Wednesday, December 23, 2009

imprisoned students

I can’t really go into the details or context or much of anything here, but suffice it to say that many (100+) of my students (who, you’ll remember, are refugees) have been imprisoned the last few months for purely political reasons through no fault of their own. It’s bad, really really bad: kids without their parents, little little kids locked up, open cell blocks with more than a hundred per room, real lawbreakers in there with them, really horrid unsanitary conditions, not enough and bad food and water, and a lot more I can’t say.

When I got the news about their abduction (from their beds before dawn, I refuse to even sanctify it with the term ‘arrest’) I was still in the US, and I have never, ever, ever been angrier and more scared in my whole life. I shook for hours. They took my kids and my friends. Not ok. Made me really challenge my pacifist morals.

I got to visit them in the jail today. It’s right in the middle of the city, surrounded by charming apartments and tea shops and clothing stores. It takes standing in three different lines for more than an hour, filling out various forms, surrendering your passport, etc., to get into the courtyard of the prison. There are two chain-link fences dividing the courtyard in half, three feet apart from each other. Detainees stand on one side, then the three foot gap which the guards patrol, and then visitors. We shout back and forth to one another across the gap, and hand items to the guards to pass over, if they deign to do so. The good part was that all the detainees who had visitors get to mill around on their gated side of the courtyard together, so we planned it so a bunch of us visited various members of the same family at the same time, so they all got to see each other. They were so happy to see one another, though sometimes so sad to look around the gathered crowd and not find the faces they were seeking.

The bad part was… well, everything else. Seeing these people who I’ve taught and come to love, little kids, teenagers, and adults alike, being treated like criminals, when they’re just being used as a (cutting myself off so I don’t get thrown in there with them). The smell, which if you’ve never smelled diseased rotted human faeces there’s no point in explaining. The humiliation of all involved except those who should be humiliated (i.e. those responsible): us on the outside for being made to go through ridiculous powertripping steps with four levels of guards and paperwork, for not being able to do enough, for not ever bringing enough, for being able to summon these people from their cells at our whim, for not knowing what to say (what can you say?): them for being so oppressed, for being summoned, for being on display and having their reunions observed, for being less clean than they would like for their dignity (though I was impressed at how well they were keeping themselves, they have such self-respect, it’s inspiring), for not being able to speak English well enough (though lord knows I don’t care, they are my English students, so they sortof think I’m always judging their language skills), for not knowing what to say (what can they say?). The boy I was visiting, a 16-yr-old Sri Lankan, just cried the whole time, though he was clearly really glad to see me.

I brought two big bags of necessities for them, focusing on water, protein and calories (peanut butter, crackers, dried fish, etc.), soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. Everything I could carry. Petra and I are going back on Christmas day, so they get to breathe some comparatively fresh air and see their family members on Christmas (though only some of them are Christian, it’s a special day for many). I’m trying to think of things I can bring them as presents that they can use to pass the time, since they’re so so bored. Books are out, since most can’t read well enough. Cards and other games you can bet on aren’t allowed. All other logical prison rules apply. I’m thinking maybe a harmonica? Markers and paper? Any ideas?