As I read todays news with The Beatitudes ringing in my ears, I was stopped short by my own memory of being detained at Heathrow airport.
"It was 1997 I had been living and working in South Africa and was making a big move to live in the U.K. to work alongside my friend and mentor Lynn Swart (we would be making music and raising awareness of child prostitution in India and hopefully getting land and a building a place for girls to recover from the trauma and get valuable skills to survive. This was a huge dream come true for me!) I had all my ducks in a row, letter of invitation, proof of income, place to live, etc. I felt like stars were aligned.
I was going to be met at the airport by my best friend Katie her husband Ben (also a close friend), and meet their new baby, Esther. I would be hanging with the people outside of family I loved most in the world. I was excited, to say the least.
My plane landed and I slowly made my way to customs. Everything was going as planned. (For those of you that don't know Heathrow/London is a hub of world travel for so much of the world, it is always brimming with every language and people, it is hectic most of the time, and almost always is tense) I arrived and the airport was crowded with people all trying to make it through customs. I was nervous I have been through many borders and have experienced first-hand what it is like to be an American abroad, which means everyone around the world who comes to our country for pleasure or safety is treated like shit, I have experienced the reverse and I don't blame them. Also, I had been to Heathrow many times and every time I had experienced what I would have called back then rough treatment at the hands of customs officials: My problem was I always gave too much information, sweated nervously, and my anxiety would skyrocket.
The official brusquely asked me questions:
What are you doing here?
How long are you staying?
Is someone picking you up?
What are your friend's names?
What is their address?
How do you know them?
Are you working here?
What is your business?
This is not a friendly back and forth, it is almost interrogational in its format. It leaves any person with the remotest anxiety, shaking and perspiring!
The customs official said he wasn't happy with my answers and that they would be holding me. At that point I woke up a bit from my shock and said my friend would be waiting for me with her baby and I had no way of letting them know I was was being detained (this is a time before cell phones) He assured me he would put a message out so she could wait for me (which I found out later they didn't do, on the contrary, they told her I hadn't made it on the plane). I was escorted by airport police into a holding area. I was alone. Inside I kept reminding myself it would be alright, I had a similar experience when I moved to South Africa, sitting in a wood-paneled cubicle while a South African policeman smoked and asked me those same questions above. I sweated and waited it out back then and made it into the country. Why would this be any different? I hadn't done anything wrong.
I was in a room in the interior of Heathrow with people from all over the world looking for refuge or like me wondering what was happening. I can remember a black man from Germany saying to the guard, that he was a German citizen and they had no right to detain him! Two women huddled together possibly from El Salvador (its been so long I don't remember what South American country it was, what I do remember and will never forget is the fear that poured off them) and me a white American woman from a middle-class family, who could always go home.
After a couple hours with no word on what was going on, no food, water, or phone call I was taken to a room with tables chained to the floor and interrogated by two women. They had gone through my luggage with a fine tooth comb, read all my letters, and looked through all my personal belongings (my life in a backpack). I was in shock! They still hadn't told me what I had done and still to this day I don't know what I did.
I was interrogated for about an hour, it isn't as fun as it sounds. You are forced to defend what shouldn't need defending and play the meek and mild, while strangers decide things about you and hold your fate in their hands. While never really knowing why or what you did wrong.
From there I went back into the holding cell and strangely it now was almost empty. I can remember going into the bathroom crying at this point and trying to talk myself down.
It will be okay.
Just breathe and stay calm.
You haven't done anything wrong.
I remember even the guard seemed confused by me still being there I kept asking him if he knew what was going on.
One of my interrogators came back at this point and informed me that I was being deported and would be leaving the U.K. right then. Wait what?! I needed to call someone to pay for my ticket (I had been living in S.A. and didn't have British currency on me to make a phone call.) I was in shock my parents didn't have that kind of money laying around plus it was in about 4 am in
Washington state (remember no cell phones and barely computers).
I can remember my mom answering the phone and me trying not to cry. And the interrogator breathing down my neck. I told my mom I was being deported and I needed her to buy me a ticket home, they were only giving me a few minutes to call. She was groggy and trying to take it all in. I said; Mom, I'm being deported, please get me a ticket out of here as fast as you can! They are telling me I need to be on the first plane out of here. My mom said it was the middle of the night, she would do her best, but it would take some time. And click the phone was dead.
I was then taken back into the holding room, which was now empty, just me and the same guard who had been there all day. I sat alone trying not to cave in on myself. The guard got a call telling him they were going to transport me to another holding space. I was picked up now by two guards a man and a woman who I remember seemed a bit surprised to see someone like me. They took me to an armored van, in the interior of Heathrow (I have seen parts of that airport few civilians have seen or ever will), I was put in the back of a padded van (which basically means there was nothing that could be used as a weapon), me and a strange man in the back of a padded, armored van being driven through the interior of Heathrow, like two common criminals.
