As we recognize the many local businesses for being the Best in the Valley in this issue, as voted by our readers, it is a difficult time for businesses of all types — including this one. Realities of the economic effects of the coronavirus have not spared us, and we will be moving our publication online for many of the coming weeks. Our stories and articles will continue to be available on valleyadvocate.com, and we are establishing an e-edition that will let readers flip through pages digitally, just as they would for a paper Advocate. Please stay engaged, and we will do our best to continue to bring you vital, in depth coverage of the community — a shining example of which is Luis Fieldman’s three-part series on asylum seekers in Western Mass, which concludes in this week’s issue.
In this installment, Feldman spoke with those that are arguably among the most vulnerable people seeking asylum — transgender individuals. As has been the case throughout the series, we have created pseudonyms for the people seeking asylum. For this week, the names we are using for two of the principal people in the article are Natty and Eva. Both faced incredible hurdles including violence, sex work, harassment, sexual abuse, and in one case even rejection from their own family. But people in the Valley were ready to assist. Alla Sonder of Amherst founded the Trans Asylum Seeker Support Network, which has grown to have dozens of core volunteers along with a mailing list of hundreds who pitch in support on a less regular basis.
As we’ve seen throughout the series, asylum seekers often face incredible dangers at home, at times to their very lives, and they are not well treated by the immigration system. In Fieldman’s story this week, Natty and Eva both claimed to have been placed in solitary confinement during their detention in the United States on the basis of their being transgender. In previous weeks, a different asylum seeker we called Santiago revealed the dehumanizing way some detention guards would speak to and treat migrants that our country has locked up.
How important it is to learn that there is another way to treat individuals, spearheaded by Sonder and other local activists, including Liza Neal of the Trans Asylum Seekers Ministry Alliance and Jonathan Jenner, one of the founders of the Western Massachusetts Asylum Support Network, discussed in last week’s story. Rather than locking individuals up who have escaped danger at home, they are working to create new lives for them here in the United States, and specifically in Western Mass. Not only do these groups fundraise for fees to get asylum seekers out of detention, they also work to provide rides to critical meetings and to help asylum seekers develop life and job skills they need to adapt.
Hearing from Eva, Natty, and the other asylum seekers profiled, that effort is well spent. For the trans asylum seekers in particular, being in the Valley — and safe from mortal danger and intense persecution experienced in their home countries — they are able to be themselves and live their true identities. At the same time, they still feel the effects of the harassment they endured deeply. As Natty related to Fieldman, “To have my gender that I identify in an environment of people that is totally different. I feel safe and secure. But no matter what, my past is not erased. All the sexual abuse, the beatings, everything that I’ve suffered, all of my friends that have been murdered without justice. All this still affects me.”
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.