What We Can Learn from Asylum Seeker in Detention

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Detainees are happy to share even from behind bars

Only a few people know about asylum seekers, their experiences and their daily lives in the immigration detention center. After thousands of kilometers on perilous journey in search of safety and a better life, they are deprived of their freedom, locked in behind bars for long periods of time. Only a few people understand the reason for their arrival and their presence here. Asylum Seekers are often regarded as difficult.

Actually, Asylum Seekers are persons of love and generosity, who deserve our attention and care. My experiences with them in the detention center demonstrate how Asylum Seekers themselves remain capable to relate in the spirit of sharing and solidarity in spite of their limited access and freedom.

When commemorating Naw Ruz (a traditional Persian New Year), detainees of Afghanistan and Iran collected money to buy four goats. They asked Detention Center staff to help them slaughtering those goats and distributing the meat to the villagers living around the detention center. They themselves did not take any piece of meat. According to Hasheem Ahmadi, there is no reason for them not to provide sacrificial meat even though they are in a difficult situation. “For us it is a kind of obedience and sacrifice. This kind of sacrifice had done by sharing to others. It is our custom.”

On a similar occasion, the commemoration of Lailatul Qadar (the Night of Virtue) during the months of Ramadan, Asylum Seekers of Afghanistan and Iran bought food and drinks to share with all other detainees. Sharing is the main spirit of their celebration.

The spirit of sharing was shown too by Sri Lankan detainees while celebrating Citthirai Puthandu (their traditional New Year) in April 2013. At first, the Detention Center officers did not allow them to celebrate the festivities because it coincided with a Sunday, the day off for detention center officers. Anyway, the Sri Lankan detainees celebrated it in a solemn and simple way, by making hot coffee and giving it to all detainees in their cells. When detention center officers allowed them to have a celebration, some Sri Lankan detainees cooked traditional meals and then all other detainees and Detention officers enjoyed meals together.

They also show the spirit of sharing in daily activities. A common practice of detainees in the detention center is that those who are allowed to do activities outside their cells will help others who are locked behind bars. I observed how those outside the iron bars joyfully help those inside their cells, for example by hanging clothes to dry, bringing drinking water, asking immigration officers to turn on the bathroom water, or just helping to deliver messages to detainees in other cells. It is an inspiring practice of the spirit of serving each other without considering their different backgrounds.

Asylum Seekers who are locked behind bars have shown their great and outstanding generosity. In the midst of their difficult situation, they still care for others they never met before. Physically, the iron bars cut them off from the outside world. Previously, the world they knew was very wide, but now their world is only an area of several square meters. For some of the Asylum Seekers of Afghanistan, their previous world was the busy city of Kabul, the beautiful lake of Gargha as depicted by Khaled Hosseini in his novel The Kite Runner, a wide world stretched from Herat in the west to the Hindu Kush mountains in the east that historically were once a part of legendary Silk Road. For the people of Iran and Iraq, their world is as wide as the imagination depicted in the story of Arabian Nights. For the people of Sri Lanka and the Rohingya from Myanmar the outside world is a place of hope, holding the promise of recognition and a better life.

Now, what they see everyday are only the bars of their cells. There is no difference between day and night. What they encounter day to day are only a dozen of officers in dark blue uniforms who deliver food, the blare of a siren which signals that some of them are allowed to get fresh air for a while or signals them that it is time to go back to go back behind bars, other than that there is silence and the spotlights at night looking into the dark corners of the detention center. For most of the detained it is a difficult time. For some it is an episode of life they have to endure.

No one can change their solidarity and their engagement to the world around them. The narrow world of detention, nor the wide world outside the center they lost contact to, nor the situation in their home countries. People around here are brothers like those left behind in their homeland. That is what I feel when they welcome us with a strong warm embrace, praying for our salvation, or when sharing a box of milk. It is compassion that motivates them to donate their blood, or to be friendly to and share what they have with the officers who accompany them day and night. If the asylum seekers from far away, who have never known us before, are willing to share their heart and love even in these difficult circumstances, then this should be encouragement for us to get to know them and care for them. ***

Saefudin Amsa

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