The waiting room at Batavia looked like that of a business suite except for the walk-through metal detector next to the front desk. It was obviously a new building and very clean. Lena and I signed in at the desk and passed through the metal detector after handing the guard our keys; then we sat and waited. This was my third visit to the federal detention center and Lena’s first. She usually went to Marcy, a state prison a few hours to the east, but today we had a request for a Russian speaker at Batavia. Since I was already going to do another interview, we shared the ride.
A guard entered and called my name. He said he had a face-to-face meeting room available if I preferred it to the Plexiglas window and intercom and I told him I did. Lena waited for her interview while the guard led me down a hallway through two doors that he locked behind us. He unlocked another door into a small interview room, barely large enough for the table and two plastic chairs. On the other side of the table was a door with a window and I could see guards and prisoners in the room beyond.
The guard pointed to an unlabeled button on the wall. “If he starts gettin’ stupid with ya, hit this alarm,” he said, then stepped out and locked me in the room.
I sat at the table with my notebook in front of me and waited for the prisoner. I knew his name, his Alien Number, and that he was an Egyptian citizen. What little I knew about the situation in Egypt came from the country report my organization provided and from The CIA Factbook.
Another guard unlocked and opened the door across from the table. I stood and Khalid entered, wearing the blue jumpsuit designating an immigration offender. Those in blue were lucky to be separated, at this facility anyway, from orange-suited felons. He was shorter than I was and quite thin, with short jet-black hair and a well-trimmed beard. The guard locked him in.
“Mr. Qandeel?” I asked, hoping I pronounced it correctly.
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” I said. We shook hands. I told him my name and that of the refugee advocacy NGO I was representing, and that I was neither police nor government.
“You contacted our organization, yes?”
“Yes,” he said with a bright smile.
“We’d like some information about your case so we can provide documentation for when you go before the judge to request asylum.” We sat and I asked, “Are you comfortable using English?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Do you mind if I take notes? Everything will be kept confidential within the organization.”
“Yes, that is fine.”
I opened the notebook. “Let’s talk about how you got here.”
“How far back?”
“What happened in Egypt?”
“I was a journalist in Cairo,” he said. “Working for the newspaper al-‘Araby. My editor was killed by the police because he wrote stories that criticized the government.”
“When was this?”
“Last May. The fifteenth, I think. His name was Muhammad Agiza.”
“Was his murder reported in the papers?”
“Oh yes. It was in all the major newspapers.”
I made a note to find the article. “What did your editor say in his story?”
“He criticized the death penalty and other things. He said the government was committing abuses in the name of fighting Islamist terrorists.”
“Do you remember the date of the story?” I asked.
“How long after the story was he killed?”
“A couple of weeks. He had written things like that before, you know. And it was not the first time he had trouble with the police.”
“What else happened?”
“One time they came to his house and took him to jail for a week. They said they were looking for connections with the Islamists. Another time they shut down the newspaper because he wrote about police abuse.”
“Do you remember if the editor ever reported these problems to a human rights organization?”
“Oh yes. He was friends with a lot of people in them in Egypt.”
“Uh…how do you say it in English…the Egyptian Association Against Torture was one. And there was one that helped victims of violence. I think it was called Nadim.”
“How do you know your editor was killed by police?” I asked.
“Police came to the office one day. They took him away. They didn’t say why. The next day someone driving to work found him along the road. They had stripped him and beat him to death. His hands were tied,” he said, putting his hands behind his back to demonstrate. “Beaten all over his head. They left him to die.”
“Did anyone complain to the police?”
“His family did. The police said they questioned him and then let him go. They said they never beat him. They said well maybe he was robbed or something.”
“Why did you leave Egypt?”
“I started getting phone calls. Sometimes at the office and sometimes at home. They said that if I didn’t quit the newspaper I would be killed.”
“They didn’t identify themselves?”
“You felt the threats were serious?”
“Oh yes. I wrote the same kind of stories as my editor. I worked with him on a few stories, too.”
“Did you report this to anyone?”
“I made a report to the police. Just for…um…formality. And I told one of the human rights organizations. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. We filed a complaint with the government.”
“Then what happened?”
“They kept calling. They said they knew I called the police. That’s how I knew they were the police. They said they would kill me in a week. So I left.”
“Where did you go?”
“First Rome, then Paris. I got a tourist visa for the U.S. there. Then I flew to New York.”
“What happened in New York?”
“When I was in customs, they asked me the reason for my visit. I said I was seeking political asylum in the United States. They arrested me and put me in here.”
“How long have you been here?”
“About two months.”
“Did you commit any serious crimes when you were in Egypt?”
“Just criticizing the government.”
The next question always seemed stupid after such a story but it was one that the immigration judge would want answered.
“What are you afraid will happen to you if you return to Egypt?”
He looked a little surprised. “I’m afraid the police will kill me. Like they killed my boss.”
I looked back on my notes and asked more questions to fill in missing information – dates, places, and names. Details came back to him as we talked. They hadn’t given us a time limit and it wasn’t a difficult interview. Sometimes, if they’ve actually been tortured, they’d rather not discuss the particulars with strangers.
