by Pauline de Tholozany
I am waiting in the small lobby of the Stewart Detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia. I came in with three friends. We met with a person from El Refugio, an organization that coordinates volunteer visits to the immigration detention center. Detainees can stay there for months, sometimes years, and they often feel isolated. Outside visits from volunteers provide companionship, if only for an hour.
We are given cards with the name of the person we will visit. The cards tell their age and nationality. I am a French native speaker, and so I am paired with a francophone person.
This is a center where about 2000 men are detained, and I expected a large hall with lots of people coming for visits. But there are not a lot of people. We find ourselves in a small room that contains about 20 chairs. In many ways, this is a remote place: it is forgotten and forlorn. It is geographically isolated, in the midst of a large forest in Georgia. It is Friday and we are the only ones there except for a person with her young children. We learn later that they traveled from a different state, much further away than we did, for a one-hour visit. I wonder how many of these 2000 detainees receive visits.
Later, when I will get to the room where the windows and telephones are, I will see the colorful carpet with one wooden activity cube for the children that visit people here. The bare playing station has no detachable parts — you cannot have objects in that room. I think of the children that have played with this rudimentary toy. In a room with gray walls, gray floor, and gray phone booths, this colorful spot for children saddens me the most. And this will be true of everything I hear and see today. The moments and spaces of cheerfulness are perhaps what is the most heartbreaking here at Stewart. This is a place where a smile or laughter or a splash of color have a different meaning than they do outside. Outside, you may smile because you feel joyful or grateful or amused or loved or loving. And our joys are never devoid of pain, but outside, they are less adulterated by it. Here, smiling is a way to not leave all the room for pain, to not let pain take over. A smile at Stewart is both a toned down version of a smile outside of Stewart, and an incredibly more powerful and meaningful act. Because what it expresses, be it joy or gratefulness or love, is also both an act of hope and the resigned acceptance that there is almost none.
I am in the sitting room, and I have to wait a bit longer because the person I had been paired with initially has received a visit in the past 7 days — detainees can only have one visitor per week. I have never met him, but I know he is from a country in Africa and in his twenties. The card I had been given said “in good spirits.” The words made me pause. “In good spirits” while you are separated from the world, with no home or friends, nothing to call yours. Even the clothes you wear aren’t yours. “In good spirits” when you are detained and nothing in your life signals that hope is even a possibility, but you have it anyway. “In good spirits” when no one visits you, except for this small group of strangers you don’t know and that come from time to time. “In good spirits.”
I get called in and I go through the security gate. I enter the room with the phone booths. I am told to sit in the back and wait for the new person I was paired with. I see one of my friends talk to a person who is on the other side of the glass panel, and he smiles as he tells her a story I cannot hear. I listen to her answers as she responds to him. I can tell their conversation is light-hearted — she is a joyful and warm person, and they seem on the same page. He smiles a lot, they laugh. “In good spirits,” I think. I cannot shake the sadness.
On the other side of the glass panels, a guard brings in a person in a blue uniform. The person who is brought in smiles as he looks at us. “In good spirits,” I think again. He smiles. The guard shows him one of the phone booths and I join him there. I smile. He smiles. In good spirits.I say hello in French, and I ask him if his name is Abel*. He says yes, that is me. Still, he smiles. I smile. I ask where he is from, even though I know. I don’t know if he will want to tell his story. I don’t want to pry, so that’s the question I ask. Where are you from?. Even that is a loaded question. He tells me.
We speak in French. He comes from an African country that was colonized by a European country. We have the same language because of a violent history from which I reaped privilege while he suffered poverty and violence.
His country is one where colonization was particularly brutal, atrocious, and vicious. I remember reading, as a child, a popular illustrated children’s book that depicted a white European adventurer traveling to that country; in that book, the people from Abel’s country are happy-go-lucky, uneducated, naïve, and lazy. They are saved from a tyrant by the white hero. Everything ends well, everyone is happy at the end. In good spirits. Though now controversial, it has been translated in many languages and remains on the shelves of bookstores around the world. That book was my first encounter with his country, as a child. Later in life, I learned about the history of colonization and the particularly vicious violence that occurred in that region. I don’t recall making a connection with the children’s book then.
