Our Stories Connect Us by Marie Marquardt
I spend a lot of time in prison.
Well, technically, it’s not a prison, it’s an immigration detention center. But try telling that to the almost two thousand guys who wander through the place in prison jumpsuits, sleep in rooms with sixty beds where they also have to shower and do their business out in the open, get their meals in a cafeteria line where the only thing they can see of the person serving food is his hands, since a metal partition separates them from contact with the kitchen workers (who also are detained immigrants).
Try telling that to the kids who come to visit their dads, and have to talk to them on the phone, through thick plexiglass windows. Or to the women who visit their husbands, and the only “contact” they have is by holding their hand up to the glass, as their husband reaches out to mirror her handprint with his own.
Try telling that to me. I’ve visited the same immigration detention center in southwest Georgia more times than I can count, but each time I approach the razor-wire fence, each time the gate slowly churns open, each time I take off my shoes and my belt to walk through the metal detector, follow a guard through heavy steel doors, and then sit across from a detained immigrant and lift the phone to my ear, I wonder – as they and their families must also wonder – what are we doing in a prison?
For six years, I have worked with an extraordinary group of volunteers to visit with detained immigrants who have no one else to visit them. In many cases, the people I visit are young men – some are still teenagers – who traveled for weeks or months through Central America and Mexico to arrive at the southern border of the United States. After a treacherous and harrowing journey, when they finally get to the border, most of them don’t try to “sneak” in. They present themselves to a Border Patrol officer and say their lives are in danger, and they are seeking asylum in the United States.
They ask for help, for protection. That’s all they do to end up in a detention center in Southwest Georgia that looks, feels, smells, sounds, tastes like a prison (every single person I have visited there tells me the food sucks). And, at the detention center I visit, ninety-five percent are denied asylum and deported, so that place is likely to be all they’ll ever know of the United States.
But here’s the extraordinary thing: when I sit with those teenagers, when they tell me their stories and I tell them mine, we connect. We connect not only across a static-filled phone line and a thick wall of plexi-glass, but also across a broad array of differences that many people would suggest are too vast, too significant for us to ever recognize one-another. Ethnicity, national origin, gender, generation, first language, economic status – yes, this is much more than a laundry list. It is a list of terms that signify real, enormous, power-laden differences.
And, yet. And, yet.
Our stories connect us. They become a part of who we are. That’s what all good stories do, right? They form us into new people because they allow us to see, smell, taste, hear, intimately know new and different ways of existing in the world.
The teenagers I have met in detention are incredible. They are resilient, funny, kind, compassionate. They are artists, poets, karate black-belts, musicians. In most cases, they are scared. But still, they find the courage to share their stories.
I will not claim to have much in common with these young friends. That would be careless and glib. I will admit, though, that I have learned a great deal from them about how to be brave. Writing books and sending them out into the world is terrifying. At least for me, it is. But I have been entrusted with stories that need to be told, and re-told, and re-told again. They need to be told by as many different people in as many different ways from as many different perspectives as possible. And so, even though I may not be the perfect person to do it, even though it’s sometimes hard and exhausting and scary, I’ll keep listening to the stories that so desperately need to be heard, and I also will keep telling them.
Marie Marquardt is an author of young adult novels, a college professor, and an immigration advocate. Her debut novel, Dream Things True (St. Martin’s Press), was a 2015 YA BEA Buzz Panel choice praised in Kirkus as a “worthy examination of undocumented immigration in the American South through the lens of young love.”
Her second novel, THE RADIUS OF US, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January 2017. Uplifting and hopeful, THE RADIUS OF US reflects the experience of Latin American teenagers fleeing gang violence and seeking asylum in the United States and the possibilities for change. It’s an issue that Marie Marquardt cares about profoundly, and she believes that connecting to it emotionally it can be a powerful antidote to the hate, fear, and misunderstanding that plagues our society.