Bangkok, Thailand is a sensational paradox. The immaculate temples, savory street food, and six dollar massages draw tourists from all over the world, some of whom never leave.
As is characteristic of many southeast Asian cities, Bangkok, over the centuries, has mastered the art of “humaning,” which I define as the “art of making life easy for people by providing what they need everywhere for a reasonable price and without side eye,” (take note, Wikipedia). Thai people are some of the friendliest I’ve met, a kindness that is pronounced when friendliness is reciprocated. In this City of Angels, futuristic, developing, and ancient worlds coexist on every block, as one can easily observe near the Siam Paragon where street vending and professional begging isn’t put on hold for the sake of luxury window shopping. Everyone is seen. Everyone has a place. And so it is with paradoxes. For every up, there is a down. For every day, there is a night. And for every seemingly utopic lucid dream is a dystopic nightmare. In the shadow of Bangkok's beauty, there is an understated chill: primitive, draconian, and always looming over every farang with a questionable visa status.
I met Tere’ Howard by volunteering for her humanitarian effort to distribute care packages to detainees at Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center (IDC). She asked volunteers to meet her at NoName Coffee shop, located across the street from the IDC, so that we could get acquainted, divvy up supplies and register as visitors together. There were five of us. The schedule for registration was tight, so I was incredibly relieved to have arrived on time after my taxi driver got lost in an alley and I couldn’t tell him where to go because (a) I didn’t know where I was and (b) he couldn’t understand me even if I did know. Just as I was ready to give up, the driver pointed to the real life version of the photo of NoName that I’d seen online. The day was saved.
I’d visited, performed, and volunteered at American prisons before, but none of that could have prepared me for what was about to happen. We were informed that one visitor was allowed to visit one detainee. Due to the discretion of the guards, only four of the five of us were permitted to enter and only three of the detainees we identified were able to be seen. We put our personal belongings into lockers, exchanged our passports for locker keys, and were herded into the visiting area. The guards took our care packages to inspect and distribute them. Despite being open to outside air, the visiting area was oppressively hot, loud, and carried the stench of stagnation. We pressed our bodies among dozens of others against a gate in front of the people we came to visit. They faced us on the other side of a parallel gate as guards walked back and forth on the gangway between us. Though I was assigned to visit 1 person, I spoke with 2 people. One was a Pakistani man who had been separated from his wife and 4 young sons after the law declared that women with children were no longer required to be detained (separating parents from their children is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Organizations are working to hold Thailand accountable for violating international human rights laws, but the process is slow). The other was a Somali girl, aged 20 who had lost her entire family as a result of civil war. She came to Bangkok to receive what she thought would be expedited refugee status, only to be stopped and arrested with a group of her friends when their visas were declared invalid. So far, she had been in the detention center for a year and 7 months. She had no idea when she was going to be released.
The cacophony of insiders and outsiders yelling to each other across chainlink fences in multiple languages and accents in a sweltering corridor felt fruitless. I was snapped into a new level of awareness when Tere’ informed me that the folks we saw were the “lucky ones." Behind the visiting area, their overpopulated rooms had no windows. They had to take turns sitting and sleeping on concrete. They were fed half boiled rice in unfiltered water. Having a visitor meant an opportunity to smell fresh air, see sunlight, and receive offerings of potable water, moisturizing soap, and edible food; privileges that many experienced rarely, if ever. So I pressed my body against the gate, yelled, and listened as best I could until the guards dismissed us.
After reclaiming our passports and safely exiting, we reconvened at NoName to discuss what had just happened. Our emotions were palpable. Raw. We remained open and focused. This was only the beginning.
