Insights

Empowered to Lead: Meet Enver Latifzade, LGBTQ+ Refugee and Community Leader

Thursday June 27, 2024

Written by Shevani Khatri, U.S. Program Associate

Enver Latifzade, photo by Sofia Skovorodina

 

Enver Latifzade, a key volunteer and leader for the community-based nonprofit RUSA LGBTQ+ (RUSA), came to New York City in 2014 from Uzbekistan seeking asylum as a result of increased homophobia in his home country. RUSA’s mission is to support New York City’s Eurasian LGBTQ+ population. While he was still closeted when he was referred to RUSA for support, he felt immense gratitude to find community with other LGBTQ+ immigrants from former Soviet Union states, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. 

“Right when I walked into [a] meeting with RUSA, I remember seeing and hearing people who speak the same language and face the same issues I do. I felt very happy. I was very emotional,” Enver says.

RUSA, a grantee partner of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, launched in 2008 to create a supportive network for Russian-speaking LGBTQ+ immigrants. It was founded as a community group by Yelena Goltsman, an LGBTQ+ activist originally from Kyiv, Ukraine. RUSA became a non-profit organization in 2022. Since RUSA was formed, Yelena, alongside other refugee members of the group, board members, and core volunteers like Enver, has provided community, a place of belonging, and crucial referral services to help RUSA’s clients find housing, mental health care, legal support, and workforce development services. 

The Fund supported RUSA in 2022 when a significantly increased number of asylum seekers arrived in New York City; however, the numbers have not decreased. As of March 2024, more than 180,000 migrants had passed through New York City in the past two years. RUSA was one of the seven organizations that received funding from the Mariam Assefa Fund in 2022 to support on-the-ground efforts to aid asylum seekers. 

Enver was inspired by meeting people just like him who had established successful lives in New York City. Often in refugee stories, he notes, the focus is solely on trauma and pain, not on refugees thriving. Finding community members through RUSA provided a morale boost.

RUSA routinely organizes community events to bring together New York City’s Russian-speaking LGBTQ+ population, including support group sessions, legal clinics with partner organizations like SAFE Asylum, and drag shows where participants and the audience are from the community. By participating in such events, Enver began feeling a sense of community and eventually came out as gay. 

LGBTQ+ History Walking Tour, photo by Sergei Pozdnyakov

 

“Slowly but surely, I started talking about my own sexuality, being open about it, and not hiding who I am. And I think RUSA had a great influence on me,” he says.

Reflecting on the current state of asylum seeker support in New York City, Enver says a critical challenge is navigating the shelter system and finding stable housing. Most shelters, including the converted hotels, are almost always at maximum capacity and have a 30-day stay limit. “The shelter limits affect us so deeply,” Yelena said during a recent phone call. At RUSA “we get calls in the middle of the night every week. This crisis is killing us.” 

As a mainly volunteer-run organization, RUSA relies on its network of dedicated volunteers who all bring a diverse set of strengths. Through consistent outreach, RUSA has grown its volunteer cohort exponentially, but the work by nature can be emotionally taxing. Volunteers and workers in this area are struggling to maintain a balance between fully showing up for the work and prioritizing their own mental health, Enver explains. He has learned that it is vital for him to know his own boundaries so that he can best serve RUSA’s clients and his community. 

While RUSA originally focused on serving Russian-speaking LGBTQ+ people, its services are available to all LGBTQ+ community members, he adds. Its door is open to anyone wishing to come and enjoy its events. 

RUSA’s main annual event, which attracts hundreds, is Brighton Beach Pride, which began in 2017. Enver helped start it along with Lyosha Gorshkov, a RUSA board member, and Yelena Goltsman. The event is both a source of joy for the community and a space to protest discriminatory laws against LGBTQ+ people, Enver says. On May 19, 2024, RUSA held its eighth annual Brighton Beach Pride, when attendees marched from Coney Island to Brighton Beach. 

Enver Latifzade at Brighton Beach Pride, photo by Dinara Khairova

 

Despite the challenges of working to support asylum seekers, Enver is motivated to continue by his gratitude for RUSA and being able to live a fulfilling life. Recently elected to RUSA’s board, Enver is now celebrating his tenth year of living in New York City, works as an administrator for a private medical practice, plays piano in his free time, and has two roommates he considers his best friends. 

“I am grateful to people accepting me for who I am, teaching me about myself and the history of LGBTQ+ people, and building community,” he says.

Stay in Touch

Thank you for your interest in the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. We’ll share updates on the Fund’s efforts, what we’re learning, and opportunities through our email list.