I’ve always loved Sundays,there is something refreshing about them. That Sunday I woke up extra excited, in a few hours I would be in Ireland, meeting inspiring people from all over the world. Attending the Global youth Peace summit, something we need so much in today’s time. Young people from Sri Lanka to Colombia would be getting together for one week in Belfast to inspire change. And I was going to reunite with some of my beautiful friends again, I couldn’t wait to be there! “This is exactly what I need at this point in my life,” I thought, as I got to the airport in Hamburg.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Breezing through border controls at Hamburg Airport, I felt reassured that I had the right information about visa requirements. A bit of a backstory to put this in context : I am an Indian citizen, with a Dutch residents permit as a family member of an EU citizen. According to a million legit websites, if you are a non-EU spouse or family member of an EU citizen and have a residents permit card that says so, you are FREE TO TRAVEL in the EU. Just to make sure I made a call to British Embassy in the Hague, asking about this. It was confirmed. So I was confident.
” We are now landing in Heathrow, thank you for flying with us” at these words, I was itching to get out of the plane, it was half an hour delayed, which gave me only half an hour to get to my next flight! I hate when that happens, and transfers always make me nervous so I made a dash to border control wanting to make sure I make my flight. I had never missed a flight in my life and I did not plan to give with without a fight, little did I know, that fight I would have to, but for a whole other reason. At border control, sat a big white man looking stern in the way authorities at borders usually do.
S ( Srushti): Good evening. ( Puts passport and residents permit on the counter)
O (Border control Officer) : ( Looks at the passport, at S, at passport, roughly flips through the many stamped pages) Where is your visa to enter the UK?
S : (nervously pointing) I have EU family residents permit.
O: (grunts and examines the permit) It doesn’t say family on it.
S: Uh, yes, right here ” familie en/of gezin of …”
O: But it doesn’t say it in English now, does it?
S: Yes, but it is a Dutch residents permit.
O: Wait aside I need to check this out.
S: My flight leaves in 20 minutes.
O: Not my problem.
Restlessly I sit down where he pointed. Another young woman with an Iranian passport sits there waiting. We exchange nervous smiles.
10 mins… 20 mins… I’ve missed my flight… 50 minutes later, the man comes back with my passport.
O: You cannot enter the UK.
O: Ah ah, don’t argue, if we made if so easy for Indians to come to the UK, they would all come running here, wouldn’t they?
S: But I have an EU permit, I spoke with the British Embassy and they said it was fine.
O: Yes, but I am saying it is not fine. I have worked here for 17 years, are you telling me how to do my job?
S: I am not trying to do anything of that sort, I was informed by the British Embassy and I have checked a million websites that as a family member of an EU citizen within the EU.
O: But we not part of the EU anymore.
S: I know, but the rules haven’t changed yet, the British Embassy told me so.
O: ( angrily) I am the British Embassy! Who do you think you are? Just because you have travelled all over the world, you think you can enter the UK! We need everybody to know that we are the strictest law in the land. We are going to deport you back on the first flight, ( looking at his watch). It might be tomorrow, you’ll have to spend the night at a centre, we’ll just have to see. Take a seat and wait for further instructions.
On my way to my seat another officer comes to me and advises ” That man is the highest border official in the airport, I would be nice to him if I were you. You don’t want to tick him off.”
Now I was panicking, being deported, spending the night at a detention centre!? Shit was now circling around in the air, very close to the fan.
I calmed myself down, and changed my phone sim card to my Dutch number. My husband was in Trinidad ( taking separate vacations didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore). I called my father in law in The Netherlands to make sure the family knew what was happening. Immediately they set into motion, made a whats app group to offer support in different ways. I informed by friends in Belfast and a few other friends ( if I was going to disappear soon, people needed to know where I was last, I thought, years of watching dramatic movies and reading horrible stories dancing around in my head). Calling the Embassy Indian, or Dutch or British somehow didn’t cross my mind, possibly because I was freaking out and all I wanted was to get home. Anyway, there was nothing else to do but wait.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
I sat in the waiting area for 3 hours before the officer came back. Different people were brought into the waiting area during this time, guarded by two officers, situated in the middle of the airport, surrounded by lines of travellers getting to border control who walked past staring at us like something you look at in a zoo. All the people brought to waiting area in the three hours had something in common – they were all not white.
After three hours, the officer came back and asked me and the Iranian woman to follow him for further instructions. He took us to some rooms behind giant steel doors, all the while making inappropriate jokes about how we needn’t worry because he was not going to ‘do anything to us’, because there were cameras everywhere! He told us that the Iranian woman would be sent onwards to Dublin that evening ( she had an Irish residence permit) and I would be sent to a detention centre for the night as there were no more flights going to the Netherlands. Shit had officially hit the fan.
