Five years ago, I was held in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre for ten days.
My time in detention was, of course, much worse than this lockdown – but in both situations, losing my freedom and the physical support of friends left me with the same sense of powerlessness. And it’s the same thing that has helped me survive both experiences.
In detention, I was terrified. All the talk was about when our flights back home would be, but I knew home was a place I couldn’t return to.
On my journey to the UK, I had carried a passport size photo of my mum in my pocket, which of course had been taken by detention security along with my other papers. Without this, I felt my hope was lost. But, having gained some experience in mindfulness meditation two years before, I started to think: maybe this is the reason I learned it in the first place. I started doing meditation in the room I shared with another woman. After all, all I had was time.
Meditation is a tool to help you explore your inner self and find your own path and voice. At first, I ended up in tears feeling impotent, my brain paralysed by the uncertainty of what would happen next – and when – just like many of us have been feeling during lockdown. It is hard enough if you face a problem in life knowing the factors involved. Not knowing makes you feel like a small creature in a laboratory, oblivious to what the stronger creature above would do to you next. Nonetheless, I felt some calmness creeping upon me, my face muscles relaxed and I was able to appreciate the sunshine, however shy the beams we got in there.
“After the first session, words like “hope” and phrases like “when I get out of here” were spoken for the first time”
Talking with the other women and listening to their stories, I thought it might help them too so I offered to teach meditation. I remember the focus of our meditation was trying to visualise ourselves with our loved ones, remembering how much they care about us. After the first session, words like “hope” and phrases like “when I get out of here” were spoken for the first time. I felt good, and found a new solidarity with the others got us through mentally.
There are lots of differences between detention and this lockdown. When you’re detained, you’re stripped of your liberty for no good reason, and there’s an overwhelming feeling of loneliness because you’re singled out to be detained and everyone else is free. In detention there are no windows, and your smartphone (if you’re lucky enough to have one) will be replaced by a basic one with limited credit for phone calls so very limited interactions with the outside world.
Although now we all have our smartphones and internet and can feel connected in a way, we are allowed to go out, and we know we are locked down to keep us safe, the feeling of isolation and powerlessness is similar. As I began to realise this, I turned to meditation, remembering how helpful it had been to me in detention.
“No one should have to go through what I and those other women I knew at Yarl’s Wood went through.”
It is helping me to see my place in the bigger community and accept my limitations. I’m learning again to turn my attention to the things I can control, rather than the uncontrollable. Things most of us can control are being able to hold our breath and exhale for longer, phoning our friends and family, and smiling at strangers. This is so easy but how many of us are really smiling at other human beings whom we don’t know? We know that the pandemic has affected every human being living in 2020 and that is all the common ground we need to connect with each other right now.
My heart goes out to the people in detention during this pandemic. In early May, there were around 700 people still being detained under immigration powers – yet with no way for the Home Office to remove them from the country, which is the stated aim of detention. These people are locked down twice, especially since detention centres are closed for visitors now. I can only imagine how worried they are for their loved ones outside, let alone their worry for themselves, using shared facilities and unable to distance.
My message to them is: talk to each other, find your inner voices, and most importantly find your unity, we are thinking of you. And my message to the government is to release all detainees during Covid-19, and find alternatives to detention in the future. No one should have to go through what I and those other women I knew at Yarl’s Wood went through.
Meditation can help free your mind. But only by changing our laws immigrants like me can be truly free to live our lives without fear.
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