Imagine yourself a transsexual refugee fleeing a country where you will be persecuted, possibly murdered, because of your gender preference. You arrive in this country only to run afoul of immigration services. In detention, you suffer abuse from other inmates. You can’t afford legal representation, you have no cash or visitors, and you fear further gender-based violence if you are ever released or deported.
Jamila Hammami, a queer non-binary first generation Tunisian Arab-American of color, doesn’t have to imagine this kind of scenario – she deals with it every day, along with other heart-wrenching travails experienced by incarcerated immigrants and detainees across the gender spectrum. Growing up in Texas near the Mexican border, Jamila, who is now founder and Executive Director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Program (QDEP), often witnessed racially motivated violence. As a child, she watched as neighborhood women were picked up in immigration raids and separated from their families.
A survivor of police brutality, Jamila once faced criminal charges that could have resulted in a 10-year prison sentence – had she not accumulated savings for college tuition, which enabled her to hire a lawyer. Her friends and family have had similar experiences: a cousin was recently sentenced on drug charges at the age of 17, and will spend most of the rest of his life in prison.
QDEP was founded in the living room of Jamila’s Brooklyn apartment in 2014, with a hotline that went directly to their cell phone. The group provides post-release support, detention center visitation, direct service, and community organizing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, Two Spirit, Trans, Intersex, Gender Non-Conforming and HIV-positive immigrant prisoners and their families in the tri-State area, as well as those at risk for entering detention centers. Its work involves providing access to health care including mental health care, substance abuse treatment, ESL classes and work authorizations. “Our goal is to not just provide support, but to empower people to do what they want to do when they get out,” Jamila says.
Incarcerated immigrants, particularly transsexuals and queers, are targeted both by their peers and guards for sexual violence, and are more likely to be put in solitary confinement. Those with HIV may further be denied access to medication, and transgendered people often don’t receive their prescribed hormone treatments. “Sometimes we have to work against the clock to get people the medical help they need,” Jamila says.
A particularly frustrating aspect of QDEP’s work is working inside various detainment centers and correctional facilities, where rules change and paperwork gets lost on a routine basis. Agencies can shut down visitations randomly. Success depends upon understanding the regulations, while keeping a low profile. “We try to stay as under the radar as possible,” Jamila says. As a result, she learned early on to take “expert” legal advice with a grain of salt. “In one case, we had a man who was told he would never win his asylum case because he was bisexual.” Instead, with QDEP’s help, he won the case, and is now free to live his life, while also being an active participant in QDEP activism.
Jamila considers herself fortunate to live in the “free world” where she was able to move to New York, graduate from Hunter College with a degree in ‘Community organizing social work’ and a specialization in ‘Immigrants and refugees.’ She is currently an adjunct professor and social work field instructor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. It was, in fact, while earning a bachelor’s degree that Jamila met inmates who had been relocated to different prisons during Hurricane Katrina. Upon their release, they found themselves trying to make a new life in a city they had never known before. She taught literacy and how to earn a GED to people who had been incarcerated most of their lives. “I couldn’t imagine the reality,” Jamila adds, “of trying to start the next chapter of their lives in New York City alone – I know this from experience.”
Today, QDEP employs two staff people and a corps of 20-30 volunteers who answer the hotline, accompany folks to New York City’s Department of Human Resources Administration to fill out paperwork, find legal representation, and posting bonds. “We do risky work, and NYWF took a risk by funding us. We were incredibly fortunate to have them as one of our first supporters,” Jamila recalls. Additionally, Jamila has contributed chapters to numerous books about intersectional politics and queer migration, and received awards from the National Association Of Social Workers, the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, the New York City Council LBGT Caucus 2017 Champion and StepFeed, a Dubai-based digital platform focused on delivering news coverage to Arab millennials. One of her favorite activities, in fact, is reaching out to students at universities, high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. “I became politically active at the age of 14, when 9/11 happened,” she recalls. “For me to be able to speak to people who are currently at the same age as I was then is just wonderful.”
This is the third in a number of upcoming articles of our new series, IN FOCUS: Eye on Changemakers, a collaboration between Women’s eNews and The New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF), to shed light on some of New York City’s most inspiring women-led non-profit organizations dedicated to empowering women and girls of diverse racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.
About the Author: Catherine Wald is a contributing writer and editor at Women’s eNews. She has written for Woman’s Day, The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Writers Digest and Poets & Writers, and has provided article, presentation and speechwriting services to corporations such as Pepsi and Ernst & Young. Recipient of numerous grants to lead creative writing workshops in the tri-state area, she is a published poet and translator, and author of, The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph (Persea Books, 2005).