Ahead of World AIDS Day on 1 December, I’ve been thinking about what story I could tell. There are many to choose from as I’ve been privileged to witness the amazing work of Red Cross volunteers across Africa and Asia.
But I’d like to tell you about Boris, who I met a few months ago in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and who used to be an injecting drug user. I didn’t know this when I first met him – he was introduced to me as a volunteer, not a beneficiary, of the Kazakhstan Red Crescent’s TB and HIV programme.
However, over the course of a day, he told me his story which I began to realise represented a major problem in Kazakhstan where a growing dependence on drugs, and the sharing of needles, has resulted in an increasing number of HIV infections.
Like many people, Boris began taking drugs out of curiosity and he found it fun. “But I didn’t realise the consequences,” he said. “I got so involved, I couldn’t get out. I was addicted to opium. In order to get drugs I had to steal and the deeper and worse I became. I was sent to prison six times.”
Diagnosed with HIV
In February 2003, while Boris was waiting to be sentenced for robbery, he was diagnosed with HIV. “At that time I was not concerned about the verdict of imprisonment,” Boris said. “But about the verdict of the diagnosis.”
Boris, 43, had no information about HIV at the time of his diagnosis and he began to panic. “It was beyond description,” he said. “I asked the doctors how many days I had left to live. They tried to explain it to me but at the time I was deaf, I couldn’t understand them. They tried to counsel me but I was numb.”
When Boris was sent to prison around 120 of 1,500 inmates were living with HIV and they were separated from the other prisoners. Although things have improved, stigma remains a huge issue, affecting people’s daily lives.
The Kazakhstan Red Crescent programme, which is supported by the British Red Cross, is working hard to help people understand more about the disease and so reduce discrimination.
In 2011, Boris was released and he went to the AIDS centre where he bumped into Oksana, a Red Crescent social worker.
“I’d heard about the peer support groups but I thought it would be very formal, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go,” Boris said. “Then Oksana passed me on the stairs and asked if I could help carry up some boxes to the session she was running. I went along and found out the people were normal and very friendly.”
As well as the emotional support Boris found from the support group, he received help from a Red Crescent lawyer in renewing his ‘propriska’, which is the official registration card that gives people access to state services such as health care. Many ex-prisoners struggle to register when they leave prison and it’s particularly difficult if documents have gone missing, or if someone has migrated from a different region.
Boris described how the HIV diagnosis made him re-evaluate his decisions and stop the cycle of drugs and crime. “I kept replaying my life in my head like it was a movie,” he said. “All my values began to change and I started to think about family and wanting to have a sweetheart and children. Now, I wake every morning and I think good I’m alive, and I enjoy the sunshine. If there had not been so much trouble in my life I would not have become so happy.
“I can’t describe how much the Red Crescent has helped me. Since getting involved in the support group I learned so much and I met great guys who’ve become very close friends. More and more I began to realise this is what I need, and how I can be helpful.
“Now I’ve become a volunteer to help others. The people who desperately need support and assistance – me and others like me, we don’t always trust people like doctors. But peer to peer is a different story, there’s more trust.”
During five days in Kazakhstan, I heard many stories from volunteers like Boris – each unique, sometimes tragic and often inspiring – but one thing I noticed was the passion of the volunteers who, time and again, turned out to be former beneficiaries of the programme. Which really, I think, says it all.
Read more stories from people living with HIV