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Marco Werman: What if you went on a high school exchange program and decided not to go home? That’s apparently what happened with a 17-year-old Russian student who participated in a US-Russia exchange program. He was supposed to go back to Russia last spring after living with an American family. But according to several reports, the student is asking for asylum in the US on the grounds that he would face persecution back home because he’s gay. Lester Feder covers gay rights issues for BuzzFeed and he’s been following the story. He told me there’s a lot of information out there about the case, though not much of its confirmed.
Lester Feder: It is true that there is a student who did stay on past his date and we now know, from his lawyer, is seeking asylum on the basis of sexual orientation. He’s not been put up for adoption, he is in custody of the federal government, which has placed him in a foster home, which is what is usually done with unaccompanied minors.
Werman: So, who told who that this student was seeking asylum? Because, in effect, that was outing the student, right?
Feder: That’s correct. The Russian media had originally published that he was seeking asylum. But it was not confirmed, and his lawyer, Susan Reed, had not wanted to comment on details of how he was seeking to stay in the United States or the reasons for it. But in this weekend’s New York Times story about the case, there was an American official who confirmed that this was a student who was 1. seeking asylum, and 2. was doing so because of his sexual orientation. Those things had never been confirmed in the American press before. What Susan Reed is saying is that by speaking about an individual asylum case, this American official hasn’t violated American rules that prohibit government officials from talking about asylum cases, because there are a lot of policies in place to protect those cases, because those are people in sensitive situations and also because there are ongoing legal processes that the government probably is bound not to speak about.
Werman: And the fact that he’s a minor.
Feder: That adds to the sensitivity, obviously. I was going to say, you also have to feel for this kid, who is now 17. Any teenager who is dealing with coming out has a hard time. But to come out, have to leave your family and your country behind, and then become the center of an international incident has to be an incredibly difficult situation to be in.
Werman: Do you get the sense that the student is now afraid to go back to Russia?
Feder: I think absolutely. There are a lot of really terrible stories coming out of Russia about an increase in hate crimes. The Russian government has elevated a kind of homophobia. I would imagine that going back is a very scary thing to do, especially since his case is now the focus of the media’s attention and the foreign ministry’s attention. We have been seeing that his parents have been talked about and have been quoted in the foreign media, so going back into that scenario would be an intimidating thing.
Werman: Lester, tell me what you know about this Future Leaders Exchange program that this young man was in. Who gets to participate and how are they chosen, do you know?
Feder: It’s a 21-year-old program set up in the early â€˜90’s, as the Soviet Union was collapsing. It brings students from across the former Soviet Union. In Russia alone, I understand that there have been more than 8,000 alumni. It’s a very prestigious and competitive program and it’s a really important opening, I think, for these kids to experience the West and it came at a moment when there seemed to be an opening for building new relationships between the former Soviet Union and the United States. This closing has been very upsetting to a lot of kids who have participated. Some have started an online campaign to try and reopen the program, and you can hear from their voices online how much this experience has meant to them.
Werman: Why would Russia pull out of this program? Do you see this as a Russian homophobia story, or is it a Russian-nationalism-during-the-conflict-with-Ukraine story?
Feder: It’s more the latter. I think, on point after point, the Russian and American governments have been having conflict. The Ukraine crisis put a very sharp point. It may very well be that the Russian government was planning to pull out of this program anyway and this was a convenient excuse. The timing of it breaking in the news is certainly curious. The incident described happened in the spring, was when he was supposed to have returned to the United States. His mother made a trip out to speak with him in the spring as well, and we’re only now having this appear in state-run media in the fall. So it does suggest that broader politics may be at work.
Werman: The weird irony to all of this is that because Russia is pulling out of this exchange program, this creates more openings for other students and maybe even advantageous for students from Ukraine.
Feder: That’s correct. The US government just announced recently that half the spots that Russia is walking away from will go to Ukrainian students, which I guess creates an opportunity to cement relationships with the West that, at this moment, so much of the country feels under threat from Russia. Whether that feeds into Russia’s long term policy goals, I don’t know.
Werman: Lester Feder from BuzzFeed, great to speak with you as always.
Feder: Always good to talk to you Marco.