“You’ve had your Master Calendar Hearing, right?”
“You went before a judge?”
“Yes,” he said. “I told him I’m seeking political asylum.”
“Did he give you one of these?” I held up a blank Form I-589.
“Yes, I have that.”
“Have you submitted it yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“Okay. When you do, make sure you apply for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture. You can apply for all three at the same time.”
“Did they give you a date for your Merits Hearing?”
“I can’t remember the exact date. It’s about three months from now.”
“Good. We have plenty of time to prepare your case. Usually people don’t call us until it’s very late and we have only a few days to find information. Have you retained a lawyer?”
“No. The judge gave me a list of lawyers to call. The ones who might work for free. None of them would take my case. One of them said that nobody ever wins asylum cases from inside prison.”
I made a note of it though it was no surprise. “Keep trying to find a lawyer. It really helps your chances if you have representation.”
“Why doesn’t the court provide a lawyer for me?”
“You’re a foreigner.”
“Can your organization represent me?”
“I’m afraid not. We’re not lawyers.”
“Here’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll submit all this information to my organization. A researcher will get supporting evidence to help you when you go before the judge. They’ll get general information about the human rights situation in Egypt, particularly about persecution of opposition journalists. And they’ll try to get any newspaper reports of your editor’s death and get them translated for the judge. They’ll try to get confirmation that you worked for the paper so that you have facts to back up your story. I’m also going to photocopy these notes so you have the details for your hearing. It’s all about details. You have to tell the judge exactly what happened, with dates and places. You have to tell him that you’re afraid you’ll be killed if you’re returned to Egypt and why.”
“I understand. Do you think I should have a translator?”
“No. Your English is excellent.”
He smiled at that.
“I’ve been asking you a lot of questions,” I said. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“Yes. Why am I in prison?”
“Well…it’s like this. If they let you into the country after you told them you want political asylum, and you aren’t granted asylum, they’re afraid you won’t report for deportation.”
“But there are people in this country legally who are applying for asylum from outside prison. I had a legal visa and passport. Why do they let some people apply for asylum from outside prison and not others?”
“Those people told the Immigration officers at the airport that they were here for tourism or school. They never mentioned asylum so ICE missed its chance to detain them. They filed for asylum from their hotel room or someplace.”
“So I’m in prison because I told the truth. They lied and they’re free.”
“Yes. I’m sorry you have to be here.”
He looked at the tabletop and nodded.
“Are the guards treating you well here?”
“Oh yes, they’re okay to us.”
“They keep you separated from the criminals, right?”
“Yes. We’re never with them.”
I checked my notes once more to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and told him he’d hear from the organization soon and to make sure he filed all documents and supporting evidence at least ten days before his hearing. We shook hands and he thanked me. I knocked on the window for the guards to put him back.
Lena was another fifteen minutes with her interview, having started later. I looked over my notes in the waiting room until she arrived; then we drove to downtown Batavia for lunch. We found a pub on Ellicott Street.
“How was yours?” she asked.
“Went very well. Journalist from Egypt. The police threatened to kill him.”
“He must’ve done something right.”
“Trade unionist in Russia,” she said. “Making trouble for one of the new energy companies.”
The young woman brought our food.
“Batavia’s not a bad place,” said Lena between bites.
“No. They could be in Krome.”
“I hear that place is a nightmare.”
“How long before his hearing?”
“He has time,” I said.
“Hope they both get good judges.”
I laughed. “A good immigration judge?”
“I know,” she said.
“Did I tell you about the hearing I went to when I was in training? Here’s this Guatemalan campesino in front of the judge, smiling because he’s nervous and has no clue what’s going on. So the immigration judge says to the translator, ‘Why is he smirking in my court? Is he smirking at me?’ And she throws him back into prison for another six months until another date comes up.”
“You don’t need much education to be one of those judges.”
“No wonder the lawyers won’t represent these guys pro bono,” I said.
“They know what their chances are. Why do they wanna waste their time losing?”
“You’re not eating.”
“Not really hungry.”
“Eat,” she said. “You’re not the one in prison.”
That night in bed I thought about Khalid waiting for his hearing with his prison food and furniture bolted to the floor so the inmates couldn’t use them as weapons. I wondered if he was awake too, thinking about being deported to Egypt, handcuffed to his seat between two escorting ICE officers on a commercial flight and wondering if his family could guess what had happened to him and whether or not the police kept a list at Cairo International. I do not know whether he played it all out in his imagination. He had time on his hands so I think he did. Did he see himself being seized at the airport and driven to that building on Lazoghly Square, the one that people cross the street before passing? Did his sense of humor show him the ICE officers subsequently sitting down to dinner at the Cairo Sheraton?
Once you get to know people it changes things for you although you might wish it didn’t. You couldn’t view them from the safe, intellectual distance of their labels; they became real to you, became people who feel pain like you do. Of course, if you’re involved in such things, you can always quit if you don’t like it, and if you think it would do any good.
David Bassano gives history lectures for fun and rent money. He likes bike trails, Paris along the river, and Glenmorangie on the rocks. He wrote a novel called “Trevelyan’s Wager”. Any complaints should be addressed to https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/