Sergii Pyvovarenko, 33, a former member of Ukraine’s national boxing team, dreamed of being a champion boxer since he was a child.
He put those dreams on hold to seek asylum in the U.S. after his life was threatened by an ultra-nationalist militia group in Ukraine. After spending eight months in immigration detention, he won his asylum case on Thursday and hopes to continue his career as a boxing coach, training the next generation of U.S. champions.
“I would like to represent this country in an honorable way if given the opportunity,” Pyvovarenko said through a translator in an interview at Imperial Regional Detention Facility a few days before his asylum hearing. “Just the way I represented my country, I am ready to prove myself here in my new country.”
Pyvovarenko was kidnapped and beaten by the members of Right Sector in summer 2015. According to Ukrainian media, he and a friend were ambushed outside his friend’s house, and Pyvovarenko was taken away and tortured.
When his attackers found out that police had been alerted, they left him and he was able to crawl for help, according to Pyvovarenko’s attorney, Elizabeth Lopez, executive director of the Southern California Immigration Project.
Ukrainian media reported that police didn’t do much to pursue Pyvovarenko’s attackers. Pyvovarenko said that Right Sector has a lot of influence on government officials and the police.
Lopez has pictures that someone took shortly after the attack. One photo showed Pyvovarenko’s backside, from mid-thigh up to almost the top of his pelvis, blackened by the beating. Knife marks and bruises were scattered across his left shoulder and mid-back. He also had marks on his wrists from handcuffs grinding into his skin.
Ukrainian media covering the attack expressed confusion at why Pyvovarenko was ambushed by a Ukrainian nationalist group when he spent his boxing career representing the country.
Pyvovarenko said he was targeted because he was born in Crimea, an area of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia in 2014.
The last boxing match he was offered, he said, was against Danny Williams, a British boxer who once defeated Mike Tyson. Pyvovarenko didn’t accept the match because it would have been held in Crimea, where he would have been forced to compete under a Russian flag, he said.
“Boxing should be outside politics,” he said.
When asked if he ever had a boxing nickname, he said no.
“This was a national team,” Pyvovarenko said. “We only had one nickname, Ukraine. That’s it.”
Pyvovarenko grew up without a father and began boxing at age 11 as a way to feel strong instead of little and weak, he said.
His mother still lives in Crimea. Pyvovarenko worries about her safety and about his older sister. He didn’t want to say where his sister lives now out of fear that she, too, might be attacked.
Beyond his coaching aspirations, Pyvovarenko hopes to compete again. With the time he lost in pursuit of asylum, he said, that will not happen quickly.
“I have to do a lot of hard work,” Pyvovarenko said from detention. “I have to retrain myself from anew. I workout daily here but that’s not enough to go in the boxing ring.”
While he was detained, he led workouts Monday through Saturday for anyone who wanted to train with him. Fellow detainees called him, “Coach.”
He decided to come to the U.S. for two reasons, he said. Pyvovarenko admires the U.S. as a strong country that takes care of its citizens, and he has a friend in Los Angeles who urged him to come and agreed to help him. His friend gave him money to fly to Cancun and then up to Tijuana.
Pyvovarenko was illegally turned away by border officials three times, he said, before he was processed for his asylum claim.
Under U.S. law and international treaties, border officials do not have the authority to reject asylum seekers but rather must pass them along to asylum officers, who determine whether their claims seem to be valid. If they pass, asylum seekers present their cases in immigration court. If they don’t, they’re sent back to their home countries.
Since at least summer 2016, some asylum seekers have accused officials along the Southwest border of refusing to follow the process. Several organizations filed a lawsuit in July over concerns that officials had denied many the ability to seek asylum.
Pyvovarenko said he tried crossing at ports of entry from Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali. Each time, he said, officials told him, “No.”
At some of the ports, he said, officials pointed to their guns and then the exit to indicate that he was not welcome.
When asked about asylum seekers’ claims of being turned away, Customs and Border Protection said its officers follow the law.
Pyvovarenko didn’t know where to go or what to do, and he was determined to find a way to ask for asylum. Each time he was turned down, he headed east. On his second try at a port between Mexicali and Calexico, officials took him for processing.
“I am a rather strong guy, so I wouldn’t give up,” Pyvovarenko said. “I’d walk from one ocean to the other on foot.”
Despite the obstacles he encountered at the border, his perception of the U.S. didn’t change, he said.
“I deeply respect the U.S.,” he said. “I used to be a patriot of my country. I still am. I know the perception of one’s country can’t be changed by some not-so-good people.”
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