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A transgender war correspondent from Nevada in Kharkiv: an interview with Sarah Ashton-Cirillo

A transgender war correspondent from Nevada in Kharkiv: an interview with Sarah Ashton-Cirillo
Article by: Zarina Zabrisky

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, an American transgender journalist in Kharkiv, speaks about her seven months in Kharkiv, the role of a journalist during this war, and what every American can do to help Ukraine. A freelance journalist from Nevada based in Ukraine, Ashton-Cirillo covers Russia-Ukraine War and Las Vegas and Nevada Politics and News, as well as LGBTQ and Transgender Issues. Her work has appeared in LGBTQ Nation, The New Voice of Ukraine, The Nevada Independent, Gay Sonoma.

When did you first arrive in Ukraine and why? Did you intend to stay? What were your first impressions?

I arrived in the country on March 4, with a return plane ticket on March 21. There was no intention to stay. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I would travel to Ukraine from the EU due to some significant issues with my documents, specifically my passport, and my gender transition. I was stunned by the professionalism of the security services on the train. Here it was during the first days of the war and a transgender journalist was coming into the country with mismatched documents and yet after a thorough inspection of both my paperwork and my physical body, they let me stay on the train, without ridicule, scorn, or judgment and that was an astonishing revelation. That was the first indicator to me that this was a nation that championed individual freedom and true liberty.

The other part that jumped out immediately was the perseverance of the displaced Ukrainians in the western oblasts. They were true patriots making an incredible sacrifice.
How do you see your role and the role of the foreign press in this war? What would you recommend to other journalists covering the Kharkiv region? What are the common misconceptions?

My role is unique, it’s moved from an unbiased observer to a more active participant and that’s okay. We all make choices in journalism and as writers. Where is the line? For me, the line was seeing suffering at the border regions between Kharkiv Oblast and Russia.

I’ve done volunteer work for the military and police. I’m an appointed representative for Zolochiv Territorial District in northern Kharkiv Oblast, I assist the team at the Kharkiv Media Hub, and I’m also engaged in several other areas of Ukraine’s defense of liberal democracy against Russian fascism.  That said the role of my colleagues doesn’t have to be the same.

The media’s role is clear. Report the truth. Report the facts. In my view, this means covering Ukraine with a discerning eye while never reporting the Russian view of any story. Russia, and the Russian version of this war, is based on lies, falsehoods, and empty promises. Russia is the media world’s most discredited source, a source that doesn’t deserve the time of any credible journalist.

The foreign press too often attempts to soak up the carnage and profit off the pain of the war vs. taking on a more holistic approach to this battle for liberty and democracy. I work with the Kharkiv Media Center and it infuriates me when someone comes in, and this has happened more than once and says “take me to the front,” then when you ask what else are they interested in covering they don’t have an answer.

I’m very proud however of the hardworking reporters, from both legacy media and the myriad of talented freelancers who find sources, dig for stories, and are proof of why free speech must be protected.

What are the main challenges for you, personally?  Do you intend to return to the US after the Ukrainian victory?

The challenges include what every resident of Kharkiv has faced since the war began. Daily barrages of unfettered terrorism, terrorism that has forced me to witness more deaths than I could have comprehended, lack of basic utilities on occasion, I was without water and electricity numerous times, and the knowledge that we are dealing with an illegitimate regime led by a war criminal, who could launch a nuclear strike at any time. When added up, these are all challenges that make you understand what this fight is for and why humanity and goodness matter.

Whether I go back to the US or stay in Kharkiv is a moot question at the moment. First, we have to achieve total victory as defined by President Zelenskyy, and the citizens of this great land, and then I can focus on the future. At the end of this what is most important is that the fundamental rules of liberty are enshrined in a way that no imperialistic terrorist can threaten again.
What would be your main message to the US audience? How can people in the US help Ukraine? 
We can’t expect every American to be engaged in this war, but every American must understand this is a conflict that, fundamentally, is about the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If you support those values and those amendments then you must support Ukraine. What those across the United States, and every nation, can do is tell your elected representatives that you support Ukraine and that spending your tax dollars here is the best investment that any allied government can make right now.
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