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Volunteer Diaries: My Brother is Behind Bars

"Authoritarianism is an undeniable global pandemic, and everyone should be concerned for their human rights."

My brother is behind bars. His hands were cuffed, his jewelry was stripped from his wrists, and now he clings to the cold iron cell in defeat.

He fled his home seeking safety. Every day his life hung in the balance.

He fled the chaos and destruction caused by foreign-drawn borders, foreign-made weapons, and airstrikes ordered from the comfort of an airconditioned office thousands of miles away where people sit under a façade of diplomacy on a throne of privilege and lies.

He has fought for his life; his knuckles are rough and scarred, but they are as graceful and tender as his heart when they reach through the bars to wipe the tears streaming down my face.

“No, sister, no… don’t cry. Please don’t cry.”

In February of 2020, I started working with brothers in detention. Not by choice - frequent changes to the European Union’s asylum law in January of this year reduced the number of rejections an asylee could receive on their case and put them in detention while the appeals to rejections were processed. This was likely done in response to pressure from central European countries to reduce the number of irregular migrants moving up the Balkans from Greece on the notoriously dangerous Balkan Route. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world, more and more restrictions were placed on the North Aegean refugee camps in Greece, and people were arrested, sometimes en mass, for reasons we are still not clear on. We became advocates not out of choice, but out of necessity.

We quickly realized that many people were falling through the gaps and once detained, they were cut off from the outside world. We started visiting the jail frequently and networking with others in detention to better understand their situation. It has been the most defeating and humbling experience of my life.

Witnessing that extent of injustice and seeing people you love at the mercy of poorly designed policies and human rights violations is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Advocacy takes constant vigilance, and even then, sometimes we lose.

I visited the brothers every day to try to coordinate legal support and to show them that someone outside is fighting for them. That someone loves them. Sometimes the police let me see them, sometimes we were turned away. When I was allowed to visit, a small window in the large steel door would open and the officer would call into the cell for the “prisoner” I was there to visit. As I stepped up to the window, a crowd would gather, and people would hand me phone numbers, medical records, and other documents asking for help.

“Please can you call my family? I haven’t been able to speak to them for weeks they will worry.”

“Sister, peace be upon you, can you please ask the medical organizations to send my records to my lawyer? I have a condition. I should not be in here.”

“My friend, please help me find a lawyer. I don’t know why I am in here I was arrested and they will not tell me why. I don’t understand.”

The cell is sticky and humid even in the chill of February. The men scratch at hands and wrists, signaling a scabies infestation. The water is cold. They use it to mix bitter Nescafe that they sip as they sit there idly waiting… waiting.

My brother is behind bars. I am outside grieving the space he left behind and desperately trying not to lose hope.

Every day is a frantic effort to scrape together time, money, and energy from every nook and cranny we can find.

Every drive home from the police station, I pull over on the side of the road and cry so hard it feels like my entire soul is pouring out of my body.

Every night I sleep restlessly, terrified I will miss the one phone call they are allowed each day.

Terrified that he needs me, and I can’t be there.

Terrified that he will be transferred out from under my nose and I will never see him again.

What if the last glimpse I have of my loved one is through the bars of a jail cell?

“Don’t sign any papers unless me or the lawyer tell you to, sweetie. Do you have enough cigarettes? Do you have your phone card? Are you taking your medications?

Be good.

Be brave.

Be strong.

I love you so much.”

I learned a lot from those visits to the city jail. I learned all the ways that we are told the world works, and all the ways that it simply does not. I learned just how much we are deceived.

I was mocked and harassed multiple times by the police, and they talked about me behind my back thinking I could not understand their language. Their entitlement and satisfaction glimmered in their eyes and this look of total authority makes your skin crawl. They look at you with utter disdain and they know that they are in the driver’s seat. They threatened to punish my friends inside if I gave them any attitude or caused any trouble. One of them threatened to throw me into the cell with them.

Authoritarianism is an undeniable global pandemic, and everyone should be concerned for their human rights.

Those visits to the jail taught me about all of the things that go on right under our noses and it taught me to look harder and ask more questions. I have been deeply disturbed by what I have found.

