Refuge in Limbo

Yesterday, April 19, the MHHE was meant to host a joint event with El Refugio to honor the work of the organization's network of volunteers. Since learning of my synagogue's long commitment to the organization, a hospitality house and ministry of humanitarian connection for immigrants and asylum-seekers incarcerated at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, I had wanted to become involved. The opportunity came for me in January of this year.  I drove the two hours from Decatur to Lumpkin with a fellow CBH-member whom I had just met. Over the course of the long car ride, we got to know each other and combed through our feelings in anticipation of this visit to the private prison now sub-contracting for ICE. We were curious, afraid of what we might encounter, ashamed of our fear. I know that I felt a sense of guilt associated with the ease with which I could slip in and out of this federal prison, maximum security for ease of administration, not circumstantial necessity. But I also knew that guilt was not a useful emotion. I am free, and with that freedom comes the obligation to use my voice and my access to networks, platforms, people, to speak on behalf of those who are not free.

My car parked near the courthouse square in Lumpkin, Georgia, January 4, 2020.
On that day we visited Lumpkin, though, I was not there as an educator or a public historian. I was there simply as a human being. A woman who could offer my smile through layers of bullet-proof glass, and my broken French over a scratchy telephone line. My partner and I spoke with an asylum-seeker from West Africa. We talked about books, music, history, food. The man confirmed that the food in the facility was edible but terrible. He worked in the kitchen. He also told us that he passed the time playing soccer in the prison's outdoor yards. He was lonely. There were few French-speakers in the prison. But he had not given up hope.

After our visitation window had passed, we returned to the beautiful El Refugio hospitality house to debrief with the other members of our group from CBH. We shared a delicious meal assembled by the volunteers. We wrote our first letters. Since then, I have corresponded with the man I met at Stewart regularly for the past three months. I've sent him books about art to practice his English, and a French-language version of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. In the last letter I received from him in late February, he was thrilled to tell me that his asylum appeal had been granted, and he was waiting for a new court date. And then the COVID-19 crisis hit in earnest. I have not heard from my friend since I sent him a letter on March 31.

I had planned to write this post to celebrate the work of El Refugio. I was thrilled to connect with the leaders of this faith-based organization with a mission of hospitality and visitation. I was looking forward to bringing our organizations closer together, serving the educational needs of volunteers. Stewart County, of which Lumpkin is the county seat, is the second most impoverished county in the state of Georgia. There are no hotels to serve the family and friends of the people incarcerated in Stewart Detention Center, operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CoreCivic), so El Refugio opened its hospitality house in 2010, two years after beginning its work of leading visits to the Detention Center. In 2018, the organization received a donation of a six-bedroom house (one originally built by the owner of one of the county's prosperous cotton plantations) from Samantha Bee and TBS. But in March, Stewart Detention Center suspended visitations, and the hospitality house shut its doors. The facility had its first confirmed case of coronavirus on April 1, 2020. ICE has continued to prioritize deportations of undocumented immigrants amidst the pandemic. The fate of those already in detention, where social distancing is next-to-impossible, remains precarious.

The Coronavirus pandemic has provided a great deal of evidence that people who are vulnerable under normal conditions become even more vulnerable when society is in crisis. For those of us whose primary mission is to "educate for a responsible future," a crisis in the present can feel tremendously demoralizing. Everyone is under strain. Everyone feels vulnerable. It's hard to tell who is listening, who feels empowered to think beyond their immediate needs and the needs of their family and loved-ones. At this moment, I am unable to strengthen partnerships and make new connections. I cannot host a potluck dinner. I feel like calling on my senators to endorse Cory Booker's "Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together (FIRST) Act" would be like shouting into the wind (although I'll try anyway).

Right now, I know that I can inquire after the health and safety of my friend.  I know that I can bear witness.


Adina Langer said…
For anyone following this story, I'm thrilled to announce that the person I've been corresponding with at Stewart has been released as of Sunday, April 26! I'll keep checking in with the situation and see if there are others seeking correspondence with the outside, but this news made me very happy over the weekend.
Operachk19 said…
That's wonderful news! So happy to hear it. Thank you for sharing your story, and for reaching out to an individual in need during these trying times!