I woke up this morning overwhelmed by all the things. I check my email on my phone and a dozen emails remind me that it's #GivingTuesday. Ugh. There is so much to care about. Too much. I'm gived out. I go back to bed.
I eventually get up and walk five minutes down the road from my house to the Immigration Detention Center. I've gone about every week for the last two years to visit detainees. It's different now, though, cause my friend got detained four weeks ago. She's a 19 year-old Somali who loves Beyonce and Game of Thrones and is working on a screenplay. But she lives in IDC now. Her refugee status, which means the UN recognizes that she has a valid fear of persecution and should be protected by international law, does nothing for her in Thailand. They do not provide refugees protections or visas. Without them, asylum seekers and refugees are susceptible to being held in detention to wait out either resettlement to a third country through the UNHCR refugee process or self-fund and self-elect for repatriation back to their country. Some wait years. In the case of most refugees, returning to their home country is unthinkable -- both financially and politically. The Somalis I know left behind deceased family members and war and human smugglers. There's no home to go home to. For my friend, this is the possibility we have been dreading and actively trying to avoid, but now, it's how she will live out the remainder of her time in Thailand. In jail.
I can tell she is more tired than last week. They leave the lights on all night and there is no bathroom door. There are between 80 to 120 women in her room on a given day. We talk about news from the inside and the outside world. Life inside is rife with conflict and disease and three meals of rice a day. Since that's all there is, we laugh about it. When I ask if she has been in any fights, she replies, "Are you kidding? I write it all down! It's great material!" Ever the storyteller. I brought her conditioner and a watch and Oreos, and she tells me she would love a KFC sandwich next week. We run out of things to talk about after 45 minutes; I'm not sure if I'm entertaining her or if she's entertaining me. We say goodbye. I am guiltily aware that the best I feel all morning is when the gate opens and I step outside in the fresh air and sunshine, feeling both on my face as I leave that place behind.
After that, I take a moto taxi to Starbucks to meet these Afghan guys I've known for almost two years. Six men share one room in Bangkok. I used to teach them English, but mercifully for them, they are spared my "teaching" as they found a free daily class. This is the second year in a row we've gotten together when the holiday drinks come out to toast Christmas; they indulge my enthusiasm even though they don't celebrate the holiday. Like my friend in IDC, they are also awaiting the refugee resettlement process, hopeful that they can soon go to a country where they will be allowed to go to school and work and vote and love. The waiting is killer. I am only a secondary waiter, and my nerves are shot. I didn't really understand how debilitating waiting is for refugees is until living in Thailand these last few years. It's a near suspension of identity and meaning. Without legal rights, without a community that recognizes your human-ness, talents wither and potential fades. This NY Times piece on Manus Island refugees was a chilling reminder of how separate, how other refugees are made to be as they wait. Here in Thailand, the isolation is coupled with the constant fear of being thrown in detention. My Afghan friends have handled the waiting as well as can be expected -- learned English, done a few small part-time jobs (which is illegal) and even taught their language to Thai neighbors. They've tried to keep the spark of their lives going despite the harshness of their reality. I give them around $300 USD a month (some of which was been donated from my kind friends and facilitated through a local NGO) and that's what they live on in addition to other earned and donated funds.
They tell me about a UNHCR meeting recently where a representative politely explained to them that it's probably their best long-term option to return home. To Afghanistan. This signals to me that the resettlement process is a near impossibility at this point. The internationally upheld mechanisms that I so believed in, that have offered hope to so many fleeing persecution, have ground to a near halt this year. With the U.S. effectively cutting their resettlement by 75%, with millions fleeing Syria and North Africa, there are thousands and thousands of people that have been approved but will never be resettled. The system that was already at capacity now can accommodate even less people than before and there are more people than ever before applying.
I ask them what they will do now. The advice to return home weighs heavily on them, but they still hope. There's nothing else for them to do but hope. Thing is, I don't know how to help them or prepare them for the future. All the things I used to know -- resettlement will happen in 3-5 years, learn English, prepare a resume -- don't matter anymore if they can't find a country that will accept them. It's so unfair that the tyranny of war and violence in their lives has been replaced by the dull absence of belonging. Without it, what is possible? Our stupid red Starbucks cups mock me as I sit there trying to force a holiday on them they don't celebrate with drinks that, let's be honest, taste terrible.
I've been struggling for some time to answer the question What do I think is possible? I have worked for the last 10 years with trafficked and refugee people, but I don't really know what I'm hoping for anymore. The sad truth is that I don't actually think that my friend will be released from IDC. I can't promise the Afghans that they will ever be resettled. I don't think that trafficking will end in my lifetime, or in any lifetime for that matter. And yet, here I am. This is how I spent my day today. I must believe something is possible, right?
If it's not obvious by now, I'm a very conflicted hopeful person. I'm, as Jon Stewart self-identifies, an angry optimist. I believe that change is possible, I work towards it, I yearn for it, but I'm impatient as all hell. This year every. damn. day. has felt like #GivingTuesday. Resist. Persist. Give. Repeat. If there is a single person out there who isn't already giving, I encourage you to give today, give every day. If you don't know what you care about, just ask me and I will tell you.
Perhaps my refugee friends have the ability to hope because they gave up the illusion of control a long time ago. Or maybe they never had it because, as people from Afghanistan and Somalia, they were never spoon-fed it as a child. As a person of privilege, I get stuck on the unfairness of it all or the lack of durable political solutions. I've stopped hoping. I don't dare hope unless I know the outcome will be favorable. (Wow, that's the saddest, most type-A thing I've ever said). That's not even hope, that's just playing the odds. I guess the act of hope, in the same way as the act of giving, is best and purest when you expect nothing in return.
So give freely. Hope freely.
I'm going to bed. Giving Wednesday is tomorrow.