When Kao Yang was four years old, her family immigrated to the United States. They came as refugees from Laos and stayed in a camp until the U.S. government granted them asylum.
Every day, refugees come to the United States seeking safety their homelands can no longer offer. Unlike Yang’s experience, however, many of these refugees are placed into prisons to await asylum. No distinction is made between these people and the criminals they live with. The only hope they have for freedom hangs on a judicial system that can take years to review an individual case.
Yang, now a University graduate and College of Liberal Arts student personnel worker, recently led a group of 10 University students to the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. As part of a University YMCA Immersion program to New York City focusing on refugee rights, she was able to see first-hand the conditions refugees endure everyday.
“For me it was a reality shock,” Yang said. “It was emotional and powerful for all of us. It was overwhelming for me to see this. Human life is degraded there.”
Detention centers throughout the country hold refugees. Lawyers work without pay on their cases, aiming to attain asylum and visas, but the cases are often overturned or denied. It is a long, painstaking process, Yang said.
The students on the trip were able to speak with refugees, a rare opportunity for the prisoners, as most of them have lost communication with their families back home.
“The man I spoke with I was really inspired by,” said Sarah Smith, a junior majoring in Latin American Studies and Spanish. “It was very special to meet him. It makes you feel very small.”
The refugee Smith spoke with has been in the detention center for 22 months, but he is happy to be in the United States. He hopes for freedom and to be able to work. But he tries not to think of the future for fear of being sent back to Algeria, his homeland.
While going to the detention center was the most moving part of the trip for the students, the goal of the journey was to help students develop ethical leadership abilities in the context of social justice, said Ruth Janisch, YMCA program director.
The group also visited the United Nations, talked with grass-roots organizations and church groups, toured Ellis Island and spent a day at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. as part of the 10-day journey.
“The main objective of the trip is slowly implementing community processes — learning about the causes and how to make a difference,” Yang said.
A second goal of the program is personal growth, Janisch said. “I hope people come back with a deeper understanding of themselves as well as the issue.”
Smith said the people she met on the trip have inspired her to pursue immigration issues in the future. She started at the University majoring in business and now wants to be able to help immigrants through the legal system.
“It made me want to get more involved,” said Dana Chean, a third-year University student. Chean’s parents are refugees from Cambodia and he said he learned refugees deserve more attention.
The fact that refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. are housed in prisons is glossed over in textbooks, Yang said. She said the most interesting thing about the excursion was learning the human aspect, talking to the refugees who are kept in detention centers.
“They treat them like they have committed a crime, but they haven’t,” Smith said. “They feel like they don’t matter, that no one cares about them.”
Despite the waiting and unknowns, Yang said most of the refugees the group met were happy and hungry to talk with outsiders about life on the other side of the prison’s walls. “They were very strong, very optimistic about life,” Yang said.
A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo at the center has already seen his case rejected, but he was smiling and happy to have someone to listen to him, Yang added. Communication with people about life is a rare opportunity.
But not all of the refugees shared the optimism. The people who are new to the system, who don’t speak English and who don’t understand why they are there, often feel angry. They want to be free to view America unrestricted by legislative and bureaucratic red tape, Yang said.
Whether it be refugees in New York or immigrants in Texas, the immersion programs focus on social injustice both in and out of the United States.
“Lots of times people feel they need to have experience with the issue, but it’s only important to have a passion for the issue and a commitment to learning more,” Janisch said.
The University YMCA has been sponsoring immersion trips every quarter since the mid-1980s, Janisch said. About 1,000 people have participated in the program.