Edinson Calderón receives multiple calls from other immigrants in detention centers, sometimes at his Staten Island apartment in New York City, or the office of the organization he works for, and even on the street or the Metro. He doesn't care where.
"Tell me: what time do you have to go to that appointment?" he asks them. "I can go with you ... don't worry, I'll explain everything ... calm down, let's meet, I'll help you ... I went through that too.” He can hear in their voices that they are disoriented, scared and lost.
In 2018, he was in their shoes and now he uses everything in his power to help them. “Receiving a letter when you are detained,” he says, “is priceless.”
He launched 'A letter saves a life' campaign, with which he writes messages to people held in different detention centers around the country.
Calderon received a near-fatal beating by police officers in 2014 in his country of Venezuela. He escaped and sought asylum in Panama, but was denied. He traveled to Mexico and experienced the 2017 earthquake. He crossed the border and upon arriving to the United States, he was taken into ICE custody and was placed into solitary confinement under suicide watch.
Today he works for the QDEP, an organization that helps immigrants, mainly from the LGBTQ community, to which Calderón belongs, and all those who need help. Now in New York City, he coordinates volunteers who can accompany others to appointments, trials and help newcomers navigate NYC’s subway system, get food stamps and everything that an immigrant who has just arrived in this country would need.
Cruelty in Venezuela
During the protests against the Nicolás Maduro regime on February 12, 2014, Calderón went out like so many others to protest in downtown Caracas. He says that day, "changed my life completely." He decided to join a group called 'Resistencia Altamira' that was holding peaceful protests and that put him in the crosshairs of Venezuelan’s intelligence system. One day he was labeled as a terrorist on television and on June 27 of that year he was arrested and brutally beaten at a police station.
"When they caught me, about 10 officers used my head like a ball, they stepped on my head to suffocate me, they pepper sprayed me, they rolled me in the Venezuelan flag and put me in a truck. They took me to a detention center. I was lying on the floor with another boy who was handcuffed with me. Then they took me into a room and sat me in a chair and many officers came to question me. They asked me who I worked for, who paid me. I told them that nobody paid me, that we just wanted change, for everyone. And they continued to beat me..."
The brutality got worse. “They would hit me in the eye with handcuffs, put a gun in my mouth, they told me they could kill me and make me disappear and no one was going to notice. It was very horrible, really." Calderón is also hemophiliac, which caused him to lose a lot of blood, and that aggravated his condition.
The officers eventually threw him into a truck full of common prisoners and was transferred to be evaluated by an accomplice forensic officer who said he was in perfect condition.
"Today I can tell this story, mainly because I have been healing, but before I could not tell these things," he says sitting in his bed one day in February 2020; in the apartment he shares with three other tenants in Staten Island.
That day he cooked for other visitors. One of them is another Venezuelan, who was finally released from detention, although his partner is still in detention. There is also a Mexican transgender woman who shares her migratory story and sings rancheras.
Chase and escape
Calderón was politically persecuted. His lawyers managed to transfer him to a clinic by proving his hemophiliac status and the injuries it caused. He tried to regain his job and his life but failed. Between judicial presentations he says he received harassment, "they wanted to detain me in any way possible." Then the judge who handled his case helped him flee and removed the alerts at airports for a few hours so that he could leave. And he did.
A call for salvation
Calderón was prepared to defend his case by himself, without knowing English. "But two weeks before my last (court hearing), I received a fax from Julio Henríquez." Henríquez is the international legal coordinator of Foro Penal, a Venezuelan Human Rights defense organization that defends detainees for free.
The lawyer, a Venezuelan who lives in Boston and the director of the Refugee Freedom program said that he learned about the case through social media. He decided to find out more information and take the case. He found Calderón's detention center, which at the time was Otay Mesa, in San Diego, California and got in touch.
"Julio Henríquez is a beautiful person. God gave him a huge heart. He not only traveled from Boston to San Diego, which is from coast to coast, without me paying him anything. He took my case and once I got out of detention he paid for a hotel room and gave me money to buy meals. And from that moment ... I can't thank him enough, he changed my life. "
Calderón won his asylum case and chose to live in New York City and started working with an organization in NYC called QDEP (Queer Detainee Empowerment Project).
Ian Zdanowicz, QDEP’s manager says that the organization has seen a complete change since Edinson has arrived. To start with, the attention they can give to others in Spanish. But beyond that, he talks about Edinson’s commitment to helping those in need.
Calderón receives people at the airport, works as a social worker, gives out Metro cards for the subway and bus, takes telephone calls from detention centers and offers others direct assistance.
Before the pandemic, they held meetings on Tuesdays, now they do so virtually every two weeks. The day Univision Noticias was there, in mid-February 2020, they served a special meal for all members and immigrants seeking help. Edinson Calderón led the meeting. They shared concerns and common experiences. Some just wanted to be heard, others did not want to feel so alone.
"At the time when I arrived in New York City they welcomed me and now I am the one who receives people, to give them a hug, to welcome them, to bring them happiness. I try to do what I would have wanted them to do for me," says Edinson Calderon.
If you or someone has a friend or relative in a detention center and want Edinson to write a letter, you can contact him at: email@example.com.