When it comes to migrants, authorities employ a series of strategies to deter regular and irregular migration at every level of the refugee pathway:

Plain-clothed policemen try to trick detainees into signing papers – most commonly self-deportation or readmittance papers that get them sent back across the last border they crossed or back to their country of origin without acknowledging their right to claim asylum or appeal a rejection.

Inadequate translation services confuse people and trick them into declining legal support, surrendering their rights, inadequate communication with authorities or legal entities, or agreeing to lengthy sentences. People very rarely have a complete understanding of why they are detained or imprisoned and what their options are.

Those caught at borders may be illegally pushed back. This might be a simple, discreet process, or it might be a horrific one; brothers have been beaten beyond recognition. They have had their shoes, money, and phones stolen by the police before being sent back. They have been stripped to their underwear and pushed across this invisible line that perpetuates segregation and brutality.

Many times, all human rights are thrown out the window and with no contact with the outside world or any way to communicate with the people around them, our brothers simply disappear. Human beings simply vanish. This is terrifying.

My brother is behind bars. He is not a criminal. He is not a threat to society.

I want you to understand that he does not belong cuffed, silenced, and oppressed. This is not who he is.

I want you to understand the way that I knew him, the way I love him, and the way I want to remember him before the cruelty of detention stole him from me.

I want you to understand who he is at his core… the way he was when he was free.

He used to dance and sing. Especially on days when the sun was shining. I would catch him looking up to the sky as we walked among the olive trees.

He used to giggle at my jokes or put on my Jackie O. sunglasses to make us all laugh. He would play his favorite songs on the radio and teach me words from his mother tongue.

He would hold babies, pet the street cats, and he is friends with other kind souls even if they are misguided and lost in the cruelty of this world with no softness and safety to anchor on to.

I always felt safe when my brother was at my side. He never let anyone speak badly about me. He’d keep a steady eye, even from a distance.

He is loyal to a fault. He will protect me to the death.

There is an immense space left behind by his absence. It is felt every day as a hollow emptiness in the pit of my stomach. He has a family that loves him and friends who miss him.

The North Aegean Island camps are pressure cookers.

The psychological strain of forced displacement and migration put people in a heightened survival state for weeks or months as they cross borders via smuggler routes to reach the shores of Europe.

Once registered as an asylum seeker, they then face the daunting stagnation waiting… waiting… waiting.

Safety is a false narrative.

The food can poison you. So can the water.

The shelters are boiling hot in the summer and frigidly cold in the winter.

The anxiety is constant.

The idle time in their own heads brings up old demons.

The lack of control over their own destiny is infuriating.

The resource scarcity further feeds this deep uncertainty.

They have nothing to go back to and no way to move forward. In this space, they break.

My brother is behind bars. The world pushed him to the brink.

When all this life ever taught him was aggression and chaos, this becomes a natural state and even when his heart is pure and kind, old pathways of survival take over and he so easily plunges into insanity.

Do not be one of the fools that think this lapse is a fault in his character – no, this is a reflection of all of the faults of this system.

This is a reflection of our collective failure.

These outbursts are a cry for help. They are the language of the oppressed.

My brother is behind bars because we failed him. And we continue to fail him.

I long to hug him one last time. To kiss his cheek where he would break out in a dimpled smile. To share a meal again. To walk by the sea and feel the sun on our skin or the bitter wind sting our lips. If only I had known all of those moments would be the last.

I long to see him free like he was before; laughing with his friends over an inside joke, taking a puff of his cigarette while watching life unfold before his eyes, wrapping a colorful memento of his motherland in a turban on his head… I long to see the pride back in his stance. I fear I may never see it again.

A paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality, expresses a possible truth. It is here that we live: in a world so cruel and insane that you'd be tempted to doubt us. The only solace we find is in each other as we silently validate this reality before continuing on in tandem with a world that chooses to ignore this possible - actual - truth.

It is an uphill battle. Every day spent in this paradox is an exhausting one. But it is one I will fight tirelessly until the day all of my brothers are free.

My brother is behind bars; but I will spend the rest of my life looking for him on the other side of freedom.

My heart will break every time I catch a fleeting glimpse of a stranger with the same gate.

The same proud shoulders

The same black jacket

The same maroon shirt…

My heart will break every moment we are forced apart, and it will never be whole again until the broken birds are free.

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