“I wanted a concrete way to offer my support to those already suffering through the hidden and often lengthy, inhospitable process of seeking asylum.”

Helen Donaldson is a volunteer visitor with First Friends of NJ and NY. To learn more about the work of First Friends, and to get involved visit: firstfriendsnjny.org

I first became involved with First Friends as a reaction to American travel ban proposals. I wanted a concrete way to offer my support to those already suffering through the hidden and often lengthy, inhospitable process of seeking asylum.

This is what I found. Firstly, I was certainly not alone in my outlook. In fact, I have met and carpooled to the Hudson Correctional Facility with some awesome people. We share and learn from our experiences.

Each detainee has their own personal story of how they have arrived here and the diversity of these stories has been eye opening.


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Going through security at this detention facility is something I have become used to. The officers are serious. The rules are strict. The metal detector process is not dissimilar to that of an airport. There are some days when the smell of cleaning products is overwhelming. Most days the air conditioning is cold, which is something many of the detainees struggle with daily.

I give the officer the number of my detained friend and they call through to arrange the visit. I wait in the waiting room until the loud speaker announces what cubicle I am to go to. I listen intently because the announcements are not always clear or easy to understand. At the cubicle, there is a glass window between myself and the person I am visiting. We communicate via phones. Sometimes the phones are defective and we ask to move to a different cubicle. Interestingly, the defective phones never seem to get fixed. At the end of 30 minutes an officer indicates to my detained friend that time is up and we say good-bye. I usually try to let them know when I might be back.

My first meetings are usually a little slow and we struggle to keep the conversation going at times. I think this is normal. I make sure to outline my role as a First Friends’ representative. I have no legal expertise nor skills as a therapist and I am clear that I have no capacity to influence their case. I usually don’t stay the full 30 minutes but each time I return and make more of a connection it gets much easier. And, of course, why wouldn’t it? There are many wonderful, interesting human beings locked behind these bars.

What do we talk about? Well, sometimes I listen more than talk, sometimes I ask about how their case is progressing, sometimes we talk about what is happening in the news, sometimes we talk about some of the things going on in my life or what has happened during their week, sometimes I tell them about my family, sometimes we talk about the weather, food, cultural differences, interesting places, their homeland, what their plans are if they get released. I try not to pry into much of their past experiences unless it comes from them first. Sometimes the tone is serious and sometimes we just have a laugh.

I often take a pencil and a piece of paper. I have been able to make requests to First Friends on their behalf, sometimes for commissary assistance, sometimes asking to contact someone, sometimes asking to be put on a list for post release assistance. For many of these detainees there is literally no one else to ask for help and no other way to do it.

As a visitor, it’s impossible to completely understand the frustration, despair, fear and conditions that exist in these prisons but little by little I am building a bleak picture of what it might be like to be held inside these facilities. Some detained friends appear to handle the process with an outward appearance of strength and acceptance. Some people are on the edge of emotional breakdown. Some people are somewhere in between but all have specifically contacted First Friends and asked for a visit from a stranger outside their world of lockdown and uncertainty. It’s one of the few things they do have a choice about.

There have been a few times when I have not felt like going. Twice I have been soaked running through heavy rain from the car park to the front doors. The days and hours of visitation may not always suit you or your family. Although the visit is only 30 minutes it takes much longer to organize. I usually block out a few hours to get there, sign in, visit and return home. As I say goodbye and hang up the phone though I am aware that this is a rare experience for us both.

Sometimes I used to wonder if my visits were helpful or made much of a difference but I don’t anymore. I attended a First Friends meeting where some newly released asylum seekers spoke and their stories left no doubt that a contact from a volunteer was sometimes the only thing that kept their heads above water. It gave them hope that there were, and are, regular Americans wanting to support them and welcome them into our country in a humane way. I feel proud to be a First Friends volunteer.

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