In the post about my top volunteering picks in Bangkok, I first mentioned visiting Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center. Here are more details about how doing good may even lead you to go to jail in Thailand.
The waiting room is full and tense. There is a mixture or people from all backgrounds, packed together in a long but narrow corridor. They sit or stand shoulder to shoulder, but are worlds apart. I sit and hypothesize about that distance. Whether it’s the language barriers or the weight of solemn helplessness to aid loved ones that keeps people eerily quiet, I’m not sure. Then I sit and reflect on a few scenes I just witnessed coming in that seem to indicate the latter. A stream of shirtless, handcuffed Burmese men waiting with heavy eyes. Giant paddy wagons parked outside used in raids to arrest the people–our people–or people like them anyway.
“They sit or stand shoulder to shoulder, but are worlds apart.”
The paper work is done. And not a moment too soon, my sulking is abruptly interrupted by yelling in Thai. I understand and jump to my feet with the others. The command is followed by something broken and harsh, resembling English. I handover my passport for a locker key and crush my belongings inside. No camera and no phones is emphasized in the Thai commands over the importance of no metal or sharp objects. Is any connection to the outside a threat? I swallow that thought while they pat me down and carelessly molest the packages of food I’ve brought. Hands are waved and I wander over to the portable fence.
“I loathe this fence.”
Some of the detainees are already out and the searching and murmuring escalates. There is another row of port-o-fences partitioning the detainees from our fence with a meter or so in between, that at first impression seems to be a mile. The rest is a dysfunctional airport scene. Some elation, greetings, and smiles. The volume of the people shouting between the fences intensifies.
I loathe this fence.
It separates people in a different way than when we were outside. It is the physical personification of the same solemn helplessness I felt then. Damned fence. It doesn’t save me from the obvious desperation of the people on the other side, the heat of the sun, nor the stench from the toilets in the nearby cells.
I press my fingers through the fence and lean on it because I can see her now. “Mr. Noname!” she shouts.
I reply, “Happy Birthday.”
“Today there were enough volunteers to reunite her whole family during the visiting hour. We’re proud.”
She’s been here since the raids last October. Only a few months ago she was a regular attendant of the Saturday morning classes at the Bangkok Refugee Center, practicing her English with me, quizzing the other volunteers about the US, and teaming up with her friends to guess my name. When they couldn’t pry it out of me I was dubbed Mr. Noname. Today there were enough volunteers to reunite her whole family during the visiting hour. We’re proud.
Her smile is noticeably bigger than mine. She’s a teenager today. The other volunteers gather around the fence on our side. I glance around self consciously. Back to the dysfunctional airport scene. Back to the sign behind me that reads, “Don’t trow anything.” And finally, back to the fence. I join the others in crooning the happy birthday song through it. Later, they point over to the food supplies we brought, including bottled water and birthday cupcakes freshly smushed from the search.
The time is up. We wave goodbye to the beaming new teenager. I leave ashamed a little for comparing her birthday to ones I had. Or maybe from being unable to fully mirror her beautiful smile. But I’m thankful and positive–there’s no better way I could have spent my morning.
This is just one of the many stories from the visits we’re making to IDC. It was built to temporarily house foreigners and migrants who overstayed visas or found themselves on the wrong side of Thai law. Thus it can often be quite crowded, without all the amenities of a normal prison. Many refugee families who are arrested end up there regardless of their status with the UN and with little recourse. Twice a week volunteers gather to visit, reunite the families, and bring supplies. Please consider donating or visiting with us while you’re in Bangkok.
Here’s a quote from Ryan who had to stay there a week before his family was resettled to the US:
“In IDC, people are short of everything…. They need most basic supplies, such as carbohydrates, vitamins, drinking water, and hygiene necessities. I know it’s gonna be really hard for yourself to make much different in these people’s life, but with more people actively involving in your program, I believe a lot of people’s life will be better.”
Other Good Ways to Go to Jail
There are other groups going into prisons and providing services to inmates. For example, the Christian Prison Ministry Foundation works with prisoners nearing release. In addition to giving religious guidance to inmates, they provide a series of educational classes to prepare participants to succeed once reintegrated back into society. CPMF is doing everything from art classes to running a halfway house for inmates. Get involved by volunteering to share a skill, especially if you have an interest in helping people rebuild their lives.
I understand that for many, visiting jails and detention centers aren’t the types of attractions you normally think of when you’re planning your trip to Thailand. I sure didn’t. But when you get in the habit of making yourself available to serve others, you’ll learn to love the adventure that is packaged with making a difference in people’s lives.