I will pause here to comment: Even though in this experience up to this point I had a pretty good idea of my privilege, here is where hindsight can be the great revealer. I had know idea of the story of the man riding in the van with me, he looked like he might be from the Middle East and he was handcuffed. What hindsight gives me is perspective. I was a white American girl, being treated with the most kindness I had received so far by these two guards. He was a brown skinned man, handcuffed and barely looked at by me or the guards. I don't know his story if he had done something to elicit this treatment, but I do know we weren't treated equally. That's what times gives me.
I was taken to another holding room, this room was much bigger, full of Eastern Europeans, and had a phone. I used the phone to call my friend Katie, that's when I told her what was happening and she told me the story that she had been given, that I never made it on the plane and she had been worriedly trying to figure out what had happened to me ever since.
I waited in this new room for a while, getting more and more agitated I knew my flight was coming, but I couldn't leave without an escort and no one was coming to get me. Still, I waited. Finally, someone comes and tells me I'm going to miss my flight, they have no one to take me, and I needed to run to catch it. I have to then run through the airport backward through all the checkpoints, which means at every checkpoint I'm stopped and questioned. I finally get so angry I start yelling at every checkpoint, I'M BEING DEPORTED AND I'M GOING TO MISS MY FLIGHT, PLEASE LET ME THROUGH!!! I finally get to the counter of the airline that's supposed to take me back to the States and say to the woman I need to get on this flight! I'm being deported and they held me so long now I'm afraid I am not going to make it on the flight! She informs me I have already missed the flight. I then really start to panic (at this point I'm guessing I wasn't alone in the belief that I had no options and would possibly be held responsible for missing my flight, put back in a holding room and further interrogated. I was broken and am guessing this is how most people feel by this point having experienced similar treatment- POWERLESS) Now, what am was supposed to do? She sends me to someone from security and they tell me...We are going to keep your passport (anyone who has ever traveled knows this is not good), you need to leave the airport, find a hotel and get back here tomorrow morning to catch your flight home. He looked at me as if I have been given a huge gift. Except for the fact, it's now nighttime, I have been in the airport without food for over 14 hours, I don't have money for this expense or a credit card to put it on, and on top of it, my family is expecting me. I see a pay phone I stagger over to it and try calling Katie to see if there is any way she can come all the way back across London get me, no answer. I then try calling my family, no answer. Up until this point, I have done a pretty good job holding it together and now that thin, worn veneer is cracking. I try Katie again and finally reach someone, yes she can come (London is huge and it will take awhile, find a place to sit and wait). I try my family again, I'm shaking, sweating and my 14-year-old brother picks up the phone when I hear his voice I lose it. I can barely speak or breathe, let alone get the words out to tell him I won't be home when expected. I can remember his little voice calming me down, reassuring me it would be alright.
Then I carried all my belongings to a McDonald's bought some fries (I don't remember getting money, but I must have because like I said NO credit card). I sat there in McDonald's silently weeping. This wasn't tears just from the disappointment of a being mistreated and misunderstood. This was the loss of a dream, held on to and worked for and the confusion of not knowing WHY.
There was a moment of clarity that I experienced in that Heathrow McDonald's that I don't know if I will ever have again. It was a moment where I could hear myself say bitterness is a choice, you have a choice to let anger corrode your vision or you can look at where you were today and see it as an honor and privilege to be in a place most Americans never see or experience because they call out to the American embassy to save them, and back then the American embassy probably did. But you Angie have had this moment to look at how people are treated that have no government that they can cry out to, most are fleeing. This is an experience you can't buy, this experience will change who you are.
Had I known then what I know now, I see that some of the insight and empathy I was feeling was still coming from a place of white American privilege and power. But you can't change what you don't know. I thought I was aware of this power dynamic and I was to a degree, now I know better and hopefully will keep learning.
I was picked up by my friend an hour or so after sitting in McDonald's reflecting. I had a meal with friends, laughed and cried and the next day woke up early, got on a train and headed to Heathrow to make my way home.
I have never told this story in detail until today. Why now you may be asking? Because I realized today while reading an article of a woman trying to kill herself in a JFK airport bathroom after being told she would be deported back to her country of origin, I had a unique perspective and that perspective may help others understand what this experience is like to live through.
I am not from a country in the midst of war!
I was not fleeing for my life!
I had people that I could call that would help me!
I am not an immigrant seeking asylum!
But I did experience what it is like to be ignored, interrogated, misjudged, and unable to prove my innocence. You may be wondering why I didn't seek the help of the American embassy, well I didn't know I could. I didn't know my rights.