Suffering and Starfish


I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering and grief lately, both in my personal and professional life. The quote pictured above is taped rather unceremoniously to the wall in our office, underneath the white board that lists the WiFi information and a little hand-drawn map of how to get to the detention center.  It reads: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” This quote is attributed to Rabbi Tarfon

“Enormity” is the right word. There is so much suffering, lately, I feel like I am seeing it all at once for the first time. 

I lost my first bond hearing on Monday 11/19. We knew when we accepted the case that there were some complicating factors, but this was a hard one to lose. W.S.J. came to the United States when he was nine years old (he is now in his early 20s). He was a DACA recipient. He started his own business and had been taken in by his middle school librarian and her husband (who he calls his “American grandparents”). He got into some trouble when he was a teenager, but nothing serious. In support of his bond motion, we collected nearly thirty letters of support from his community here in Georgia. His high school principal attended the bond hearing, along with W’s “American grandpa.”

In denying the bond, Immigration Judge Randall Duncan (one of the judges who appears in person at Stewart) made a record about the importance of being consistent. He then went on to lament how much he hates disappointing young asylum seekers, “and I disappoint a lot of people.” 

There’s no where to talk privately on the court side of Stewart, so I told W. that I would come back in the afternoon to talk to him. There’s also no touching allowed in the courtroom, but W’s grandpa still managed to sneak in a hug. 

Later that afternoon, while I was in the waiting room, there was a woman there with four little kids, all maybe under the age of eight. She was crying, and filling out paperwork. Then she started to address “the kids” in a loud voice which was clearly meant for the CoreCivic employees working the front desk. “You’re probably NEVER EVER EVER EVER see your daddy ever again. It’s not fair that they treat people like this.” There were also some swear words thrown in sporadically for effect, but she went on like that for several minutes.

I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, of course she has every right to be upset. I don’t know what’s happening in her husband’s case, but I imagine that she stands a pretty good chance of being left to raise four boys alone. And where do you direct that energy? The ladies at the front desk seem as good a target as any; they hold the keys that allow your person to move around within the prison and so on some level, you think, “well, why don’t they let my husband out then?”

After we dropped the woman (still crying loudly) off at the family visitation door, the guard and I continued down the hall to the attorney visitation rooms. “Boy,” I remarked, “she’s going to have her hands full with all those boys.” The guard, who is usually pretty jocular, nodded seriously. “But I don’t like the way she was going about it, talking loud and carrying on like that in front of the kids. There’s nothing I can do!”  And of course that’s how it works.  That individual guard isn’t the person who’s responsible for what’s happening to that woman’s husband. Seeing both sides of this interaction made me grateful, yet again, for the piece of the SIFI orientation that talks about how the individual guards are not the enemy, and advising the volunteers to be as kind as possible. 

When W.S.R. finally came into the attorney visitation room room, this young man, who is usually a chatty ray of sunshine, started to cry almost immediately. “What am I going to do in Honduras? I don’t have nobody in Honduras.” And of course he’s right. He has been in the United States longer than he was in Honduras, and has worked exceptionally hard to build a life here. Because he built that life, and because he is so young, it puts him in a uniquely difficult position in terms of immigration relief. He probably can’t successfully claim asylum because he hasn’t been back to Honduras in over a decade: how can he claim that he is afraid to go back for any reason other than the general one that things are terrible there? He never suffered persecution by the government (nor by the gangs that the government can’t control.) He’s not married, no kids, so no blood relatives for whom his removal would be a “extreme and unusual hardship.” So, the “next steps” conversation is one of Scylla (voluntary departure) and Charybdis (deportation). 

The unique part about W’s case is that he’s pretty happy at Stewart. He speaks English and Spanish, so has been able to help folks who are monolingual fill out paperwork, communicate with guards, etc. He has gotten very involved with religion, and has become a vibrant part of the Christian community within Stewart. He believes that his being in Stewart is part of God’s plan for him. So, unlike a lot of clients who can’t bear another moment of detention once they are denied a bond, W is comfortable enough at Stewart to stay and fight his case from inside (despite the fact that the odds of success are incredibly low). 

Some days I am placated by the idea that I am diligently tossing one starfish at a time back into the ocean, but some days there just seems to be so much suffering and grief in the world, I don’t know what to do. Which, I suppose, is precisely why this quote is posted in our office. You cannot be daunted by the world’s grief; not that of strangers, not that of your clients, and not your own. And that’s where the last part of Rabbi Tarfon’s quote comes in: “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”


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