Olga and Natasha Vernev are local business owners in Vancouver. Together, they own The Great Canadian Dog Cakes where they make healthy dog food as well as beautiful dog cakes and cookies. Their path here has not been easy. As a lesbian couple in Russia, they fled persecution to Thailand and Cambodia before eventually immigrating to Canada with the help of Rainbow Refugee. Olga and Natasha have partnered with Roar Cat Reads to raise awareness of the awesome work Rainbow Refugee is doing and encourage all readers to participate in our upcoming fundraising event. You can donate HERE now!
How did the two of you meet? When did you know that you were in love?
This is a funny story about how I have known Natasha for twenty years, and she has only known me for ten years.
I met Natasha in 2001 when I was a university student. I left the library and saw her standing in the street and talking to her friends. And she was amazing. Like a character from some comic about lesbian superheroines (does such a comic exist at all? It’s a pity if not).
I immediately fell in love with her at first sight, and she didn’t even notice me.
Ten years after that, we met on social networks.
At this point, we were both already pretty disappointed in relationships, both after difficult breakups. For my part, I would not have agreed to try to meet if it was anyone but Natasha.
We got pretty tough about the boundaries of our future relationship, and both agreed that we would have a date and one night stand. Nothing but this! And…there must be a joke about lesbians who move in together after the first meeting.
We’ve been together for almost ten years since that date, because she also fell in love at first sight, only with a slight lag.
I don’t want you to discuss anything that makes you uncomfortable, but why did you know that you weren’t safe staying in Russia?
Oh, we’ve talked about this so many times that it has become my new comfort zone, something like sitting on nails. You know, there is a method of self-help therapy to tell a story so many times until all the emotional content evaporates from the narrative. I can’t say that we finally succeeded, but we both have therapists, and our PTSD is under the supervision of a very good Canadian doctor.
My wife and I had very different backgrounds. Natasha is a little older than me and managed to capture some rather dangerous times in the 90s in Russia, and she was subjected to the most brutal attacks several times. She was literally beaten to a pulp. So she was closed and wary.
I came out to a more or less prosperous beginning of the 2000s, and did not see any danger at all. I lived openly. I even had a rather dangerous hobby – trolling homophobes on the streets. If someone came up to say something disgusting to me, I literally took the person by the hand and gave him an educational lecture in the most serious tone until he ran away screaming and cursing. I didn’t believe at all that someone could do me any harm other than verbal.
Because of these different experiences, Natasha and I had some disagreements about how we would behave on the outside while with each other.
When the Russian government began to develop a draft law banning the promotion of homosexuality, the speed of events shocked us. Previously, we all hoped that Russia would move closer to the Western path of development, but Putin’s government suddenly took a sharp conservative turn, and then real troubles began, especially in provincial cities like ours.
As I said, I lived quite openly. My friend and I had a shop of hand-made queer stuff, we drew and sold t-shirts, posters, and calendars online. At first, our store received threats and we were forced to close it. Then some of our friends were attacked and the police refused to help them. And then Natasha and I also began to receive threats. Some people wrote terrible phrases and threats to kill us in our car and on the front door of the apartment.
With this law, the state seemed to make it clear to the aggressively-minded part of the population that they can freely express their aggression and there will be no consequences for them. I’m seriously telling you, there was a criminal case shortly before our departure about a man who killed a gay man with an ax and received a two-year suspended sentence.
And then there was a Nazi organization that practiced hunting gay people for money, it was called “safari.” People were lured into fake dates on social networks, locked up in an apartment, beaten, and monstrously humiliated. These acts were filmed and published on the Internet to destroy the lives of these people permanently. This organization built something like a franchises – those who wished could open a safari club in any city and invite participants to hunt for a fee. Very inexpensive, by the way.
In addition, some absolutely terrible false information about gay people poured from TV screens in prime time. For example, talk shows had disgusting discussions in which participants freely expressed their most vile opinions and desires. Intolerance in society began to grow under the influence of this information.
Natasha gifted me a Scottish Terrier puppy for my 30th birthday. He and I once went to a local grocery shop and came across a group of young men who, with the words “Well, lesbian, finally you got a man?” kicked Spielberg and ran after me. I grabbed the dog and ran, and just managed to close the doorway.
Natasha, who had much more negative experience than me, immediately realized that it wouldn’t end well for us. Soon, we sold everything we had and left the country with one suitcase and a puppy. We went to Thailand, then to Cambodia. From Thailand, we turned to Canada for help.
How did you end up connecting to Rainbow Refugee?
We googled a well-known lawyer, Robert Hughes, and he helped us get in touch with Chris Morrissey directly. Here it should be said that everything was complicated by the fact that we didn’t speak English, so I used a lot of Google translator, which in those days was far from perfect. Ultimately, Chris became a member of our support circle.
We have been asked many times something like, “But how did you get in touch with Hughes?!” and we reply “We googled.” Can you imagine the level of responsiveness of the people involved in LGBT issues in Canada? You just accidentally write to a celebrity lawyer who simply answers, “Ok, let’s see what we can do about it,” and the superstar of the Canadian LGBTQ+ movement, Chris Morrissey, starts to deal with your case!
