult to cope with all the burden that was falling on me. I met a man, at first everything was fine. Then I began to notice strange things about him, strange behavior. It turned out that he used drugs and injected. I asked him to stop, but my begging did not help. Then I decided to break with him. Then I learned that one day he got sick and his relatives took him home. Since then, I have not heard anything about him, but my HIV diagnosis will remind me of my husband forever.
– When did you first hear about your HIV-positive status?
– A year after I broke up with my partner, in 2015. Suddenly, I felt sick, I had a fever. The relatives called an ambulance, in the hospital they took tests and found me HIV-positive. A month later my condition improved, I returned home, but six months later all the same things happened again. I literally was wasting away, I weighed 34 kilograms. Doctors advised to return to my homeland and be treated. Almost all the compatriots who worked in St. Petersburg collected money for plane tickets for me and the children. They knew that I was seriously ill, but did not know the exact diagnosis. I returned home, my family already knew everything. They were very unwelcoming. My relatives turned away from me and requested me to leave the house. My mother said that people say I am infectious, told other not to eat from the same plate with me, not to give me a hand. I remember how she yelled: “Get out of the house, you are the disease carrier!” It was painful to hear all this, especially from my own mother. But there are good people in this world, and a neighbor who lives across the street from parents’ house invited me to live with her. She gave me a small room in a small building. And I still live there.
– So you had to start everything from scratch again?
– Yes, again. From my acquaintance I learned about the office of the AFEW-Tajikistan in Bokhtar. I went there, they accepted me well, helped with food and medicine. They also conducted business training for vulnerable groups, I received a loan from a microlending organization. I bought everything necessary to start a small trade near the house. Sometimes, when I need to go to town, my daughter replaces me. Children in all my support and pillar of strength. The son also helps sellers in the market, brings home 15 somoni a day (less than two dollars – ed.). After my speech at the conference in Amsterdam, the head of the AFEW-Tajikistan Ikrom Ibrahimov offered me work as a consultant in the Bokhtar office. I will now receive a salary. Many thanks to him and all the members of his wonderful team. With such support, my life is gradually improving.
– Please tell about Amsterdam. What did you learn or see at AIDS 2018 AIDS conference, what did you experience?
– This was my first trip this far abroad. I participated in such a conference for the first time. I listened to many speakers, I was inspired by their stories. They openly talked about living with HIV for 20-25 years, at the same time they monitor their health and have quite an active, full-fledged lifestyle. This gave me strength and confidence. I was amazed that in many countries people with HIV are not harassed, avoided, or shunned. For a few days of the conference, I received so many sincere embraces and handshakes, that I never had from the moment of infection. Why is there so much stigma in our country towards HIV-positive people, why do people still live in stereotypes and are afraid of people like me? At one of the sessions at a conference in Amsterdam, I heard the slogan “Chase Virus, not People.” How true it is!