I scanned the faces on the other side of the fence. Did any of these people look like an Ahmad? I saw families with children, but I knew that Ahmad was a single man from Syria. I saw the dark skinned man from Cameroon that one of my daughters was assigned to visit and made introductions. I had almost reached the end of the fence when I saw a man stretching to see over the others around him.
“Ahmad?” I asked
“Yes,” he said and we began talking.
I had been assigned to visit Ahmad at Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center as part of a service organization that arranges visits for immigrants awaiting refugee status. These refugees are forced to live at the center when their visas expire or they run out of money.
Many times these visits provide an opportunity for families in the center to see each other. The facility is divided by gender, so these visits are the only time husbands see their wives, mothers see their sons, and fathers see their daughters. Each visitor is given the name and ID number of one person. So the more volunteers, the more family members that can see each other.
I had been looking forward to helping reunite a family, so I was disappointed when I was assigned to visit a single man. But, as part of the visit, each person can bring a bag of goodies to the person they are visiting and also spend time visiting with that person who may be feeling lonely, so I was happy to help out in that way.
I leaned in close to try and hear Ahmad over the din of the conversations around us. I learned that he had been in the center for three months and that he has a sister still in Syria.
I shouted across the fences that I had a friend in Budapest that was helping with the refugees from Syria that were traveling through Hungary. Ahmad nodded, but I am not sure he could hear what I said.
We spent the next 20 minutes shouting and straining to hear before I said it was time for me to go. Ahmad looked disappointed, so I told him we might be back the following week.
The next week we returned. We met with the organization at the café across the street from the detention center and helped divy out the fruits, snacks, and other items the refugees had requested, such as books, clothes, notebooks, and pens.
This time my daughters were assigned to visit teenaged girls from Pakistan. I was again assigned to Ahmad.
I found him easily this time and tried cupping my hands over my ears to hear him better. He told me he liked the book he was given the previous week. Then he explained that he had hurt his knee when he fell in the bathroom and asked if I could bring him a knee brace on my next visit. I said I would try.
Then he called for the guard who was walking between the two fences. He handed a note to the guard who handed it to me. In the note he explained his knee injury again and thanked me for visiting him. I was touched.
On our final visit I was assigned to visit the wife in a Afghani family. By this time I had grown attached to Ahmad and was sad that I wasn’t assigned to visit him again.
While the bags of items for refugees were being sorted, I ran down to the drugstore and bought a knee brace for Ahmad.
Since the visiting area is one big room separated by fences, I was able to talk to Ahmad briefly and say goodbye.
The woman I was assigned to visit didn’t speak English, but I watched her cling to her husband and gaze at her young adult sons with pride. The family’s story was horrific. Their only daughter was shot and killed in front of them and the sons all had scars on their chests from being beaten.
My daughters again visited with the teenage girls from Pakistan and left commenting on the similarities they shared with these refugee girls. They all liked jewelry and notebooks and aspired to go to college.
I was humbled visiting these refugees. I can’t imagine having a life so awful that living in what basically amounts to a jail is better than remaining in one’s own country. It is one thing to see the plight of refugees on the news and another meet refugees in person. My empathy for their situation has grown because of this experience.