07 Jun 2017

Meet Yana Panfilova – Our 2017 Y+ READY Fellow!

GNP+ is pleased to interview and introduce you to Yana Panfilova, our 2017 Y+ READY Fellow. Yana is the founder of the Ukrainian youth advocacy organization, Teenergizer  and a member of the Y+ READY Fellowship leadership initiative, which is a virtual platform for young emerging HIV positive leaders. READY (Resilient & Empowered Adolescents & Young People) is an emerging movement for adolescents and young people. As our new Y+ READY Fellow, Yana will spend the next 7 months collaborating with GNP+ and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance sharing and learning from peers and key stakeholders in the HIV movement around the world. Follow her journey online at the Y+ Programme on Facebook.  For more information about READY visit www.aidsalliance.org/ready

Q: Tell us a little about yourself Yana?

A: I am 19 years old now and I was born and raised in Ukraine. I was 10 years old when I discovered that I was living with HIV. My mother and I were sitting in the kitchen and she asked me, “do you know the name of disease you live with?” I was stunned. I felt healthy and wasn’t even taking any pills. I had no idea what my mother was talking about. “You live with HIV” she said. At that moment I thought, I would die soon. I had heard stories that people with AIDS die soon after they got infected.

Q: Tell us about your experiences as a young person living with HIV?

A: When my mother told me that I was HIV+ she also said that I must promise to keep it a secret. Because of that I had some fear inside, I was afraid to talk to my friends about my status because I believed that they wouldn’t understand me. Over time, I realized that I was discriminating against myself by hiding. If we say that HIV is just a disease, why do we hide? Why are we so shy to talk about it? So after that, I decided to become public about my status.  I wrote a post on Facebook that I was living with HIV and that I was ready to face any problems that this disclosure could cause. That was the start of my activism. I was involved in different movements before, but after I started to live openly with HIV I got an opportunity to change something.

Q: Tell us about the organization you founded, Teenergizer

A: At first, I was a normal teenager spending time at summer camps for HIV+ youth and hanging around with older activists. Each time we were photographed with other young HIV+ activists, we were supposed to hide our faces. That made me think, I began to imagine an organisation where HIV positive and HIV negative teenagers could work together – showing their faces. That’s how Teenergizer was started, I with the help of a like-minded group of friends and colleagues, believed that we could fight stigma and discrimination and change things together. A year after that I gave my first speech at a United Nations General Assembly meeting and launched a campaign called the  “Quest for an HIV Test”. We started working with other civil society organizations to promote, educate and train teens on HIV testing and we even created a map of 100% youth-friendly HIV-testing points and published a mobile app for HIV+ teens to help to remind them to take their pills. In the cities of Kyiv, Poltava, Kryvyi Rih, Quasan and Tbilisi, we try to make the normal life of teenagers living with HIV at least a little bit easier.

Q: Who in this movement are you most inspired by?

A: I am very inspired by Vinay Patrick Saldanha, Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  He is a good mentor for me personally and also for Teenergizer because he communicates to community members in a transparent and respectful way.  I also admire Elton John, not only for his music but also for the investment he makes towards the community. He is passionate about this work because he really believes in it, not just because he is a professional HIV advocate.  In terms of literature, I love the book ‘Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS’ by Elton John. It is a must read.

Q:  What do you want to get out of the Y+ Fellowship?

A: I am really looking forward to meeting new people and gaining new experiences to strengthen my advocacy skills but also my competencies in budgeting and project management. It is very important to me to take what I learn from this fellowship and build the capacity of Teenergezier.  I am also hoping that I can share with others my experiences living with HIV and starting my own organization in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Q:  What advice do you have to other young HIV+ people who are trying to fight against stigma and discrimination?

A: Don’t be shy. HIV is not something to be ashamed about. It is just a disease. We have treatment and we have good information – even though we still have to continue to fight for it. It was impossible for me to become an effective activist without the help of my friends. Each time I participate in a conference, meet some great people, talk to colleagues from different countries I become stronger.  I know that I am not alone. A lot of great friends help me and work with me. Sometimes, when I don’t understand what to do, they give me a hand and even the worst situation becomes better. So my best advice would be – don’t be shy.

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