In Memory of Sylva Tukula from her friend and LGBT+ activist Evgeny Shtorn

A beautiful tribute to Sylva from her friend Evgeny Shtorn who was living in the same Direct Provision Centre in Galway.

Sylva Tukula, her hair pulled to the side in dreads, smiles at the camera

On June 4, the LGBT+ community as well as residents of Direct Provision centres across the country were shocked by the news that Sylva Tukula, who passed away last August, was buried quietly in a graveyard in Galway without her loved ones being informed. Evgeny Shtorn, a sociologist and LGBT+ activist from Russia, was living with her in the same Direct Provision centre. He shares here a beautiful and heartfelt tribute.

The very first evening I was transferred to Galway, I knew I wouldn’t be alone. As soon as the elevator doors opened, I saw Sylva leaning on the reception desk talking to an administrator. She looked at me with suspicion and suddenly beamed, opened her arms and hugged me tightly. We had already met. The National LGBT Federation (NXF) had organised workshops to conduct a study of LGBT+ migrants – this is where Sylva and I got to know each other.

“Will you live here now? Congratulations!” Sylva said smiling.

“Yes, I’m so glad. You can’t imagine how bad I was in the place where they sent me first.”

“Can’t I imagine? I can imagine it very well. I went through it all. I didn’t get here right away either, you can’t imagine how much I was struggling to get here. But here you will be fine”.

“Sylvester wants to stay in Galway forever. He says that this is the best city in Ireland,” the administrator said.

Although the administrator spoke of her in masculine terms, it didn’t hurt her at all. The lush dreadlocked mane, which she tied up when she didn’t like something, remained calm. Usually, if Sylva didn’t like something, she couldn’t hide it. “I am here only in the morning and in the evening, I am very busy all day. I meet friends, and then I study to be a chef. Sometimes I just walk around the city. I feel good here”.

Going outside for a smoke, Sylva came out and whispered in my ear. “The main thing to beware of are these boys”. She pointed discreetly to a group of young guys who smoked nearby. “Stay away from them. They laughed at me, but the manager sorted it out. Now they bypass me. But do not approach them. Find an occupation for yourself, come here only to spend the night. Otherwise, you go mad. Do not let this place become your life. Volunteer, work, just sit on the street if it doesn’t rain, but most importantly, do not stay here”.

“Thank you, Sylva. Listen, I would like to clarify. I remember from the workshop that you prefer to talk about yourself in the feminine, but I heard them refer to you in the masculine. Tell me what’s best?”

“The best is not to talk about me at all. But here they refer to me as ‘him’, and outside as ‘her’. It does not bother me”.

At breakfast I saw a lot of guys sitting in the canteen. The hostel was completely male. In the far corner of the canteen, Sylva was solemnly sitting, next to her was a handsome, pumped-up guy, and a man in his 40’s who was telling them something with enthusiasm. Sylva regally nodded. A handsome young African guy came into the canteen. Sylva scolded him for appearing so late. He guiltily frowned. “He scolds us all if we wake up late”, said the pumped-up guy. “Sylva is our mother!” joked the other.

“Oh no, God forbid me such children. I do not want my children to be refugees,” Sylva laughed.

At the beginning of August, my neighbour flew into my room, he was pale and his hands were shaking. He dragged me to the door. Our narrow lane was flooded with people, almost all the inhabitants of our hostel surrounded a long black car. I could not understand what was happening. I saw that there was a coffin in the car. It was a hearse. Behind the hearse I saw a police car. And on the outskirts of our lane, I noticed another one. I saw one Lebanese guy with whom we sometimes chatted in the canteen. He doesn’t speak English very well, but he understands a bit.

“What happened, my friend?” I asked.

“This man died, your friend like woman. You always breakfast together”. He made a gesture with his hands as if the man had long hair.

“Sylva?” I didn’t believe my ears.

“Don’t know his name”, he shrugged.

I was gripped by horror. I saw the man in his 40’s from breakfast crying, covering his face with his hands, the pumped-up guy tightly gripped his shoulder.

 

In the morning I saw different statements by various activists in connection with the death of Sylva – “A transgender woman died in a fully male Direct Provision Centre.” All these statements were full of insinuations, distortions, manipulations and even lies. I could not have imagined that this incident would receive such wide publicity, and even more so that they would try to appropriate this death. It became unbearable to me because I had only thought last night that she was alive, and this morning I read political statements about her death, statements from people who most likely did not meet her.

But no, I will not give one trimmed nail for this rotten and terrible Direct Provision system. No, I will not speak in its defence because it is inhumane. Because adults, full-fledged people, are deprived of the right to choose where and with whom they live, when and where to have sex. 

Activists continued to complain that Sylva died in terrible conditions. The LGBT+ community more accurately stated that the cause of death is still unknown and expressed condolences to everyone who knew her. 

She was selective in her friends, but in her own way she was sweet to everyone. She loved this city by the sea, she found friends among the LGBT+ community. She was a star, a real diva. She was Sylva outside and he was Sylvester inside the hostel. She managed to be herself in this complex and ambiguous world.

A lot of residents came together to the Teach Solais LGBT+ community centre to say farewell. Regardless of their beliefs and backgrounds they were listening to each other and crying. If you were to ask them how they feel about LGBT+ people, you more likely would hear the full range of insults and hate speech. But they came to this centre and they mourned Sylva quite sincerely, because she was separated in their consciousness from sexuality, or rather her sexuality was separated for them from her personality. She was Sylva, just Sylva. Unusual, funny, curious, strict but kind, a person who cannot be hated, because one morning she would give you a delicious cake impossible to refuse.

I said a few words that day about Sylva. Not because I thought that I had the moral right to talk about her, but because I was terribly angry at this attempt to appropriate her memory. Stumbling and choosing the words with difficulty, I said: “She was incredibly full of life. Her body could not support it. When she died, she was still alive for all of us at least one day more. She remained alive at the time when her body was cooling off in a locked room in the Direct Provision centre. And it was precisely this tremendous life force that made her equally Sylvester and Sylva – a refugee and citizen of Galway, a naive teenager and a very sophisticated experienced person.

“She died early, but she managed to live many lives in different worlds and statuses. She was a diva, a sorceress, a nurse, she was herself and therefore she did not have the right or wrong gender, colour or culture. She was open to the world and knew how to reflect it in herself. And therefore, mourning her, we all envy her a little. We have always envied her a bit. Her will to freedom, her ability to transform this life, push the boundaries, change reality, always remain decent and courageous, even when she was incredibly scared, when everything inside her quivered, and her chest ached with despair and pain. She was in a hurry to live, because she always felt that her heart was naughty, unreliable, and could get tired of her at any moment. And it got tired. Goodbye Sylva, many of us will truly miss you.”

I saw my roommate in the last row. Most likely, he didn’t understand a word of what I said, but he sobbed. I do not really know how to cry, and I didn’t cry either then or later, but I miss her, and sometimes it seems to me that in the morning, going down to the dining room, I will see her sitting at the table and she will give me a delicious brownie, which she made the day before.

Evgeny’s beautiful tribute was originally published in GCN’s Pride Issue 355.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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