‘Eternally grateful for the kindness they’ve been shown’: Russian transgender refugee reunited with husband at MSP Airport

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Ivan Beda’s wish list after his release from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center included a Quarter Pounder from McDonald’s, a SIM card for his cell phone, and a new pair of sneakers, T-shirts and underwear.

At the top of his list, however, was a hug from his husband, Erik Beda.

All of Beda’s wishes came true this weekend in Minneapolis after he landed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport early Saturday morning. The men, both 36, fled Russia in December for Mexico and had been separated since March 20.

About a dozen people gathered to celebrate the reunion, which occurred around 12:40 a.m.

“I was very surprised and deeply touched by everything,” Ivan Beda said. “It was so nice and so sweet. I still feel very awkward. I am not used to such nice and kind attention from people.”

Erik Beda is transgender, which is illegal in Russia. He arrived at the MSP Airport on March 22 from Phoenix with nothing but a small plastic bag containing his Russian passport and other paperwork.

Ivan Beda was released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Folkston, Ga., on Friday. ICE officials put him on a bus to Jacksonville, Fla., and he then caught a Delta flight to Minnesota via Atlanta.

The couple, who were featured in a front-page story in the Pioneer Press in April, left Russia on Dec. 23, flying to Istanbul and then on to Mexico City. After two months in Mexico, they crossed the border into Arizona and were detained there.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not keep Erik Beda in detention due to an inability to house a transgender person, medical needs (hormones) and liability. He was provided travel from Phoenix to Chicago to MSP.

Ivan Beda, who was transferred to the ICE Processing Center in Georgia, got word on Thursday that he was going to be released the next day.

“The ICE officer came to Ivan and said, ‘I have good news. Get a plane ticket,’” said John Pundsack, a Travelers Assistance volunteer who has been helping the couple since Erik Beda arrived in Minnesota. “The immigration attorney (we hired) talked to the people at ICE, and all agreed he was in there long enough, and that they just needed to let him out on parole.”

Ivan Beda, left, and Erik Beda visit the Como Conservatory in St. Paul on Monday, June 3, 2024. The men were reunited early Saturday morning, June 1, 2024, at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The couple fled Russia in December and had been separated since March 20, 2024. Erik Beda is transgender, which is illegal in Russia. (Courtesy of John Pundsack)

A GoFundMe online fundraiser for the couple organized by Pundsack’s husband, Joe Briol, has raised more than $16,000.

“With all of the help from our generous donors, we were able to hire an immigration lawyer to help negotiate Ivan’s release, and we were able to pay for his ($579 one-way) plane ticket to Minnesota,” Briol wrote on Monday.

The couple, who had to get divorced in Russia when Erik Beda began transitioning, intend to get married again. They are planning a small wedding with a “picnic in a park” to follow, Pundsack said. Once they are legally married, they can file a joint asylum case.

The couple are at an extended stay hotel this month, but are searching for long-term housing.

“That’s where we really need help,” Pundsack said. “We have been trying to find a place, but the problem is they don’t have references, and they can’t get jobs because they need work permits, but you can’t get a work permit until you file your asylum papers.”

Pundsack is hoping to find a sympathetic landlord willing to rent an apartment to the men. “We can rent a place with the GoFundMe money, but we just need a landlord who understands their situation to rent us a place,” he said.

Erik Beda has an asylum hearing set for April 2025. Pundsack and Briol, who live in Woodbury, are hoping that Ivan Beda’s court date, currently set for July 23 in Atlanta, will be combined with Erik Beda’s date.

Erik Beda said Monday that he still has difficulty believing that his husband is in Minnesota with him. “It all seems unreal to me,” he said Monday, through an interpreter.

“When we were waiting for Ivan to disembark, we saw a lot of people come through the door, and there was no Ivan, no Ivan,” Broil said. “The look on Erik’s face was like a little kid’s waiting to see Santa and then finally got to see him. It was a look of pure wonderment and pure joy, and it was just the sweetest thing. There wasn’t a dry eye at the airport.”

In his GoFundMe note, Briol wrote that he and Pundsack, a retired teacher, have been amazed by the generosity and kindness shown by friends, family and followers of Erik and Ivan’s journey towards freedom.

“Erik and Ivan have both commented that they know there are no coincidences in life, and that they are eternally grateful for the kindness they’ve been shown,” he wrote. “We appreciate any ongoing support you can provide to help give Ivan and Erik a solid foundation for starting their new life here in Minnesota.”

On Monday, the Bedas and Briol and Pundsack had lunch together at the Como Pavilion and then toured the Como Conservatory.

“I want to say how grateful I am to all of the people who have helped me — people who sent money and people who directly helped us, even to those people who just had good thoughts about us,” Ivan Beda said.

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