Deportation is the New Customs
A personal encounter with prison in the Middle East
and I may or may not be traumatized (but probably not.)
Because there is a chance that I am able to return, no country will be named in this post. But trust me: this story Is rael.
This blog post is about the time I traveled halfway across the world to be detained, interrogated, imprisoned, and deported. If you want to skip straight to the life lesson, here it is:
- Always travel with people who laugh
- Don’t travel in jeans
- Deportation is BYOP: bring your own pillow
If you want a (slightly exaggerated) story, here is (the mostly true) tale:
Every good story begins in Toronto. It was in the Toronto Airport that I met R and M: my new companions, co-workers, and soon-to-be fellow inmates. We were all headed towards a certain occupied territory in the Middle East to teach English for the 2014-15 school year. R and M are both lovely young ladies, with a practical way of looking at things, and — as I later found out — great senses of humor. Always, always travel with people who can laugh.
My Air Canada experience was flawless. I had an exit row seat on the inaugural flight of the Dream Liner. The crew was welcoming and gracious, and I soon befriended Big Baldy, Short Baldy, Lovely Brunette, and Lovely Blonde. I slept on and off as we crossed the Atlantic, and bid them all farewell when we landed near the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, I never left the airport. My vacation scrapbook will be filled with selfies in front of baggage carts, a few candid shots of my interrogators, and I will dedicate an entire page to my neon “Security” sticker collection. Deportation is actually a boring affair; it’s mostly waiting, with a few questions thrown in so that you can be properly ignored. It’s like speed walking on a treadmill: you don’t go anywhere, you’re sweating, and you’re well aware that everyone thinks you look stupid.
Although I was never told the reason for my entrance denial, I can assume one thing: I was rejected because I am a danger to society. There I was — travel worn, clutching a memory foam pillow and a Harry Potter book, with bloodshot eyes and unbrushed teeth. No wonder they feared me! Passport control stared me down for as long as they could before sending me to The Holding Room.
The Holding Room. It was deceptively easy to get in and nearly impossible to get out. I thought I might die of old age in there. It was a small room with a Coca-Cola vending machine and an espresso maker, three pleather benches, and two 90-pound “guards” (who were more qualified to be babysitters than security). M and R joined me, and we worried for our driver, who was likely waiting on us outside the terminal. We didn’t know it then, but the driver was the least of our worries.
Several years ago, I was detained at the US border on one of those random searches. I joked that I was there as a way to reassure critics that the DHS doesn’t profile. “Look!” The invisible sign above me screamed, “She’s young, white, English-speaking, and American (with a normal name!) AND we’re searching her!” I was surrounded by scary-looking motorcyclists, a Hispanic gay couple, two East Indian families, and a Chinese tour group that didn’t understand the officers.
That’s what I felt like in The Holding Room. There I was, with R and M, in a room of Arabs, Eastern Europeans, and Germans. Clearly I was fodder for internal reports against profiling.
Like I said: I was rejected because I am a danger to society.
We soon met the Immigration Inquisition. Instead of pinchers and stretching racks, their cubicle-like offices had Windows 98 computers and fingerprint scanners, complete with plastic stacking chairs and bad lighting. The Inquisition called me in, and I left R and M alone in The Holding Room #2.
“Why do you come?” they asked me, threatening me with their beady eyes. I explained that I was an English teacher, and that the proper question should be, “Why have you come?”
They worsened the lighting and continued the onslaught of bad-grammar questions. They questioned my qualifications, my letter of invitation, my preferences in chocolate, my previous visit to the region, what I did last summer, if I had friends in Morocco (seriously!), why I wanted to go to a certain occupied territory, and how I knew R and M. I was either a terrible or brilliant answerer; after thirty minutes or so, they stopped yelling at me and started yelling at each other. I didn’t understand any of it, obviously, but after a few rows, the main interrogator answered the ringing phone with a screech: “SHALOAM?!” She didn’t really mean peace, that’s for sure.
I almost feel bad for the immigration officers. I kept nagging them with questions like “What’s going on?” or “Why am I held here?” or “How much longer?” They had to put up with my American patriotism, waving red-white-and-blue passport pages in their faces. They had to put up with my sarcasm, which can be a bit barbed. And then there’s the whole “human rights” complications, with my demands for frivolities likes water — it really must be exhausting work for them.
After I finished questioning them (they reminded me a few times: “Hey! We question YOU.”), they called R and M in. There was a whirl of photos and fingerprint scans, and then we were dragged back to The Holding Room (#1). I glared at the Official Babysitters as we marched by, envious of their freedom. They stood outside The Holding Room, as if to remind us who was detained and who wasn’t.
Then came the frustrations of waiting. At this point, we assumed that we were about to be let go. There was no reason to deport us, and two German men had just been released. If guys with dreads, tattoos, and piercings FROM GERMANY were allowed in, then obviously three clean-cut American humanitarians would be footloose soon enough.
The babysitters came for us, holding our passports casually. “You girls must come,” the red-head said, and we accompanied them past passport control and to the baggage collection. Freedom! we thought.
