**NOTE: Every little bit of help you can offer refugees can make a difference, even if it seems small to you. This post is about how I had a very meaningful experience doing something very small for refugees in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center. If you want to learn how you can help refugees worldwide, you can start with the United Nation Human Rights Council Refugee Agency. If you are a US citizen, please also contact your representatives in the House and the Senate and tell them you support helping refugees.
The Syrian refugee crisis hit its media peak while we were in Bangkok. A picture of a dead little boy, washed up on the beach, and the the story of his family’s tragic flight from war covered our social media pages. People had strong reactions. Some felt for the family and called on governments to do more. Some got involved themselves and actually did something. Some people simply got offended that their friends would dare to post such a horrible picture on their news feed (how dare you make me feel sad! I am VERY SENSITIVE!!!). And the cream of the crop spun stories about how we shouldn’t feel sorry for and help the refugees because some of them might be terrorists.
It was against this backdrop that we were asked to help a Bangkok nongovernmental organization (NGO) in its efforts to aid refugees housed in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center (IDC).
The IDC is a large compound in the center of Bangkok that holds up to 1,200 people. Those held there are mostly people from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan who are awaiting United Nations refugee status to be granted to them. Many of those in the IDC flee religious or political persecution in their home countries, making it to Bangkok where they hope to quickly be granted refugee status and resettle in the E.U. or the U.S. However, receiving refugee status is a long process that may take years.
What can penniless refugees do in Bangkok for two years while they wait?
Those that have the means can get a visa which is renewable every 90 days if the person leaves the country. However, this take a significant amount of resources, and the person is not allowed to legally work in Thailand during this time. Most refugees cannot financially keep themselves afloat for long enough to get through the process.
Any people awaiting refugee status who overstay their visa and are caught are given over to the IDC. Also, many people simply run out of money for food and shelter and turn themselves in to the IDC which takes them in and “shelters” them.
The idea of having a shelter for those awaiting refugee status is an admirable one, but the IDC is severely under-equipped for the task it has taken on. I spoke with a man who runs a Catholic NGO trying to help both refugees and poor immigrants, and he explained to me that the facilities the IDC uses were never meant for as big of a task as they have taken on. The compound was supposed to be a holding place for illegal immigrants being transferred back to Myanmar. These detainees would spend only a night or two in transit.
I spoke with people living in the IDC who had been there a year.
Families in the IDC
The policies of the IDC, while at some level understandable, can make things very difficult for the families living there. For example, the living quarters are divided by sex, with men and boys in one area, and women and girls in another.
That means all families that enter the IDC are broken up.
The only way that male and female members of a family can see each other, is for all the members to have a visitor on the same day. Each day there is a one-hour period of time when visitors can come to the IDC, present the name of a detainee, and that person will be brought to a visiting area.
Because there is only one visiting area and all those with visitors are brought to the same place, if all the members of the family have a visitor, all the members of the family can come to the visiting area and see each other.
But one visitor can only submit a single name. If a family of five has only four visitors, someone is left out.
A Visit to the IDC
A woman we met in Bangkok told us about the IDC and asked if we would be interested in helping out. Since I was a family of five and also had ten students (and two non-student wives that had accompanied us) we would be able to pull quite a number of people out into the visiting area. In fact, we more than doubled what they had the previous week.
Each of us was asked to donate 200 baht (a little less than US$6) that would be used to put together a care package for the person we visited. These care packages included fresh fruits and vegetables, toiletries, and other small items such as newspapers, books, and pens. We then arranged to meet at a coffee shop across the street from the IDC.
The morning we showed up at the IDC, I have to admit we were all a little intimidated. There was a process we had to go through in order to get in. First, we needed to make a copy of the front page and the Thai visa page of our passports. A super grumpy (but very efficient) man in the copy shop next to the coffee shop took care of this for us.
You can’t just show up at the IDC and ask to visit somebody. You have to have a name and a serial number. The NGO we were working with had quite a few names and numbers and we were each assigned someone to meet. A new friend? Suddenly the experience got real for me.