After this explanation I was told to follow two female guards into another room where they took my finger prints and picture and made my file. While their lips said the words ” don’t worry you have not done anything criminal, this is just procedure” their actions continued to humiliate and dehumanise me. I cried during this ‘routine procedure’ and they just looked away and continued to talk amongst themselves about where one of them was going on vacation next week. At some point one of them asked the other ” what are we going to do with this one?” and her response was “I don’t know, we need to wait for instructions.” All the while ‘this one’ was sitting right there. An hour later, they had further instructions and I was escorted to collect my bags which had been taken off the plane hours ago. While I was waiting, I tried to talk to them and emphasised how I did not want to go to a detention centre, I preferred to wait at the airport instead, to which they answered, ” we have to make sure you are comfortable, the detention centre has a bed and a shower.” In my head I was screaming – comfortable!!?Seriously!!
On the way to the centre, one of the female guards started making small talk with me asking what I was ‘ in’ for. I explained my situation to her and suddenly they both stopped walking, “You have an EU family residents permit?” “YES!”, one guard says to other “she has a family permit, she should be allowed to go”, I see a glimpse of panic in their eyes,
“But the chief officer ( using his name) checked her papers” says one, ” yeah, he must have checked properly, I am sure he couldn’t have made a mistake.” Seeing my window of opportunity I tell them that he did not let me really explain my situation well and that I was informed by the British Embassy. I see the confusion on their faces, and also the shackled limitation of their positions. Finally the conclude that he could not have made this mistake and if he said I was not allowed, he was probably right, so we continued on our way. But suddenly they were much nicer to me, more polite, asking about what I do and how I speak such good English? ” 300 years of colonialism” I wanted to answer, instead I say that I went to an English medium school, growing up.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Once at the detention centre, I had to hand over my phone, my belongings, even my shawl (a potential self strangulation device) to the guards. I was patted down by an officer and led into a closed room, where another woman of color was sitting in the middle, blankly staring at a TV screen. This room had a table with two chairs, some newspapers, a pay phone in one corner and two thin mattresses in another. A glass window separated it from the area where two guards sat. One of them said in a sing song tone – ” you be nice to us and we be nice to you. If you throw a tantrum, cry or make any trouble, you and me will have trouble and we don’t want any trouble now do we? ” I was given a paper and a pen and allowed to give the phone number of payphone in the room to my family members so they could call me on it. “Till when am I going to be here?” I asked, ” as long as it takes” was the answer. I was given a cup of instant noodles and some coffee to take with me in the room. And then the door closed.
Soon my husband called on the payphone and I broke down listening to his voice. I just wanted to get home. A few minutes later I was calmer and we hung up. Somehow, having this other woman in the room gave me an enormous sense of relief. I sat down beside her and introduced myself. We started talking – she was Mexican. My age, visting her boyfriend after three years, she had an invitation from him, she had an entry visa for the UK, but at the border, they started asking her questions, they asked what her job was and when she said she was a cleaning lady in Mexico, she was asked to wait. An hour later, officers told her that her job was not according to their standards and she did not have enough resources to enter. So she would be deported back to Mexico on the first flight out. By this point she was in the detention centre for 10 hours already. Her boyfriend and his family waited outside for hours before finally realising there was not much they could do. I felt pained and angry for her, she was upset too, but consoled me saying “It was unfortunate that this happened but at least I got the opportunity to get on a plane for the first time in my life. And I will go home soon.”
A few hours later, another person was brought into the detention centre, a white American man. He was there because he had overstayed his work visa for 10 months, now returning from a vacation in Thailand, the border guards realised this and refused to let him enter.
At 12 am the lights in room were switched off and there was nothing else to do but sleep. I did not sleep that night. I lay awake thinking, simmering in my anger and feeling the pain of humiliation, dehumanisation and uncertainty – my pain and that of millions of people around the world who are in similar or worse situations. I was in this situation and yet, I knew that I was privileged. I spoke the language of the authorities, I was highly educated, I knew what they were talking about, I had a network of people around the world who would fight for me and whose support I could rely on. I would get out of here. But everyday thousands of people are dehumanised, humiliated, detained or worse sent back to places that may not be safe for them. What is this world we live in, where borders rule supreme, where an officer on a power trip can deport someone just because he says so, where people become things and things become more important than people?
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
The next morning, the lights got back on at 6 am, we were given coffee and some bread. An officer came in and informed me that I would be put on an 8.30 flight back to Amsterdam. At 7.30 two women guards came along to escort me to the flight. They stayed with me till I got onto the plane and handed my passport and a letter, that among other things, gave the crew “the authority to keep in custody on board, if I tried to escape.” For the 45 minutes of the flight duration I stared at the seat in front of me. The crew handed me my passport when we landed and I was free again. At the Dutch border control, I fidgeted nervously as I waited in line. Once at the counter the officer looked at my residents permit and passport for 3 seconds and said, “welcome”.
Tears of relief and exhaustion streamed down my face as I walked to pick up my bags. I was home.
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Poem: I rise, by Maya Angelo.