We were escorted past customs to a metal-walled, windowless room with two stainless-steel tables and three uniformed employees. They were armed with those swab-wipe things that detect bombs and cat hair and gun powder. The next two and a half hours were far, far worse than anything the Immigration Inquisition could have done. I watched while each of my carefully-packed bags were strewn across the tables, and each obscure or bizarre item questioned. I promise you: when you’re relocating for a year in a developing state, you bring obscure and bizarre things.
“Why you have these?”
“Those are expo markers. For white boards? I’m here to teach.”
A few minutes later: “Why so many of these?”
“That’s a triple pack of toothbrushes. Because I’m here for a year.”
“You know we have our own toothbrushes too?”
“Yes, but I like the ones with — ugh, never mind.”
And a few minutes after that: “Open this.”
“My bed sheets?”
“Yes!! Open them.”
After I unfolded all of my bed sheets, he gave them one little swipe with his silly stick and left me to repair the damage. Thanks, sir.
After he decided that my suitcase was not a hazard to anyone or anything, and after I had been searched and swabbed too, it became apparent that M, R, and myself were not leaving the airport. Our passports were still being withheld, and we were returned to the hellish Holding Room by our babysitters.
But, as one wise Kelly Clarkson once sang: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
I’ll be damned if R, M, and I didn’t laugh harder and make more of a ruckus than anyone else in the history of deportations. We joked about becoming the guy in The Terminal. We laughed about being dangerous security threats, armed with yellow pencils and world maps. We pretended to create English curriculum for the children passing through The Holding Room. We imagined Breaking News stories about us, the Dangerous American Trifecta. And when I shrieked “THIS SUCKS!” at the discovery of a hole in my favorite black shirt, R and M just about died over jokes about “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” We were a spectacle and didn’t care. I mean, if they didn’t like it, what were they going to do? Deport us? Too late.
Finally, after an hour or so, two bald twins came for us. They were both short, dark, and with gorilla-like arms. “Come,” they said. And we did.
They led us to a transport van. Our baggage was loaded into the back, and we were squished into two benches, along with a Ukrainian, a German, and some crazy jokester fluent in Hebrew.
“Where are we going?” R demanded.
Baldy #1 replied, “To a place for sleep.” Sleep? At this time, it was almost 6:00 pm, and we had not had water or food since “last call” at 11:00 on the airplane. Sleep was pretty low on my list of Prisoner Rights.
“Like a hotel?”
“Yeah. Hotel, well, motel.”
The “hotel, well, motel” was a barred, enclosed compound with several guards and caged windows. The perimeter fence was covered in blue tarps, prohibiting prisoners from admiring the transport vans and K-9 kennels. I remarked that if my AAA discount applied at this motel, then I could reduce the US penitentiary budget by 20%. They didn’t get the joke.
They escorted us in, single file, to a large room stacked with shelves. We were required to stow our baggage. The guards stuck sunshine-yellow nametags on our suitcases in a weirdly kindergarten-esque way. At this point we had four officials jabbering away in Hebrew, pointing to us, and arguing loudly. I have no idea what the problem was; maybe they were debating whether or not my belt was a hazard, or if all Americans were fat, or if Dijon mustard was superior to French’s yellow. Whatever it was, I noticed a trend: these people could not argue quietly.
We were allowed to bring nothing but our wallets, a book, and a pillow, if we had one. No cell phones, no toothbrush, no PJs, and definitely no cameras. They herded us up concrete stairways and into a small foyer, where the lambs were sorted from the goats — that is, the women from the men.
Ah, home sweet home! Our cell was a long, narrow room with a line of bunk beds, concrete floor, and bare mattresses. A stack of maybe-washed, maybe-not sheets were provided, along with woolen blankets carrying MERS, Ebola, the common cold, and HIV. My favorite features of the room were the double-barred windows (there was the classic, vertical bars and the secondary metal grid, just in case), the lack of a light switch (the guards determined when nigh-night time was), the bathroom door that didn’t close (deportation and peeing in the open really bonds people), and The Door. Oh, The Door! It was lacking a handle. Y’know, the thing that defines the difference between a motel and a jail? Yes. Oh, The Door.
Finally, after a few nagging knocks on the walls and The Door, we secured ourselves a pitcher of water and about 20 sandwiches, which were probably demolished in the male cell, but merely picked at in ours. We laid quietly in our bunks and watched the sunset through our little window. It grew dark, the lights stayed on, and we read our books in a pouting, disbelieving silence.
I have a few quirks, but one of them is germ related. I don’t like germs. Gross. And therefore, I don’t like jeans on sheets. Everywhere I’ve sat should not find a final resting place on the blankets I sleep in. However, as I learned the hard way, deportation cells don’t care about your comfort, and they sure don’t care about your quirks.
I hesitantly sat on the edge of my sheets, wondering whether I should strip. Then, as I stared at them with their weird Hebrew lettering design, I realized my jeans might actually be cleaner. And so I slept in them, and hated it.
I was resigned to the circumstances, weird as they were. But then they kept getting weirder. All day we had been denied and denied the opportunity to call anyone. We couldn’t contact lawyers, the school, the embassy, squat. However, at about 10:00, a consular officer from the American embassy called to check in. He was in touch with our school, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the deportations.
