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.
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.
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?
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.