Ukrainian couple living with HIV beat the odds to build stable family life
Gesha and Anna Gvozd thought they were prepared for anything. HIV positive, with a disabled son, they had battled for years to maintain their health and build a happy life with their three children.
But when conflict broke out in their home town of Luhansk in 2014, their fragile world fell apart and they knew they would need to find somewhere safer to live.
“We began to be afraid for our kids,” said Anna, 33. “We didn’t have money, we didn’t have any savings. And because you are worrying, you are always nervous, and of course this affects your medical state.”
The main concern for musician Gesha and secretary Anna was the welfare of their sons: Gleb, 12, Ivan, 8, and Igor, 7. But Igor, who is deaf and autistic, worried them the most.
“We began to be afraid for our kids. We didn’t have money, we didn’t have any savings."
“We understood that we need to settle our kids at school,” said Gesha, 41, who tested positive for HIV in 1997. “But especially we were worrying about our youngest one, because he needs special care.”
The couple also understood the importance of looking after their own health. Gesha contracted HIV as a former drug user almost 20 years ago, and Anna was diagnosed during her second pregnancy. They knew that changing or stopping treatment could damage the immune system and increase the risk of infection. And while Ukraine has one of the highest rates of HIV in Europe, discrimination is widespread. Getting the correct care in Luhansk had been difficult enough. Now internally displaced, and with the added stigma of HIV, the family had no idea where to turn.
For months, they lived with friends in the cities of Lviv and Kyiv, and at one point even stayed in a hotel with no heating. They make a meagre living. Gesha, who sings and plays guitar, earns a little from performing, and the couple buy photographic equipment in flea markets and sell it online.
However, finding an apartment in Kiev, where Igor would be able to receive the care he needed, seemed impossible. They could only afford about US$116 a month, which would pay for a one-bedroom apartment.
“Then, when people knew that we have three kids, they said no,” said Anna. “I was crying.”
"Especially we were worrying about our youngest one, because he needs special care.”
Today, thanks to friends, church groups and local journalists, the family live in a small apartment on an estate in Kiev. The children are finally back in school, including Igor, who is learning sign language along with his mother.
His parents can also rest easier, knowing that they are able to continue with their treatment and stay healthy. To their great relief, they were able to register as internally displaced persons and were issued with a document certifying their status, which gave them access to health care.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has uprooted more than two million people, inside Ukraine and beyond its borders. About 500,000 people fled the fighting – one in four of the Luhansk region’s residents – many for Russia and others within Ukraine.
The conflict is believed to be one of the factors contributing to a rise in HIV infection. In 2014, about 30 per cent of new cases were registered in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to the World Bank.
In 2014, UNHCR implemented a project for displaced people with specific needs in the Luhansk region. UNHCR partners provided support to nearly 500 people with HIV and at risk of HIV from non-government controlled areas and so-called 'grey zones' to enable access to medical services, social benefits and employment at their new place of residence. The project also conducted a series of information and prevention events at hospitals, schools and universities in the Luhansk region to reduce stigma towards people with HIV and increase their knowledge of how and where they can get help.
For Gesha and Anna, nothing can alleviate the sadness they feel at leaving their home and loved ones. Anna’s parents, who still live in Luhansk, were among those who stayed behind despite the shelling and often felt their house shake as they took shelter in the basement.
Today, thousands in the Luhansk region need urgent help and the security situation remains volatile.
In Kyiv, Gesha and Anna find strength in the closeness of their relationship, despite a constant battle against the odds.
“Even when we fight or argue, we finish our arguments and the children learn from that,” said Anna, linking fingers with Gesha. “We can speak a lot, but when they just see us, this is better than talking.”
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