Ian Zdanowicz left Poland 14 years ago to escape the homophobia and transphobia in his homeland. “Especially as a trans person and as an immigrant it takes time to rebuild your life in a foreign place and culture,” says Ian. “It can be really scary and very lonely.” His search for community in the United States led him to the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) where he first became a member, then a volunteer, then a staff member, until eventually becoming co-director of the organization.
“Working at QDEP allows me to provide immediate support to newly arriving queer and trans immigrants hoping that they don’t have to do all that work from scratch to find their people and resources that they need,” says Ian. “We do our best to make sure that new members feel that they have a community here and that we have each other’s backs no matter what. That helps to alleviate feelings of isolation, loneliness, and stress related to being in immigration proceedings and having to go through so many traumatic experiences to finally arrive in New York City and then start rebuilding your life.”
QDEP aims to address the particular needs of queer and trans people during the harrowing immigration process in the United States and highlight experiences that are often overlooked by U.S. media. “Members of LGBTQIA+ community go through a lot of traumatic situations, discrimination, and violence in their country of origin before they decide to migrate,” says Ian. “Then during the travel to the Mexico/U.S. border, they are at a very high risk of the same type of violence and discrimination that they experienced in their country that they are fleeing from.”
Arrival in the United States does not mean an end to discrimination and violence for those seeking asylum. Trans people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are sent to detention facilities that correspond to their sex assigned at birth and not their gender identity. Because of the sexual and physical violence trans women are often subjected to when housed in men’s units, ICE frequently locks these women up in solitary confinement, sometimes for months, for their “safety.” This time in profound isolation, compounded by the traumas already experienced to that point, takes a heavy toll on their mental health.
“The United States is one of few rich Western countries that incarcerates asylum seekers and does not provide them with governmental support while they are in the asylum proceedings,” Ian said. “The United States does not provide special protections for LGBTQIA+ immigrants and that is why the work of building powerful, inclusive, and fearless immigrant communities and LGBTQIA+ communities is so important.”
QDEP has been a UUSC partner organization since 2017. UUSC supports QDEP’s direct services program, which assists LGBTQIA+ immigrants in ICE detention as well as those newly released with rent, grocery, and utility support. UUSC has also been partnering with QDEP for the past three years on a leadership development program for trans women, cis queer women, and gender non-conforming folks who are impacted by the immigration system.
“[This program] helped uplift amazing community members who are now becoming leaders of the movement to abolish ICE, and fight transphobia and homophobia as well as sexism,” says Ian. “We are so very grateful to UUSC for all their work and continued support. We wouldn’t be here without them.”
Ian goes on to say, “I believe that love, care, and solidarity make our lives possible and make our communities powerful and soft at the same time. Love, care, and solidarity build bonds and relationships that can’t be easily destroyed by the violence and injustice. And only together, in strong unity, will we be able to abolish ICE, prisons, and other systems of domination and injustice that impact our lives.”