Maria* is a 50-year old detained Guatemalan woman. This is her story as told to a FFI hotline volunteer.
I've been in detention since November 12, 2019. ICE took me from prison. That day, the day I was to be released, the case worker said that ICE was not going to pick me up. But then, at nine in the morning, they were waiting for me.
I have five sons. My parents are in Florida and I have a sister in Oregon. I have other siblings too: two brothers and a sister in Florida. There’s another brother, who disappeared in 2018, and in reality I do not know what has happened to him.
I haven't been able to have any visitors since March of this year.
My back issues started in March of 2018. I had spinal pain when lying in bed. I didn’t pay any attention to it, but then by April I could not walk, and in May they took me to the hospital. I could not walk, or sit, or bathe. Moving hurt – I could not walk 15 paces, and it hurt to either lie down or sit for too long. At first, they thought it was an ovarian hernia or cyst, but then they did an MRI and found that I had a herniated disc, and an operation was needed. The doctor said he had to remove what was damaged. I don't know the name of the exact procedure. They operated in September. I could not walk before, and after, I could walk.
The surgery helped a little. The surgeon said that I should go to the January check-up that he ordered. I wrote to ICE in December to give them advance notice of this, but they said no, and so I did not have the check-up. The surgeon had also said I needed physical therapy or I wouldn’t recover fully. In February, I communicated with ICE about this. The medic said that everything was closed and I couldn’t have therapy because everything was closed due to COVID.
In June, ICE moved me to a bathroom where I had to go up onto a seat to bathe. They gave me this seat since I was having trouble bathing. In July, on a Wednesday afternoon, I fell in the bathroom, because I did not have enough strength in my leg. It gave out, and I fell. That Friday, at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, the pain had risen to the point where I was hospitalized.
The doctor there said that I might need an operation as well as therapy, but she could not evaluate whether the operation was needed because she was not a nerve specialist. She said I definitely needed therapy. The social worker at the hospital said they had people who could come to the jail, but ICE did not accept that offer. They told the doctor they have their own people for therapy. The hospital gave me a sheet of exercises, but I had no one to work with in person. On the 25th or 27th of last month, I asked when they were going to give me therapy. I also asked for a flu vaccine, since it was bad last time. They answered that they couldn’t do it
When I stop moving for a long time, I hurt a lot. I sleep with a hot water bottle, which helps. I soak my leg in water. There is a gel bag, and I put it one on my spine and one on my leg. Then, an hour later, I put on BenGay as well. I do all of this four times a day.
I think [name of detention center] is the best of its kind. They have hand soap in the unit where I am, and we clean the tables before and after eating here. For personal things, I need to buy them in the commissary. There is no microwave, so even though it is supposed to be possible to buy some food and coffee, there is no way to heat it up.
In terms of my case, I’m applying under a program called CAT – it's like asylum but it doesn’t matter how long you were in the US. In my country, Guatemala, I come from an indigenous family that would not recognize me if I return. That is what would happen to me. This is the culture – that a woman can’t commit an error. That’s what happened to my brother – he was deported, and in reality, I don’t know if they killed him. Also, the father of my children threatened me, since I broke a promise.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor but my mother said no, that it's a woman’s job to cook and take care of her husband. My parents never sent me to school. When I was in prison, I went to school. I was told I was very smart. I don’t know when I will be able to finish my studies, but this has always been one of my dreams. Now, my own kids say they will help me. I want to study, to get my diploma. I want to be a nurse - I can’t be a doctor anymore, but I could become a nurse. I have hope for this.
There are a lot of women here who suffer, who are scared, and so they never speak, and these women are thrown out of the country. These women don’t speak English, first of all, and second of all, they are afraid. I am the only one in this unit who’s speaking up. I got the information for FFI and have been speaking to the hotline for months now. My hope is to help these people, since I speak my own language, which is Cancobon, as well as Spanish. Lots of these people don't speak Spanish. A lot of people who suffer violence and have been abused by their husbands don’t speak –and I was one of them. I learned that when I was in prison. Before, I didn’t value myself. Now I do. My mother said I was a fool and a witch, that I was a useless woman who didn’t serve any purpose – so when the father of my husband said these things, I believed them. In prison, I learned to value myself, love myself first. I speak both Spanish, and my dialect, so I want to help these people.
I think it’s important that we don’t stay quiet, that we confront issues when we are detained instead of being afraid to speak out.
If we don’t speak, how will anyone hear us?
*Name changed for privacy purposes