The next group of Vietnamese detainees were more fortunate. Ellen had tickets for ten of the eleven. Seven men and three women. The lone unfortunate was a few weeks away from being given the same good news. Ellen tenderly touched his cheek and told him to be strong as he waited patiently for release. A bittersweet moment to be sure. The men were happy. All of the men had been scooped up on a RELA raid, Malaysia’s citizen action group given the power to arrest and detain foreigners with irregular status, at a construction site a few weeks earlier.
The three women were a different story. So young, children they seemed, two of them no older than sixteen. All three from an area of the Mekong Delta, a triangulation of land where the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam meet. A poor region with little work, a viable trade for many of the girls is prostitution. Some arrive in Malaysia expecting work of another kind, only to find they’ve been duped and forced into the world of the sex trade. Others come willingly to sell their bodies for sex and make more money then they ever could at home. Two of the girls were disappointed to hear from Ellen they were leaving Malaysia. They pleaded with her to let them stay, told her they wanted to remain in the centre where they made money as prostitutes. The other girl seemed happy to go home.
The last visit we paid was to a young man who was marched like all the others, but on his own. Handsome, young, he didn’t look a day over 18. He had been detained for a number of weeks in the Detention Centre. Ellen showed him the papers that had been sent to him from home. Without any money and captured or arrested unexpectedly, most families of the men and women in detention have no knowledge their loved ones are detained. One of the first things Ellen does when she meets detainees is give them money for a phone card so they can phone home, reconnect with their families, so the families can send papers from Vietnam in order to secure their release from detention and get a plane ticket home.
It’s a process that isn’t without bumps and obstacle. Sometimes she works directly with the Embassy, sometimes she is in touch with the families in Vietnam. Sometimes papers arrive in the mail to her home, and each visit to the Detention Centre Ellen brings what new information she has acquired and compares her records with whatever records the Immigration officers have of detainees.
Ellen had good news for the young man that day: a passport that had been sent from home. She had a plane ticket for him. He would be leaving Malaysia! I watched the wave of relief wash over him, imagined how it must have felt to be so suddenly so close to seeing family again after a long, horrible ordeal. Ellen tenderly wiped the tears that fell to his cheeks with her thumb and asked him if we could pray for him. He had been terribly sick over the last few days, and the lymph nodes on his neck were quite swollen. We laid hands on him and quietly prayed.
Described as “a siren call [that] will… forever take us from our complacency to the plight of so many lost, lonely and hurting”
Photographs by Jonathan Kwok
Stories by Andrew Kooman
Reflections by Melanie Hurlbut
with a Foreword by Ambassador Dato’ Dennis Ignatius Former High Commissioner of Malaysia to Canada
:: Buy Now ::
When I was in Kenya, I felt the presence of God in a similar way, a heaviness that seemed to push me into the ground. God for whatever reason was suddenly very real and present in my wakened senses, a privileged moment when the veil or fog covering my eyes lifted and I could perceive somehow through the limited grid of my body that heaven was open and that its resources were available to us. Words fail my limited faculties, fail to describe the holiness, the goodness of such a moment. I can, at least, tell you what I prayed. For healing in his body. For courage to swell and conquer his heart. That he would be a faithful shepherd that would feed and lead vulnerable sheep. That he would be certain of the love of God.
Who am I, Lord, to pray such a prayer? Who am I to touch the shackled hands, the swollen lymph nodes of Christ? Who was this man, and who will say with certainty that he was not the most important person I will ever meet in my life?
His name? Neither of us knows. Ellen confided to me, outside the Detention Centre after we had driven along its southern border, the wheels of her car making a full revolution for each coil of barb wire that stretched along the top of the high security fence, that the name on the passport didn’t match the one he had give her on her previous visits. I sat at the hawker stall where we ate lunch thinking about this.
The owner’s initial surprise that I, a white man, would eat in his restaurant in the small out-of-the-way town, was replaced by his surprise that I could order my food in Hokkien. Whose passport did the young man have? How did his family acquire it? How to see the hundreds of thousands of stories of misplaced, stolen identity come to a tidy end?
Two young Burmese men ran around for the owner of the shop, bringing our drinks, our noodles, cleaning tables. My hungry stomach so easily filled so near to where hundreds of men and women with uncertain fates tried to push away thoughts of the only consistent certainty in their wasting lives: hunger. My own identity papers tucked neatly away in a pocket, hidden and safe, I quietly watched the young men serving us, and wondered how accessible their papers were to them.
© 2010 Andrew Kooman. All Rights Reserved.
In 2009 Andrew visited Malaysia and met with migrants and refugees from around South East Asia to hear their stories about their life in Malaysia. Many of the accounts were told by Burmese refugees fleeing the junta. Their stories were the basis for the new book Disappointed by Hope: Migrants and Refugees in Search of a Better Country published by YWAM Penang and Raise Their Voice to highlight the plight of displaced and undocumented migrants.
The above account is a portion of Andrew’s personal reflections on his experience in Malaysia. Some names and locations have been modified for reasons of confidentiality.
Read the other articles from the series:
Week 1: Refugees Hiding in the Jungle | Week 2: The Impossible Choices of Refugees |Week 3: Undocumented Workers Detained by Immigration | Week 4: The Horrible Drudgery of Detention | Week 5: A Ticket Home