July 28, 2009 — It was my first visit to the Elizabeth Detention Facility  in New Jersey, one of the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s temporary holding areas for immigrants who may or may not be allowed to remain in the United States.
I didn’t know what to expect. But as a new volunteer with Sojourners , a program started in 1999 by Riverside Church to match visitors with asylum seekers to uplift their spirits during the detention period, I quickly decided to visit the facility when offered the chance.
Something in me felt drawn to it. Perhaps I was attracted by the idea of going to visit a fellow immigrant from a very different walk of life and circumstances, whose fate had turned out to be much harsher than mine.
Maybe what unsettled me was the thought that in a different place, at a different time or in a different life, I could have been one of those detainees.
And now, there I was, sitting on one of the artfully carved wooden benches in the long, stained-glass hallway inside Riverside Church in Manhattan, making small conversation with Clara*, a young woman of Dominican descent who also had just joined the program.
Five of us made the 45-minute ride to Elizabeth, just outside Newark Airport, with Pierre, our driver for the evening. We parked inside the fenced lot in front of the facility’s main entrance and walked in with no personal belongings other than some type of identification.
Inside the Detention Center
My driver’s license was traded for a visitor’s pass. Once we all were matched with one of the detainees listed on Pierre’s sheet, we passed a second security check, this time a metal detector behind the lobby’s wall.
Narrow dividers delineated the booths in the visiting area. Thick panels of plexiglas separated detained immigrants from family members, who were talking to them via old-fashioned cord phones placed in each booth. A few moments after we stepped into the visitors’ room, the detainees with whom we would be meeting were brought in from the other side.
They wore dark blue uniforms with white undershirts. I waved at them, scanning their faces, searching for clues about who might be the one I was going to meet that evening.
They smiled and exchanged glances with each other. After all, they too must have been curious wondering who their visitors were.
Abdullah Sori Balde’, my match, was a young African of medium height who stood in the front of the group, looking in my direction. The guard guided him to a booth and Pierre indicated that he was the person I had selected at the front desk.
As I sat down and leaned toward the glass to greet Abdullah, I realized how young he was. Waves of warmth, compassion, curiosity, sadness and a great tenderness ebbed and flowed within me for the whole evening.
A 19-year-old from West Africa where he had no family left, Abdullah was only 3 years older than my son. He had short hair, spaced teeth like mine, and was pleasant looking.
I picked up the phone and, pushing my face closer to the glass — almost as if in doing so he could hear me better — I said, “My name is Tiziana, what’s your name?”
“My name is Abdullah,” he replied, in what proved to be throughout the evening’s conversation quite good English.
“What brought you here?” I then said, more in shock than fully aware of power dynamics between visitors and detainees that could have put undue pressure on my new friend.
But, my tone of incredulity must have validated his own disconcertment at the way the United States receives some immigrants, because Abdullah, almost releasing pent up emotions, eagerly narrated his story. He had arrived in the United States five months earlier with a false passport obtained through a contact in his country, and was arrested at JFK. He had actually passed immigration screening, but turned himself in once he reached the customs area.
“They didn’t say anything at immigration,” chronicled Abdullah, “so when I arrived at customs, I went up to a woman there and I told her, ‘These are not my papers’.”
My reaction must have been the same as the customs officer who apparently looked astonished at Abdullah and asked, “What?!”
“‘These are not my papers’,” reiterated Abdullah. “‘It’s not my passport, somebody gave it to me’,” after which the customs agent called the immigration police who arrested him.
“Why did you do that?” I inquired. “Did you know what would happen?”
“No,” he replied quietly and matter-of-factly. “I don’t know anyone in America. I don’t know how people live. I was scared.”
His candor both pained and stunned me. Abdullah’s story, along with the choices he made that fateful day at JFK spoke of a young man who suffered abuse, with no home to go back to and who was desperate for help. Telling a custom agent the truth about his travel papers, was the only way he knew how.
I didn’t know yet if what moved me the most was his remarkable honesty or the undeterred innocence I sensed in him.
The phones didn’t always make it easy to follow the conversation and by then, it was past 7:40 p.m. and visitors had become numerous. Mothers had come in with young children who were playing and banging on the separators, but what I was able to grasp, little by little, was that Abdullah had yet to be given a chance at a decent life.
He had no relatives in his home country. Abdullah lived first in poverty and later in serfdom, when a man who used to know his father took him in and promised to provide for him and send him to school, but instead turned him into a house servant, with little access to food and clothing.
Someone helped him leave West Africa, where a man gave him a passport and a ticket to Holland. But, once there, he didn’t like the lifestyle and was confused by the cultural differences. He decided he wouldn’t be happy and, this time, left for New York.
It was when he came back to the moment of being taken at JFK, that I first caught a glimpse of Abdullah’s strong faith and sense of destiny. At some point, he mentioned that there are days in life, like the day we’re born, when we die, or when life-changing events occur that “God has reserved for us.”
“So, was the day you were arrested one of them?” I asked with relief that his outlook in life was possibly providing him with a way to adapt to his current condition.
“Yes,” he replied with uncompromising acceptance.
“Oh, that’s very good, Abdullah. I’m happy you feel like that, because it will help you go through this time, until your immigrations status is decided upon.” I wished him well, since he was due to talk to his lawyer the next morning, and praised his patience and strength. Immigration procedures, I said, can take time, but it also depends on the case.
