#Pride30: Once a refugee, Bernard Cherkasov now dedicates his life to helping others

Cherkasov fled Azerbaijan with his family when was he 13. After realizing his American dream, he decided to dedicate his life to helping underserved children.
by John Paul Brammer /  / Updated 

Bernard Cherkasov, the executive director of Chicago's Cradles to Crayons, an organization that provides underprivileged children with clothes and other essentials, is well aware of how necessary his line of work is. When he was a young boy living in Azerbaijan, he was the recipient of the kind of help he now provides.

“I remember receiving a box with a winter coat and boots,” Cherkasov told NBC News. “I had that sense that no matter how hard my parents worked, they wouldn’t have found a coat like that. But someone in this world cared enough to make that happen.”

In his role at Cradles to Crayons, Cherkasov has helped make it happen for nearly 60,000 kids in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities across the country. His status as a refugee, he said, inspired him to want to give back.

At 13 years old, he and his family fled Azerbaijan and moved to Russia, then Austria, then Italy, and finally to the United States, where they relied on the kindness of strangers.

“We didn’t know where we would end up. We just kept going,” he said of those uncertain years. “Our first few meals in America, we would sit on the floor. Then slowly some other neighbors gave us a couch, and someone gave us a real table and more chairs.”

“They really wanted to show us that we’re new Americans and we were welcome, and they were rooting for us,” he added.

After he and his family settled in the Midwest, Cherkasov attained his American dream. Prior to his current role at Cradles to Crayons, Cherkasov served as CEO of Equality Illinois, the Midwest’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization. And prior to his nonprofit career, he was a corporate lawyer, holding degrees from both the University of Michigan and Harvard.

“I know the joy they feel when they get help ... because I used to be one of them.”

Cherkasov, who lives in Chicago with his husband and daughter, said his identity as a gay man has also helped him to become who he is today. He was 18 and had only been in America a handful of years when he came out to his traditional Azerbaijani family as gay.

“They didn’t know anyone else who was openly gay or what it meant,” he said. “But they said, ‘You should know I love you.’ Having the support of my parents and unconditional love was so important, and it gave me the strength to be who I am.”

Cherkasov said he is aware of recent crackdowns on LGBTQ people in Azerbaijan, and he is also aware of homelessness among LGBTQ youth in the U.S. and beyond. For him, these troubling realities are calls for the world to show kindness and to give whatever they can.

“We see so many young people suffering, and when you feel pressed against the world, when you can’t provide for yourself, every measure of support goes a long way,” he said. “We have a responsibility as a society to do all that we can.”

Decades after Cherkasov received a box with a winter coat and boots in Azerbaijan, a young boy named Carlos received a box from Cradles to Crayons. Cherkasov recounted the story, which was told to him by a social worker. Carlos, he said, was wearing hand-me-downs from his grandmother and aunts and was so humiliated by this that he chose to shiver in the cold rather than wear the clothes. The social worker told Cherkasov that Carlos was physically present in class but had mentally and spiritually “disappeared.”

“Once they told us what Carlos needed, we provided him with the right clothing in the right season and size ... and the social worker said next week a new kid showed up to school," Cherkasov said. “It gives me shivers."

This is the core of Cherkasov’s work, and he said he hopes to continue doing it for as long as he can.

“I know the joy they feel when they get help,” Cherkasov said, “because I used to be one of them.”

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