3 Unexpected Things Asylum Seekers Miss Most in Detention

“When I get out of here, I’m not taking anything for granted”

Those were some of the first words out of the young African woman’s mouth when I sat down on the wobbly plastic chair across from her in the cavernous visitor room at the Elizabeth Detention Center. She continued, “You never know, everything can change in an instant.”

And for this articulate young woman, everything had changed. Back home, working as a researcher for an NGO dedicated to women’s rights, she started receiving death threats from men who resented the questioning of their traditional practices. Then she was attacked.

Fearing for her life, she left her home country and arrived in Newark Airport where she was whisked off to the Elizabeth Detention Center, a converted warehouse in the storage hub of New Jersey. Like all the other Asylum Seekers I have talked to, she was shocked by the shackles, astounded at being locked up and appalled by the prison jump suit. She told me, “I kept thinking it was some sort of joke.”

She isn’t a criminal. Her only “crime” is being from another country and asking for political asylum. She most reminds me of the millennials and post-millennial buzzing around the halls of my WeWorks office, creating companies devoted to social change. 

She told me that the America that she heard about in Africa would never have locked her up. I told her many Americans hadn’t heard of this cruel America before seeing the heart wrenching photos of children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border.

To gird herself against the anxiety and boredom of imprisonment, she thinks about life after detention. She resolves not to take anything for granted in her post-detention life, especially the sky. She told me, “In Africa, I saw the sky every day without even thinking of it and now I won’t see the sun until I am set free.” That’s because the “outdoor” recreation consists of a courtyard topped by an opaque plastic “skylight.”

The first thing detainees miss in detention is the sky.

The second thing detainees miss is their name.

Detainees are called by their dorm and bed number. José Rodriguez becomes Fox19. Ode Azikiwe is Gulf8. Some guards resist this degrading naming system and use the detainee names, but most fall into this official odious practice.  You can read about what it feels like to lose your name in Bed 26: A Memoir of an African Man’s Asylum in The United States, written by Edafe Okporo, a successful asylum seeker. For highlights of the Church Lady Bed26 book party, read “Hope in a Dark Time for Asylum Seekers.”

A bathroom door is the third thing asylum seekers miss.

In a dorm of 40 men there are 3 toilets placed out in the open against a wall. Detainees placed in beds near the toilets eagerly await the reassignment of beds that occurs during the normal ebb and flow of detainees coming and going. I had naively  assumed detainees had a regular bathroom like in the prison depicted in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” I was wrong.

But even as they are incarcerated for months, the asylum seekers I speak with are eternally grateful for the American legal system. They are flabbergasted that organizations like American Friends Service Committee exist which provide immigration lawyers pro bono.

Detainees are also thankful for organizations like First Friends that provide volunteers who visit total strangers in detention. As one successful asylum seeker  told me, “Beautiful things have happened to refugees in America, but we don’t hear about it.” Despite being incarcerated in detention centers, these asylum seekers find things to be grateful for.

I left the detention center energized by this young woman’s determination and optimism, making sure to look up at the summer sky before getting in my car.