The Detention Centre we visited is tucked away in a small town, about an hour and a half drive from the main city where we met. We drove through the rain, a down pour of tremendous rain drops that threw themselves against the windshield with incredible force. Ellen drove her small Proton at a casual pace, not hurried and frantic like many of the other cars on the road earnest to arrive at their destination in record time.
As she drove we talked. I peppered her with questions about the Detention Centres and her work ministering to Vietnamese workers who by some ironic twist of fate, or a bad decision, and usually because of forces outside their own power, arrive in Malaysia legally on contracts, but become illegal in the process.
Ellen owns a computer business and has spent a career in the technology sector. She happened into the gritty and thankless work of helping migrant workers not so much by chance, but surely not with intention. She met real people. Heard real stories. Responded as she could, with her own limited power and resources to help right wrongs, of which there are too many for her to address on her own, try as she now might.
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
Her vocation, if you call it that, takes up most of her time, requires most of her resource and strength, sees her bring young men – foreigners, criminals – into her home because they have no other place to go. “The could kill me in the night, my husband too,” she retorted when I asked her about how safe she feels inviting strangers into her home. “But they don’t. I do what I think is right,” what must be done, what she as a Christian feels she cannot but do, “and trust God that he will protect me” if there is any real threat.
By the time we arrived at the Detention centre, the sky had cleared. The grey, ominous clouds had rolled back and the sun shone on us as we walked to the gate. Emblazoned on a red sign was a message that I understood very clearly, though I know hardly a word of Bahasa: “Kawasan Larangan,” and below the words the image of a stickman with a gun, shooting a running stickman in the back: “Restricted Area.”
We entered the Detention Centre on the wings of prayer, evidenced by the ease we had with the guards when we stepped to the guardhouse to show our passports and gain permission to enter the restricted area. The Malay woman at the desk was pleasant, seemed happy, even, to see us. When we were handed our ID passes and were returned our passports and told to go to the main office, Ellen whispered to me how pleasant the entrance was: on her frequent visits, sometimes it takes her a whole hour to be given the pass we were given in two minutes.
Ellen told me later that every entrance to the Detention Centre was unique. A Chinese guard, a woman, pulled Ellen aside on a previous visit and told her the place was cursed. The woman warned her not to pick any of the flowers so carefully kept in beds at the Detention Centre’s entrance, sure they would poison any household the flowers were brought to. She asked Ellen if she too saw the unhomed dead, roaming restlessly in the spirit world all throughout the Detention centre. Ellen did not. Nor did I on our visit, a fact I am still thankful for to this day. I do not doubt such things might be unfolding in the spiritual realm. We both agreed how convenient it was not to see in such detail these things, how difficult such vision would make the practical work of meeting with detainees, buying food, and getting the information necessary to start or finish the work of securing identity papers so the detainees could go home.
The two of us walked together to the main office. As we passed the first building, the doors were pushed open, and a Middle Eastern man emerged, handcuffed, wearing shirt and pants that were clean and white, presumably his own clothes. Clean shaven with hair closely trimmed to his skull, he walked down a ramp followed by an official. His deep-set eyes were serious. He walked ahead of us to a series of large steel enclosures, like massive bird cages, in front of the main office. An official opened the door for him and he joined four other men, also wearing their own clothing, where they sat in a neat row, cross-legged on the ground. Behind their cage another, with two lines of men quietly sitting in bright orange jumpsuits. Men being processed into the Detention Centre watching the backs of those men, dressed again in their own clothes, on their way out.
The main office was filled with Malaysian Immigration officials smartly dressed in navy blue uniforms. Woman in hajibs and men with shortly cut hair. Clean and neat, sitting around each other’s desks, doing work but enjoying each other’s company. I was surprised how casual the environment seemed, given the location the office was situated. A large white board covered most of one wall with a grid describing the number of detainees in the centre, their nationality and gender. I stood near the door while Ellen talked with different officials, showed them papers, checked over records and drew up the list of detainees from different blocs that we would meet. I slipped outside to text the information on the whiteboard on my phone.
That morning the tally of detainees was 760 in total. 157 from Indonesia. 94 from Bangladesh. 42 from Vietmam, 18 of them women who had arrived that very morning. Ellen told me later, when she asked to see them, the official she approached said, “Don’t touch them.” And told her that the Syndicate would come later in the day or on the next to get them. Brought to the country to work as prostitutes, we surmised, local crime lords had worked out some sort of agreement and were using the centre as a point of entry for their fresh new recruits, likely to end up in brothels or karaoke bars in spots all over the mainland. 397 of the detainees were from Myanmar, 148 of which were Rohingya. 7 Chinese, 4 Pakastanis, 3 Sri Lankans, 2 from Iraq, 2 Russians, and 2 Nigerians/ Africans. These were the numbers and nationalities I was able to scribe onto my phone in haste. Where the other 50 detainees were from I am not certain.
We walked to the small building where detainees are brought to meet visitors. The room was a simple construct. Divided in the middle by a room of booths with glass fronts with small holes cut in the glass, presumably the area designated for visitation. The groups we were to see, however, were too large, and so we sat on the floor, against the south most wall, in front of the desk where three Immigration officials, who looked fresh out of high school, sat and administrated the visits, checked our ID, told detainees where to stand, smiled at me, the foreigner, ate potato chips and tapped out texts on their flashy cell phones.