Both sides of the fence

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Drawing done by a 9-year-old from Sri Lanka who lives in the IDC in Bangkok, Thailand.

The IDC (Immigration Detention Center) visit did not go as I had imagined.

Bjorn and I went to the IDC as part of a service project. People are held at the IDC for a variety of reasons, including: they have overstayed their visa and don’t have enough money to pay the fees; they are refugees; they are illegal immigrants. The idea behind a visit is to help reunite families. In the IDC, men and women are kept in separate sections. Whole families are taken to the IDC, which means that husbands, wives and even children, are separated from each other. Families are reunited just once a month, when the IDC holds a Family Day.

However, a loophole exists: Visitors to the IDC can ask for a specific detainee; consequently, two visitors (like Bjorn and I) can ask to visit 2 specific people (e.g. a married couple), making it possible for the otherwise separated husband and wife to meet up in the visitors’ area and see each other more than once a month.

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Me at the IDC counter submitting a request to visit a detainee on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Yes, that is a mangosteen-print dress.

In my mind’s eye, this is how I saw it play out:
SCENE: Inside the visitor’s area, which is a large, airy, bright, open room or yard with tables where detainees and their visitors can sit down and talk.

Bjorn and I walk in, find the people we’re supposed to visit. We exchange greetings and make small talk for a few minutes, then quietly retreat into the background as the couple turn to each other and hug, tears streaming from their eyes, overwhelmed to be reunited once again. They whisper sweet nothings to each other, oblivious to everyone else around them. Then they exchange news about what’s been happening to them since they last saw each other, eyes only on each other, clasping hands.

Either that or they make out.

In any case, they have totally forgotten about Bjorn and I, but we are happy knowing that we have reunited a family and need no other acknowledgement, content to sit quietly in a corner, hands folded in our laps, wearing benevolent smiles on our faces.

END SCENE

Of course, the reality was much, much different.

At the IDC, we are taken to a vistors’ area which indeed is a large room, but is not overly bright or airy. Fluorescent light beams down into a room that feels as drab and dreary as the dirty gray concrete floor. A pair of wire fences, with a gap about a foot and a half wide between them, runs almost the entire length of the room, dividing it in half. The detainees are on one side of the room; visitors on the other side. Dozens of people line the fences, shouting through them and across the gap in an attempt to hold conversations. As you can imagine,  it’s a raucous place, with the cacophony bouncing off floors and walls at almost deafening levels.

We find the married couple we came to “visit,” V and D. They are a quiet Hmong couple from Vietnam. We stand across from each other, smile, exchange greetings and names. I take an expectant step backwards, sure that they must want this time to converse with each other instead of some stranger. However, they remain standing at the fence, holding onto it and staring at me. I shift forward again.

“Erm, sooo…” I begin, grasping for questions that they can understand and that I deem are polite enough.

I feel like I’m on an awkward first date. Plus, it’s so loud, they can barely hear me, even when I’m shouting as loud as I can. (Yes, me! Really!) Bjorn is having no such trouble. He’s conversing easily, asking the questions I was too scared to ask: How are you? What do they feed you? How long have you been here?

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Drawing done by a 6-year-old from Vietnam who lives inside the IDC in Bangkok, Thailand.

Jammie, I think to myself, practice what you preach. Take the focus off yourself. Put yourself in their shoes.

And really, it’s not that hard. The fences and sides of the room are nearly identical. It’s easy to imagine I’m on the wrong side of the fences, that I have been detained and they are coming to visit me. If not for that visa-run to Laos, it could’ve been me.

I start to relax, and instead of standing politely back, I hang onto the fence, too. I ask about their families, they teach me a greeting in Hmong (Noh zhang, I believe it was). With everyone side by side, conversations overlap, start to meld. We talk with other detainees:  one woman is from Russia, another from Cameroon and she leads out religious activities inside the center.

Some encounters are comical. Bjorn starts up a conversation with a jovial giant of a man from Hungary.
“I have a family, but it’s hard to leave the Thai girlfriend,” he roars.
He spots me besides Bjorn, motions toward me with his head and says good-naturedly, “You know — you know.”
“I’m not Thai,” I sputter/squeak, flabbergasted. But the Hungarian giant fails to notice my reply, or the wedding ring I am wearing.

Others are not. A man from Pakistan asks me to pray for him and his family,  of which he says 35 members are in the detention center, including children. He introduces me to two of them; the girl looks to be about 5, the boy about 10, around the same age as my oldest nephew.

As we leave, one of the trip’s organizers (a fascinating woman with an even more incredible backstory—more on her later) lets me look through a packet of pictures that children in the prison have drawn. She lets me keep a few.

They are colorful and bright. Except for one, it’s all red and gray. The objects look like bricks and stones falling, like a wall coming down.

It’s so different from the other pictures in the pack. What was the young artist trying to portray? Is it an event that has already occurred, or is it something the artist is hoping for in the future?

It’s a picture that makes me think:  about what it must be like to be a child, growing up within concrete walls; about the people we just visited, how they stood at the fence so patiently, holding onto it so tightly, their desire to connect with people from the outside world so patently obvious. And I think about myself — shy, hesitant and slow to open up to them.

Let the walls fall down.

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6 thoughts on “Both sides of the fence

  1. What an incredible story tsister and how amazing that despite the awkwardness you felt God still used you to help the people there. You are an instrument for His work. Never forget that!! I pray for you both everyday 🙂

    • Thanks tsister! I’m constantly amazed at how God can use anything (or anyone) and that the smallest actions can have unforeseen, larger consequences. Thanks especially for the prayers! Rab yoo 🙂

  2. Well done. I admire the work you are doing. These experiences widen your horizon and make you grateful for what you’ve got and make you humble.

    • Hi Inger, it doesn’t hurt that Bjorn and I have an example or two of service-minded people that we can look up to. 😀 It is so true what you said about these experiences. What surprises me is the degree to which these experiences do that. I’m really grateful that we’re on this trip.

  3. Great stories. As I read your posts Jammie, I’m wondering if you’re writing fiction or if this is real!! The Hungarian guy is hilarious and still believes you’re Thai no matter how you may have wanted to protest. I hope Bjorn didn’t nod and agree in solidarity. haha So glad you’re doing good for people who are in really scary circumstances. The only scarier (unimaginable) place I can imagine is a detention center in the U.S!

    They say that how you treat your immigration population is reflective of what kind of society you live in – wish more countries started to live by that creed and treat people with respect and dignity.

    • Hi Vishnu! Ya, sometimes I’m in disbelief over some of the things that happen to us, too. One time we took a nap in Lumphini Park and woke up to see a monitor lizard inches from Bjorn’s head. True story.

      When I asked Bjorn why he didn’t defend my honor, he said he hadn’t heard him. Humph. Although, it was really loud in there, so I guess I’ll let him slide. 🙂

      I’ve never been to a detention center in the U.S. but I imagine you are right! The detainees in the Thai IDC didn’t look like they were being mistreated: they were clean, didn’t look like they were starving and seemed fairly healthy, although I’m pretty sure being detained is not a pleasant experience. I felt the most sorrow for the children that were in there. It just seem so unfair, but where can they go if their parents are there?

      And I’m in total agreement with you about setting an immigration policy that is based on respect and dignity!

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