Written by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo
Rachid Bilal (far left), who spent 31 months in detention, stands with John Vanier, who visited him there. Corinne Nelson photo.
In November 1999, with the help of a relative who got him a false passport and a plane ticket to the United States, Jean-Pierre Kamwa escaped torture and prison in his home country, Cameroon, and found his way to New York's JFK Airport.
But the "welcome" he received when he asked for political asylum was to be taken aside, strip searched and chained to a bench overnight. "I was crying," he recalled. "I was terrified."
He was taken to a nearby converted warehouse, handed orange prison garb and assigned a number and bed in a "dorm" with 39 other men. Except for an hour a day of recreation in a small gym or high-walled courtyard, he spent five months inside that one windowless room before winning asylum.
"Except for my lawyer, I never got a visit," Kamwa said, recalling the loneliness, stress and confusion of that time. This story has repeated itself for thousands of men and women seeking safe haven in the United States, especially since Congress enacted immigration "reforms" in 1996.
Many asylum seekers are turned back at the border under "expedited removal" provisions. Others are detained for months, sometimes years until their cases are judged.
Detention Watch Network reports that the United States each year detains between 5,000 and 6,000 asylum seekers from around the world, Albania to Zimbabwe. These non-criminals are scattered among several hundred detention centers, jails and prisons.
Visiting team heads off to Queens, N.Y., detention center: (l-r) Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, Dr. Alain Nana, Olufemi Terry, Jill Stein and Jean-Pierre Kamwa. Thomas Weise photo.
Read about it in a book
Susan Wersan and Mary Miranda, members of New York City's The Riverside Church (UCC/American Baptist Church), read about these forgotten refugees in the book "Do They Hear You When You Cry?" by Fauziya Kassindja, an asylum seeker from Togo. They learned that two detention centers—one in Elizabeth, N.J., the other in Queens, N.Y.—held 500 asylum seekers. And they learned of a Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) volunteer visitors program serving Elizabeth detainees.
They resolved to respond, citing Matthew 25 ("I was a stranger and you welcomed me ... in prison and you visited me") and called a forum in January 1999 in the name of Sojourners Ministry with Detained Immigrants. Twenty people came.
Will Coley from JRS explained that each volunteer visits the same detainee at least twice a month to boost that person's morale. Six signed up immediately, and others soon joined. Apprehensive before her first visit, Riversider Janet Wise expressed elation afterward at the intense bond she already had formed with her conversation partner. "I can do this!" she exclaimed.
In early 2001, JRS established First Friends, an ecumenical, community-based network, to coordinate visits to the Elizabeth facility's 300 detainees, and asked Riverside to pioneer visits to the 200 asylum seekers detained in Queens. Since January 1999, more than 100 Riverside recruits from both congregation and community have visited one or both facilities. Today, nearly 50 visit regularly.
Among them is Jean-Pierre Kamwa. Besides visiting, he also uses his personal experience of incarceration to help orient new volunteers and support newly released asylees.
A two-year "seed" grant from Riverside will enable hiring a coordinator this spring. The goal is a multi-congregation network of support for asylum seekers detained in Queens, similar to "First Friends."
In a parallel initiative endorsed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Church World Service, Refugee Immigration Ministry of Boston and other refugee organizations are developing an Interfaith Spiritual Caregivers for Detainees program, reaching out to detention centers in eight states by 2003.
Visits sharpen detainees' own coping skills. "I was lost until you started to visit me," one detainee wrote her visitor. "Now I have found myself again." Another detainee wrote his visitor, "It has been a long time since anybody visited to ask me, ‘How are you?' Your visit brought joy in my heart and I slept peacefully and soundly that night."
Visitors and detainees have developed a remarkable community of mutual caring. Riversider John Vanier, who has visited weekly since January 1999 and knows many current and former detainees, said, "I don't how to say this without getting mushy but I've gotten a tremendous amount of love out of it. I've developed very close family relationships with people."
Visiting also is a window on what Amnesty International and other groups have documented as a violation of human rights.
Mary Kuenning Gross, United Church of Christ Executive for Refugee Ministries, said the UCC urges members to support two pieces of legislation that would help protect asylum seekers: The Refugee Protection Act (S.1311) and the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act (S. 121/H.R. 1904).
Carol Fouke-Mpoyo is a member of The Riverside Church and chairs its Sojourners Ministry with Detained Immigrants program. Corinne Nelson also contributed to this story.