This past month, LIRS Training and Research Coordinator, Julia Coffin, travelled to southern Georgia to experience visitation ministry in the largest immigration detention center in the United States. I am pleased to introduce her reflection on connecting to a stranger through the glass of a visitation window.
As I waited for Khalil to arrive in the windowless visitation room, I felt intensely claustrophobic. Four locked doors, two guards, a thick cement wall, and two layers of barbed wire wrapped fences lay between me and a breath of fresh air.
This January, I was fortunate to join Friends in Hope, an LIRS visitation ministry partner, during their monthly visit to the Stewart Detention Center. 145 miles south of Atlanta, desolate seems too soft a word to describe Lumpkin, GA. Currently the largest immigration detention facility in the country, Stewart has the capacity to hold upwards of 1,700 daily. Individuals are transferred to this tiny town from all across the country, isolated from the support of their family and many miles from the closest attorney. Originally built to be a medium-security prison, it looks and feels very much like a prison.
We waited alongside families to conduct our visit. I watched a young girl in a glittery red dress mouth “Daddy,” fidgeting anxiously as she waited for her father to appear behind the wall of glass. Public space became private when her Daddy finally emerged, and I suddenly felt like I was intruding on an intimate family reunion. But there were no warm embraces or handholding, only whispered life updates through a static filled phone line and outstretched arms trying to radiate comfort through thick glass. I suddenly understood why the facility simply calls it a “visit.” A reunion implies a level of celebration absent in detention.
As I waited for Khalil to appear, I found myself fidgeting like the young girl. While her unease was motivated by the excitement and fear of seeing a loved one in detention, my anxiety was rooted in greeting a complete stranger. What would we talk about? Did he even want a visitor?
To my surprise, the conversation flowed easier than expected. I feared that cultural difference would limit conversation, when in reality it enriched it. We had more in common than I expected, and our difference in upbringing and lived experience broadened my perspective. Khalil was brought by his family to the United States as a child. He was in college studying to be a doctor when he was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He loves the Hunger Games, Disney World, and repairing cars. In so many ways, he is just as American as me. He feared deportation to a country he has never known, and to a culture without freedom of speech and gender equality – American values he has come to love.
The hour flew by. As I hung up the phone I couldn’t help but think that was the most honest and genuine conversation I have had in months. In one short hour, Khalil taught me that human connection can permeate thick walls of glass and resonate above static filled phone lines. At its core, that is what visitation ministry is all about. It is a commitment to be totally and fully present, ready to listen actively and share fully with another human being.
As I walked through the four locked doors, passed by the guards, exited the cement compound and watched the last barbed wire lined fence close behind me, I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude. I was grateful for good conversation and a new friend. I was grateful to be born in the United States and not fear separation from my family. I was grateful that I could leave the facility and breath the fresh air.
I experienced for myself that visitation ministry is a mutually transformative experience. A huge thanks to Friends in Hope and El Refugio, another visitation ministry, for the amazing work they are doing to support individuals isolated in the Stewart Detention Facility.
Visit lirs.org/visitation to learn how you can get involved with these ministries or to find a visitation ministry in your community.
Photo Credit: TimothyVogel