I ask him about his story. He says he was working in the capital. He lived with his family, his mother. He says there is a lot of state violence where he comes from. He was an activist in his neighborhood, and so he was on the police’s radar. He says when they came to arrest people, no one ever heard of those people again. Maybe they went to prison. Maybe they were dead. Probably they were dead. So he was scared of the police. One night, they came to his family’s house. He was not there that night, because a rich client had brought in work that he had not managed to finish quickly enough. So he was at work. He had decided to spend the night there and finish the task early in the morning. That saved him. When the police came, they saw that he was not home and took his mother instead. He learned all of that the next day. His mother was gone for a few days, no one knew where. Then she was released. He was relieved by that, but he could not go back home. He decided to flee to a neighboring country.
In that other country, he did small jobs. He became friends with a client who told him he could get him to the Caribbean. The client had connections there. From the Caribbean, they would see what the options were. They both left. He says he spent a few weeks there, then left for Central America, and made his way north. He got to the Mexican/U.S. border. People told him to cross the border illegally, because he would have more chances that way. He didn’t want to. He went to the border and asked for political asylum. His life was in danger in his home country. So he thought that he could get political asylum in the U.S. He was sent to a detention center. He has been in detention for more than a year now.
I ask if he feels OK, if it’s safe. He says he is OK. “In good spirits,” I think. It’s always the same routine in the center, he says. He doesn’t go out much. He prefers to stay in and sleep when others go outside. I get the sense that he does not have many friends. He doesn’t speak English. I ask if he has friends, or people that he talks to. He smiles and says yes, yes, there are brothers here, but he doesn’t go into details and I wonder if he is now trying to reassure me. He says he tries to have faith, he tries to not be in his head too much even though it is hard not to. He owns nothing, just one book he tries to learn English from. In good spirits. I ask if there is something I can send him and he says yes, books to learn English would be nice. In good spirits.
In good spirits.
He says he didn’t think he would one day be detained. He says he has never been detained, he didn’t know what it was, he is not used to it.
It doesn’t feel normal to be here, but because he is a black man and an immigrant he realizes that it feels normal to others, that it is almost predictable and expected. It is a story that has already been told.
It surprises no one. I say I am so sorry that this happened to you and that the world allows that to happen. He says he believes in God. Then he says Parfois je demande à Dieu, ‘Dieu, pourquoi tu m’as fait africain?’ — Sometimes I ask God: “God, why did you make me an African?” He wonders that. I wonder too. I don’t know what to say. I say this feels like such an injustice. Inadequate sentence. I do not know what else to say. At no point was there an exit in his life. He was looking for one anyway. I say it feels like it was such bad luck, to have been born on that side of things; with hopelessness and violence and misery as a horizon. I say it must feel almost as if there is no place for you in this world. He says yes, it feels like that.
I ask if he misses home. He says he misses his mother and his family, but even now, even here, no, he doesn’t miss home. I am surprised because I was expecting a sense of homesickness. I thought maybe he would be missing what could be home, if the country became more stable, if there were opportunities to live there, if things became more peaceful. But he does not miss that because he does not have that fantasy. Home is violence. He cannot go back. The present is misery but there is more hope in it. Home is hopeless.
He has one family member here, and a few in Europe. He says he talks with them here — twice he says he talks with them every day and then corrects himself: no, not every day, what am I saying, every week. In good spirits. The sense of time here is different. There are 4 TVs and so one can follow the news a bit. But there is nothing to do, and he is too much in his head, he says. He says he had a court date but it kept being pushed off. First it was one month, then it got pushed to the next month, then it got pushed to the next month. He repeats the next hearing date: day, month, year. It is all he can think about right now when he thinks about time. I say it must be hard to feel the disappointment every time. He says it is. He says he doesn’t want to feel discouraged. He says he needs to not be in his head too much. He smiles. In good spirits. Tries to give himself courage. I ask if he has a lawyer and he says no.
In good spirits.
I ask if detainees can watch sports on the TV here, if he follows any team. He says he likes soccer and Judo. He says if you are really good at these sports, you can maybe make it in the world. He tried Judo. He was good at it. He says he is a black belt, and he smiles proudly as he says that. I tell him about how I have been trying to learn martial arts too for the past couple of weeks. I go with my friend and we are taught how to throw a punch. I punch weakly, but, I tell him, my friend is really good at it, she can destroy a punching ball. We both laugh. I made him laugh. He asks, is it judo, or jiu-jitsu, that you do? I say more like jiu-jitsu. He says he liked judo, but he stopped competing after a while. He says parce que je ne gagnais rien. Because I never won anything. Because I was always losing. Because I would always lose. Because I would never earn anything. Because I would never make any money. Because there is no victory for me. Many ways to say parce que je ne gagnais rien in English. English doesn’t make it better.