Abdullah was friendly, warm and relaxed and laughed a couple of times at my ridiculously rusty French (eight years of classes, including graduate school). We clicked. I suspected he liked the idea that I was the mother of a son close to his own age. Our conversation kept on almost effortlessly. We talked about how much he liked soccer — my son has played soccer long enough that even I knew what a midfielder was – and discussed the European teams. His favorite is Italy.
I was looking for ideas to keep our long chat going, when Ellen Kuras, the filmmaker, flashed through my mind. Three weeks earlier, I had attended a screening of “Betrayal,” a new documentary. The film is Kuras’ 23-year-long labor of love about the Phrasavaths, a Laotian family whose surviving members moved to the States after the Vietnam War.
The filmmaker purposely narrated the story from the very personal point of view of the family she documented, and paid much attention to which types of values immigrants bring with them to the United States and which values they adopt after arriving here. To learn which values are universal she asked Tsavisouk Phrasavath, the eldest son of the family and the movie’s co-director, to share the mythology of his homeland.
The Ants and the People
There was my idea. “Tell me the legends of your homeland,” I said to Alpha. “Do you know any? Like how was the world created, how do we find our destiny…”
Abdullah looked at me, smiled bashfully, and said that he didn’t know what a legend was. “Don’t use big words with me. My English is not so good.”
I smiled back and reassured him about his English, and told him what a legend is: a story somewhere between dream and reality. He grasped the concept immediately and replied, “Oh, ok, I’ll tell you the story of the ‘Ants and the People’.”
First, Abdullah wanted to know if I understood what “ants’” were. “You know, those very small animals that walk in a line, on the floor or on the walls and when they bite you it hurts?” He gave himself a tiny pinch on the upper left arm as demonstration.
I was never bitten by an ant, but confirmed that I knew precisely what insect he was talking about, and that, as far as I knew, they walk the same way all around the world. So, he told me the story.
Once upon a time, after centuries of abuse by the people, the ants had had enough of it. People would pay no attention and step on them, kill them, show them no respect or consideration. Tired of being treated like that, they decided to complain to God about it.
”You made us so small,” the ants told him, “the people don’t care for us, they don’t even see us. You made them big and tall, they squish us with their feet, destroy our homes. What’s the purpose for that?”
God explained that the reason why he made the ants small was so they would learn how to live with the people. He sent them back, and instructed them to do so.
The moral teaching of the legend, which was a parable from Koran, said Abdullah later, was incorporated in everyday West African beliefs by showing respect to everybody. When passing by a group of people, for instance, it is customary to greet them, since no one knows, in life, when our turn may come to be the ant and need the help of someone we once passed by.
“I like it, it’s a great story,” I said. “You see, I knew you would have nice stories to tell me. Maybe, if you want, we can decide that you can share stories from your culture each time I come visit you.”
Abdullah liked the suggestion and we resumed a more idle conversation. I looked around the room to see what my fellow visitors were doing, while Abdullah exchanged a few word with the detainee to his right who was talking with Trish and Bridget, two of women in our group.
Then, it dawned on me what Abdullah probably meant with his story. “Were you telling me that sometimes, because of what happened to you here, that you feel like the ants?” I asked him.
Abdullah seemed puzzled for a moment, lifted himself leaning back on the chair, grabbed the armrests and with a composed but assured demeanor, as if preparing to deliver a counter argument, answered “No, I am the people! I would be ungrateful to God if I felt like an ant. I would not be grateful for the life he gave me.”
I didn’t know how to take what I had just heard. I stood silent for a second, with surprise and admiration, while a thought crossed my mind, “here’s a lesson in joy.”
Abdullah’s fortitude, his unyielding acceptance and respect for the life he was given, no matter the circumstances, had left me speechless. I didn’t know if I felt more bewildered or inspired. He was teaching me a lesson about hope, despair and how to look at life.
I had come to Elizabeth to bring him comfort, but I was leaving being comforted by him. And it was coming from a man with whom I shared no common ties. Abdullah Sori Balde’ came from a region of the world I knew nothing about, spoke a different native language, was different in age, race and ethnicity, and practiced a religion different than mine.
Yet, at no point that evening had either of us felt in the company of a stranger. We had enjoyed each other’s company, laughed, expressed support and found ways to communicate love and suffering by voicing the bond of our common humanity and its universal values.
When the time came for detainees to return to their dorms, Abdullah stood up and imprinted the palm of his right hand on the glass to say goodbye. I happily reciprocated the warmth of his gesture and promised that I would be back in two weeks.
I visited with Abdullah for four months, until I received news of his parole right before Thanksgiving of 2009. I was in Italy spending time with my family before coming home for the holidays. Hearing about my friend’s freedom gave me additional reasons for gratitude. Abdullah was fine, said his lawyer, and was staying with a friend.
It often happens that, after being released, former detainees experience a period of intense emotions and confusion, for all they’ve been through. Sorting them out takes time and support. I waited for Abdullah to call, to let me know how things were, but I never heard from him. It is my hope that all is well.
As of recently, all immigrant detainees housed at the Elizabeth detention center have been moved to Delaney Hall in Newark , where conditions are reported to be worse.
*Names have been modified to protect the privacy of the people in this story.