How did Rainbow Refugee support you, both as you immigrated to Canada and after you arrived in Vancouver?
We have received tremendous support from Rainbow Refugee. In our opinion, it is great luck that this organization exists and helps people. We were supported psychologically (in the last year in Cambodia I was in almost daily correspondence with members of the circle of support) and we were very strongly supported financially.
When you are a refugee of a sponsor group, the first year after arriving is completely focused on adaptation. There is a big difference between coming here as a tourist to see beautiful British Columbia, and arriving to start your life here from scratch.
The whole system here does not work the way you are used to. You need to learn something new every day – how to use public transport, how to get an appointment with a doctor, how to pay bills, where to get an insurance number, where to go to learn English, how to sort the garbage correctly, how to fill out the tax return correctly – an endless to-do list.
Often, by the time of arrival, refugees are morally exhausted, traumatized by all that they have experienced, disoriented, or in a depressive period or anxiety. Having help with simple bureaucratic actions and exploring a new world in these situations is priceless. Every day, someone from the support group helped us deal with all of this. We made friends with many of them and still maintain relations.
You came here with your pet dog, Spielberg. Did Rainbow Refugee help with bringing a pet to Canada?
Yes, Rainbow Refugee completely orchestrated Spielberg’s arrival. For a long time we didn’t dare to tell Chris or anyone else that we had a dog. We were worried that this might affect the decision to take our case at all. Then it turned out that this is the most common thing – to flee from a dangerous country, taking a pet. Our case is not exceptional.
Why do you think it’s important for people to support Rainbow Refugee?
I have a story about this. A few weeks ago I was sketching on Jericho Beach and a nice family sat next to me. We started a conversation and they asked me where I was from and how I came to Canada. I said I was a refugee because, you know, I have this idea that every time I don’t hide it, I kind of destroy a tiny bit of stigma around that word.
Some media tries very hard to portray refugees as a frightening, faceless crowd of freeloaders, and sometimes this affects people. But every refugee has a long, individual story behind them. It seems to me this is such a challenge – here I called myself, here I am, here is my wife, it is difficult to depersonalize us at this moment.
This nice family turned out to be very radical in their views on refugees and LGBTQ+ in particular, so I just sat there and destroyed their every assumption.
When they said that refugees come and spend money from Canadian people, I replied that we have been working since the third day of our stay in Canada and pay taxes. When they started talking about sin, I said – look, here is my wife, we have been together for many years, just like you. And when in the end they said that refugees, with their low-paying jobs, increased the financial burden on the state system during the pandemic, I shrugged my shoulders and said that it was at this time that we launched our business.
Do you know why I’m so bold? Why I can afford to stand in front of skeptical people and lay out all these crushing arguments in front of them?
Because how quickly we found a job, integrated into the local community, spoke English and created our company is the result of Rainbow Refugee and our support team’s work in the first year.
Every minute of the work of volunteers who helped us overcome frustration in the bureaucratic part of our process and in adapting to life in Canada, every donated dollar – all this was spent so that we could take language courses, plan and build our new life without paralyzing fear that tomorrow we will be thrown out on the street in an unfamiliar country.
Being a sponsored refugee is a privilege that gives you the greatest head start on integrating into Canadian society. The first year with a support group for a refugee is as important as the first year of a baby in the mother’s arms.
We had a rare chance to find out what it is like to be taken care of so that you can become a conscientious and resourceful member of society. It’s priceless.
As we grow, we will try to help others in the same way that all these people have helped us.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the organization or your experience?
You know, the hardest part about the refugee process is suspense. You drop everything and go on a journey without a return ticket, with no guarantees of a happy ending. Often this means that all family and friendship ties are cut off, you have to reconsider everything that you knew, and you yourself have to go through a serious test.
I used this metaphor in an open letter to fundraising participants a couple of years ago, and I will repeat it now, because I still don’t know how to describe the refugee process any better. Imagine that you’re a trapeze acrobat under a circus dome performing a trick for the first time in complete darkness. You swing, unclench your hands and fly into the unknown. You don’t know if there is another trapeze at the end of your route or if you can grab it. There is an abyss below you.
Rainbow Refugee are the people who pick you up in the middle of the flight in this complete darkness and literally carry you to your final destination in their arms. Someone turns on the flashlight and someone grabs your wrists for you to complete the trick.
Natasha and I wish no one ever has to experience such a flight. But for this we need some other world, probably.
Finally, we would like to end on a fun note. This is a queer, nerdy blog! If you could choose to have one super power, what would it be?
Natasha says that she would like to fly like a superhero, and I would like to have an Incinerate Look. In some life situations, this could be a very useful skill! Although in Canada it would be of little use to me. This country is inhabited by some absolutely amazing people.
Well, and we both would like the main superpower – that our English becomes as good as our Russian, so guys, many of you have one important superpower, you just don’t realize!