As we approach International Women’s Day, Sr. Vianney, one of our Detention Outreach Volunteers, reflects on her encounters with the many ‘beautiful women’ she has visited in the ‘desert place’ of the Sahara Unit at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre.
The long room seems bright and sunny when you enter the Sahara Unit for the first time. It’s a short-term Detention Centre for women in transit. Attached to the Immigration Removal Centre for men, alongside Heathrow airport, its brightness comes from its skilful decoration. No daylight, no fresh air enters.
Here, every Thursday afternoon, I spend the best part of two hours, meeting new women each week. No one is detained in the Sahara for more than two or three days. They are then sent back to their country of origin or transferred to Yarl’s Wood for indefinite detention.
Whom will I meet when my escort unlocks the door of this “desert” place? How have the women come to be unceremoniously stranded with unfamiliar companions, hearing unfamiliar languages, sleeping two or three to each small room? Some have arrived in the dead of night, but no friendly, star-studded sky lit their desert. The two staff on duty as a rule try to mix kindness with efficiency.
I look at the three or four women sitting around and often move towards someone whose face seems welcoming. It’s a good place to start, helps me ignore the feeling of emptiness inside me and lets me pick up the atmosphere in the room. So, studying the face of the person before me, I ask her to let me guess her country of origin. For two to three years now I have scanned the most beautiful human faces from every continent – truly international women. Faces of those who’ve lived just nineteen years, or more than sixty! Where have they come from? How did they come to be in detention?
Sometimes lack of one another’s language frustratingly defeats our encounter, so I mime my offer of prayer – which invariably meets a response.
Whoever I sit alongside, anxiety and unease repeatedly surface when we look together to the future. It’s a great unknown and each one is painfully alone. My offering is to stand alongside them like Mary, “Beside the cross of Jesus stood his Mother.”
“God will draw something good out of this time of suffering,” I assure each one as best I can. Trust Him, take His hand and let Him lead you. I will pray, and carry you, individually, by name, in my heart”.
These beautiful women – many Christian or Muslim – respond with faith!
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