May 18, 2017 at 4:15 pm PDT | by Rebekah Sager
Chechnya fundraiser on Facebook goes viral

Fred Erick took the initiative and raised $256,000 on Facebook. (Photo courtesy Fred Erick

BY Honey LaBronx and Rebekah Sager  | A Russian LGBT advocacy group has confirmed reports that gay men in Chechnya have been sent to secret prisons that have been described as ‘concentration camps.’ Over 200 LGBTQ citizens in Chechnya have been abducted, detained, tortured, and even killed so far in 2017.

Federick Erick, who immigrated to the United States with this family from the Soviet Union in 1987, seeking asylum as a Jewish refugee, simply couldn’t look away. He responded by creating a Facebook fundraiser that raised over $200,000.

“I was lying in bed with my boyfriend, when I read an article about Rainbow Railroad and their Underground Railroad network in Russia,” Erick told the Los Angeles Blade.

Erick says he saw an ad on Facebook about fundraising campaigns. He decided to see if he could raise money for Rainbow Railroad and help those suffering in Chechnya.

He wrote on his post:

“After the Holocaust people asked why didn’t anyone do anything? Well here’s your chance. Or will future generations ask the same of us?”

He set a goal of $10,000 in one month, launching on April 22, but didn’t really think he’d hit more than $1K. Within days he made his goal, then reset to $20K, then $50k, then $100k, then finally, $200k, and by the end of the campaign on May 17 at midnight, it was over $256k.

“It was a miracle how it all came together.  I think everyone was frustrated and didn’t know what to do.  All we could do was give.  People who couldn’t afford to donate asked what they could do.  I said the most powerful weapon against genocide besides liberation is information.  They were all saying this isn’t happening; that they haven’t opened up four modern day Concentration Camps — but overwhelming evidence showed they had.  I told them to share [the post] and invite friends. Actor George Takei shared with his millions of followers and money started pouring in,” Erick said

Based in Canada, Rainbow Railroad is a volunteer-run charity that helps LGBTQ individuals escape countries where they are persecuted. Since its founding in 2006, the organization has funded travel for over 200 people.  The majority of the cases funded have been from Jamaica, Nigeria, and Uganda, but requests for help are increasingly coming from other regions of the world.  In 2016 alone, they raised $833,000 to help rescue a record 81 individuals from life-and-death situations.

Chechnya, a small country with just over a million people, became a federal state of Russia when they lost their independence in early 2000.

Distributing any positive information about LGBTQ life is already illegal under Russia’s “gay propaganda laws,” but in Chechnya the homophobia is even more extreme.

According to Human Rights Watch, on April 1, the leading independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported that law enforcement and security agency officials, under the control of the Chechen Republic head, Ramzan Kadyrov, rounded up dozens of men on suspicion of being gay. Some of them were forcibly “disappeared.” Those who were fortunate enough to be returned to their families, were left barely alive from beatings, and at least three men have died since the brutal campaign began.

Even those who manage to escape the modern day concentration camps live in fear of being hunted down by their own families.  As the government shames individuals for their sexuality, they place equal shame on the families for allowing what they call “filth” to grow within the family.

Families are told to kill their gay relatives or the government will do it for them. The honor killings have become commonplace throughout Chechnya.  Gay and bisexual men are left with nowhere to hide.  So even when some manage to escape to Russia, they still live in fear of being hunted down by their families who see no other way to undo the shame brought on them by their loved one.

Rainbow Railroad has been working closely with the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental organization currently leading the campaign to rescue those facing danger in Chechnya.  By now, they have already helped 37 individuals escape into safe houses in Russia, awaiting transport out of the country.  Rainbow Railroad is providing direct travel assistance and has already negotiated safe travel for two individuals with and is committed to supporting every one of them.

This includes working with the Canadian government to provide direct assistance to LGBTQ people who need help fleeing Chechnya and other countries by way of emergency visas, as the U.S. has since denied visas for roughly 40 gay Chechens.

Mario Diaz of Los Angeles has taken up the mantel where Erick left off. Creating a Facebook fundraiser, which is already very close to meeting its fundraising goal of $35,000 by May 23rd at midnight – Diaz’s campaign will also benefit Rainbow Railroad.

Those wishing to donate directly to Rainbow Railroad can do so at www.AmericanRainbowRailroad.org.

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