How was I going to relate to this person? Would they want to share their story of hardship and woe? Or would they be silent and solemn? Was I supposed to show sympathy? Or would that seem condescending or fake? How does a professor from the US living in Hawaii and traveling for a year around the world with his family supposed to relate to someone for whom entering the IDC is the best available option? I rarely feel guilty about my amazing life, but I started to. The people I was about to meet could have ended up like the little boy, dead in the sand still partly in the sea’s grasp.
Would I want to cry? Scream? Yell? And given that I was the one that had won the lottery of life, was I allowed to feel anything? But feeling nothing didn’t seem right either. How was I supposed to feel?
And while I was standing there, thoughts spinning faster than I could process them, a Pakistani man, a preacher and an NGO worker I would later find out, stepped up to me and shook my hand. “Thank you for helping,” he said. He gave me a genuinely caring look, and then moved on about his duties.
My thoughts calmed down. I would do what I could. I decided not to try to plan, but rather to just react. I would simply go in to the IDC, and try to make a new friend.
We then crossed the street to the IDC, fought our way through a jostling crowd to a guard handing out forms, and sat to fill these forms out.
Once the forms were filled out, we presented them to a very, VERY grumpy lady. She yelled at one of my daughters when she didn’t step up and present her forms quickly enough when the person in front of her left. I was all prepared to give her a stern look when it was my turn, a “don’t-you-yell-at-my-daughter!” look. But she was really, really mean-looking! So I demurely gave her my form, prayed I hadn’t made any mistakes, and breathed a sigh of relief when she stamped my form and motioned me to get-the-heck-out. I moved along. Rapidly.
Once that was done, we had about an hour before we would be able to enter the IDC and meet our new friends. We spent the time putting together the care packages and learning about the people we would visit (based on notes of people who had previously visited).
The list of people our group was to meet with was fairly broad. Most were from Pakistan or Afghanistan, but there were a few from sub-Saharan Africa and one man from Syria. There was even an American man who had overstayed his visa and couldn’t afford to pay the fine for doing so.
When it was time to enter, we crossed back to the IDC and got in line. Women were allowed in first, and the men followed after. All bags had to be checked at the entrance. No phones or cameras were allowed in either. So I put everything except the care package I had brought into a locker. The care package I gave to a guard at the entrance. The name of my new friend was stapled to the bag, and I was assured he would receive it (I later found out there is very little corruption at the IDC and everything we dropped off for the people living there always got safely to them).
Once the care package was dropped off I stepped through a metal detector and into a large, loud, cramped room. The room was divided down the middle by two fences running parallel, about three meters apart. The two fences created a buffer space in the middle, too large to hand anything directly from a visitor to a detainee. Guards patrolled the space between the fences.
The room was loud. Really loud. Imagine a couple of hundred people, all paired off and trying to have conversations, but separated by fences and kept about three meters apart. You had to shout to be heard. But your shouting made it more difficult for the people next to you to hear what their partners were saying, so they had to shout louder. But that made it more difficult for you to hear anything, so you shouted even louder. It was a vicious circle.
It was loud. There was shouting.
I ended up making several trips to the IDC during my time in Bangkok. I visited with the American stuck from overstaying his visa. I visited with an Afghani family, the boy showing me the scars on his back and chest where the police had tortured him and telling me of how his sister was killed. I visited with a Nigerian man who was almost driven mad by a skin rash he had picked up living in the IDC.
My daughters spoke with girls their own age, and they were surprised to find how much they had in common with those girls. They talked about jewelry, and books, and TV, and school.
We all made new friends.
And then we would leave, after only 15 minutes or so of the visiting hour, because in that time the families could see each other. For the rest of my life, I will never, ever forget the tenderness with which I saw the father of the Afghani family I met put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and look at her.
And I will never, ever forget that with a mere two hours of my time I did something that meant a great deal to people who simply don’t deserve all the pain and misery they have been served. Because travel, “refugee” is no longer an abstract concept to me; now it is human.
Even what may seem like an insignificant amount of help to you can make a difference. If you are curious what you can do to help refugees, I suggest you start here.