I think about how our lives are made of victories that we are quick to explain by our skills and values and work and dedication. And we occasionally fail, too, and we can find value in that — but before we claim the benefits of failure, we often miss that the only reason why we can love our failures is because our lives are made of so many other successes. We sometimes narrate our failures and our overcoming them so as to transform them into versions of success. We can do that because we have experienced successes. And so we are equipped for failures. Our failure stories are privilege stories.
Je ne gagnais rien. Je ne gagnais rien. I was always losing. I would lose all the time. Imagine. You always lose. You play. You don’t win. How would one go about a life where you can never win? Born on the wrong side of a border.
God, why did you make me an African.
In good spirits.
The guard comes in and takes my friends away. It breaks our discussion, because I have to ask if I need to go as well. He knows I traveled from far away with those friends and that they will now be waiting for me. I say they will wait, don’t worry about them. He says OK. But I can tell he is now afraid to be a bother. We are tying loose ends. I ask if I can tell his story. He smiles and he says yes. I wonder if he feels like he has a real choice in how he answers that question. And the story is the story of how the world values his life as less worthy than mine. There is something impossible to bear for him in that story and in me telling it. If I tell it, people will know about that impossibility to fit in where he hoped he would fit. He was always losing, he is supposed to lose.
I am a white person asking a black person if it is OK to tell his story. He says yes. I tell the story. I feel honored that he says I can tell. I wonder about my part in that hierarchy that crushes and dehumanizes him, him and other persons from other sides of other borders. He was always losing. I was always winning. I am on the right side of the glass panel. He would have every reason to resent me. I don’t think that he does. He is not angry. In good spirits. He has tears in his eyes as we are about to part, and that could be gratitude, sadness, loneliness. Never winning. I have tears in mine and it is gratitude and sadness and something else but I don’t have a name for it. The feeling is too large for words. He was always losing. A large amount of this story I cannot name or write. God, why did you make him an African? He was always losing. In good spirits. You can tell my story. A smile. He trusted me with his story. I can never tell it well. I was always winning and he was always losing. We are replaying a narrative much bigger than us. I am white and I tell his story. He was always losing. In good spirits. I tell the story. How many people will tell me that I have a good heart. He was always losing. How many people will tell him that he has a good heart. Was there ever time and space for that in his life? Where I was born. Where he was born. He misses his mother. He was always losing. I am always winning. I tell the story.
We are saying goodbye. He says thank you for visiting me. He says the volunteers’ visits keep him alive. I think, but we are strangers. I wonder how it helps. I don’t say it. He says it helps. He says he is too much in his head. In good spirits. I say thank you for letting me visit you. We are both crying. He was always losing. In good spirits. I can’t stand that he always loses, while I always win, every time, I win. We are about the same age. He puts his hand on the glass panel. He says thank you. I put my hand on the glass panel. I say thank you. Why did God make me an African? Why did God make you an African? God, why did you do that? That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. In good spirits. He cries. In good spirits. Our hands are on the glass panel. He was always losing. It is a thick glass panel, I don’t feel the warmth of his hand. The glass remains cold. In good spirits. He doesn’t say anything, maybe he thinks my friends are waiting, they shouldn’t have to wait. He was always losing. In good spirits. He says he saw images of Paris. Maybe one day he will go, he has family in Europe. I say I hope that you go. In good spirits. He was always losing. There are places in the world he dreams of. In good spirits. His family member, in a big American city. Skyscrapers, I imagine. Maybe he could win. But he always loses. Can he win? Please, can he win? In good spirits. Why do I always win? We say goodbye. I didn’t hang up. He moved away but he was still holding the phone. In good spirits. I put my hand on the glass panel again. He was always losing. He puts his hand there again. God, why did you make me an African? I don’t remember who left first or what the last gaze was. I tell the story. He was always losing.
*Editor’s Note: Abel’s name has been changed to protect his identity and from retaliation.