At midnight, we were roused from slumber for a doctor check-up, although he spoke zero English. He took our blood pressure and vitals (which, groggy as I was, had to be very low), and shooed us out of his office without further ado.
At 2:00, three middle-aged Georgians shuffled in. They didn’t speak much English, but we eventually figured out that because the guards wouldn’t escort them outside, these women were going to smoke in the shower. What became a sucky situation became a hellish one, with the stench of cheap cigarette smoke filling our dark cell.
At 3:00, all of us were parched, no doubt because our oxygen supply was under a Marlboro tyranny. M banged on the cell door until a guard arrived. “Water?” she asked.
“Five minutes,” the guard responded.
After a quarter of an hour in the dark, M banged on the door again. “Water?”
There was a furious hissing sound and the guard banged on the glass. “Knock again and you will be in solitary room in basement!” Ok, then. M slinked back to her bed and that was that.
I slept until 6:00, when my cell mate began to do yoga and my half-asleep mind couldn’t stop worrying about the floor’s bacteria, which was now on her hands.
At 9:00, the guards collected a few prisoners and either put them on planes or ate them. Who knows.
At 10:00, the guards roused us with the bold announcement: “Up! Time to give sunshine.” They shepherded us out into the blue-tarp yard, where I poked at a broken tricycle and M, R, and I wondered how often children were brought here. It soon became apparent that the sunshine was a poor excuse of a cigarette break for our guards. They huddled at the gate entrance like a pack of high schoolers and shared a lighter. Once I was lightly sunburnt and they’d smoked their fill of carcinogens, we were allowed back in. I tried to explain the concept of fair skin, but they thought I was joking when I said I needed sunscreen.
At 11:00, I was reunited with my toothbrush. Oh happy day! It was the first brush in nearly 30 hours.
Finally, at 2:00 it was our turn to leave. I did a happy dance as I gathered my few possessions and thought about all the terrible things I would have done if I wasn’t a nice person. They escorted us downstairs to our luggage, which was loaded into that damned transport van. I squished onto the bench again and watched as the same bald guards climbed into the front seats.
Music began blasting on the speakers, and I groaned at the painful irony of their song choices.
I first changed the lyrics of “Who Let the Dogs Out” to “Who Kept the Girls In,” and when I’d just about overcome the bitter taste of freedom lost, the CD switched to “Footloose.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I settled on a halfway, constipated look. The CD kept going, too. I kid you not: I boarded the plane to the song “I Need a Hero.”
The transport van pulled up right alongside the airplane. They handed us our tickets, but not our passports. I commented dryly that my passport has changed hands at least forty times, and — missing or ignoring my sassiness — the gorilla guard responded, “Probably only twenty.” Ah, thanks.
The other girls had tickets to their original destinations, but I was disappointed to see that mine dumped me off in Toronto. All bad stories end in Toronto. Besides, it’s like the only major North American city that I have zero friends in. But what worried all three of us were the price tags on our tickets. “$1800!?” I whispered, shocked. No way in Heaven or Hell that I was going to repay that. No way! The other tickets were even more expensive, reaching $2300. We worried that our passports would be used as ransom. “Americans do negotiate with terrorists!” Everyone just gave me an odd look. Meh, I’m used to it.
Our suitcases were left on the side of the runway and we hauled our carry-ons up the metal stairway alongside the gangway. Being high-risk prisoners, guards walked before and behind us. They should have been more concerned with me dropping my bag on their heads than me running away. That sucker was at least 30 lbs!
We ticked off a lot of people when our convoy cut to the front of the line. One young man gave me an evil glare, and I then I realized I ran over his toe. Whoops. Sorry, dude. Danger to society coming through!
Our passports were handed to the Air Canada crew, which weirded them out and they assured us girls that we would get them back in Toronto. Hey, Lovely Brunette! Hey, Tall Baldy! Lovely Blonde exclaimed: “Oh girls, are you really alright?” The Air Canada crew was the same crew we flew with the day before.
When Short Baldy saw us, he asked, “What happened?!” We told him the morbid story, although our jail stench and uncombed hair was probably evidence enough. He made me burst out laughing when he said, “Awh, don’t worry. Deportation happens to everyone.”
The good news? I had an aisle seat in the same row as M, and R had her own row. We stretched out and listened to the stories of our neighbors — mostly Birthright participants — as they relived their grand adventures. We joked about the nightlife (yeah, so casual! Everyone wore their street clothes), but mostly we listened to stories of all the places we didn’t go.
The plane took off and was airborne soon thereafter, and our deportation become a reality. We were not going to be rescued by last-minute immigration lawyers, nor some Immigration Inquisitor with a conscience. We were gone.
A friend texted me yesterday and asked if a night in prison had changed me. Well, my inner lip tattoo makes me pretty badass, but other than that, I’m the same old, same old. Oh, and I’ve been wearing a lot of orange. And I have a new stamp in my passport which says, “Entry denied.” Rude.
(I’m ending the story here because I’m tired of typing.)
Right now, I have no “next step,” but — as always — I’m winging it.
p.s. No, I did not have to pay for that airplane ticket. A new way to travel free!