Soul Mama and the IDC Care Initiative
Tere' Howard, aka Soul Mama, is a jazz/soul vocalist and social justice advocate from Philadelphia who travels the world mesmerizing audiences and bringing people together. She is also the founder of the IDC Care Initiative. Her artistry and activism are outmastered only by her gentle smile and open heart. Her life's blood is human rights advocacy and she's on a mission to restore humanity's faith in itself. I wanted to better understand the details behind what I had witnessed. I wanted to get a grip on reality, productively channel my frustration and despair, and learn more about the courageous woman who put this visit together. I asked for an interview and Tere’ graciously and enthusiastically agreed to share her experience and perspective.
This interview was recorded and edited for readability.
Blue: How and why did you start the IDC Care initiative?
Tere': I saw a need for our black community to get involved with the visiting of detainees. I kept reading in the news about Operation Black Eagle: a systemic targeting of people of color by Thai police. I was already visiting detainees on my own and I realized a greater impact could be made if more of our community was visiting.
B: Describe your first experience visiting a Detainee.
T: A Liberian friend of mine was detained for 8 months. They were able to get a phone call out to me so I went to visit and was horrified. They had lost weight, were sick, were dirty…and the idea that the person had been in there for 8 months without being able to get word out was terrifying. I also witnessed detained children and once my friend was released, I began visiting to deliver diapers and food anonymously, even though I didn’t have anyone in particular to visit. About a year later, a Congolese acquaintance of mine was detained. When visiting him, he gave details about the horrible conditions and would give me names of other people in his room who didn’t have visitors. This is how I began regularly seeing people who needed help, specifically the black men who were not prioritized by local humanitarian groups and who had really fallen on hard times.
B: Why do you choose to focus on the black/African population at the IDC?
T: I read an article by a white gentleman who had been in the IDC. He noted that there was enough money circulating through his room that he was able to eat uncontaminated food. Even though his situation was horrible, it was much better than that of the “penniless Africans in Room 8.” When I read those words, they struck me. The rooms are segregated by perceived ethnicity and gender. There are between 119 and 150 men in Room 8, but whenever I would visit, I would only see 1 to 4 African men among the sea of white and Middle Eastern detainees. I understood race discrimination in Bangkok because as a black woman, I have been stopped here. I could have been arrested if I did not have my American passport. Understanding what our people go through in America, I would be remiss to do nothing about what is happening to our African Brothers and Sisters abroad. I feel that it is my responsibility to give back to them because they are a part of me and I am a part of them.”
B: Why do you want more volunteers involved?
T: We need more volunteers because for every volunteer, someone can come out of that congested room and see a smile and sunlight.
B: What do you want volunteers to understand about this humanitarian effort?
T: What we allow to happen to someone else can happen to us, our sister, brother, or mother. We see what happens to refugees in America and I feel that it is everyone’s responsibility to participate in the humanitarian effort. Especially for our people because we are targeted. If we have a British, Canadian, or American passport, we have some privilege, but things can easily change if skin color becomes more incriminating than the passport is exonerating.
B: What have you learned from this work?
T: There’s nothing greater than a person seeing that there is a lifeline on the other side. This experience has taught me to be very grateful and proactive: not just say “Poor them,” but to get involved. Also, I’ve learned that when you invite people to help, people want to help. People do care.
When asked about the recent changes in the process and the government's involvement, Tere' responded, "Thailand is a sovereign monarchy. I don't have anything to say about their government." She emphasized that the IDC Care Initiative is a humanitarian effort. It's an example of how a single human can make a difference in the life of another single human one act of kindness at a time. This is how you change the world.
Last weekend, Tere’ hosted Soul Sunday, a benefit music event for IDC detainees that featured creatives from all over the world. Australia was in the house. The United States was in the house. The Congo represented. Honduras came through. Thailand was in the house. Cameroon came through. Great Britain came through. The event was a crowning success, standing room only, and evidence that when humans come together to help humans, humans come all the way through.
If you are planning a trip to Bangkok and would like to visit the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center, here are some things to know:
The Immigration Detention Center (IDC) is located at 507 Soi Suan Phlu off South Sathon Road. It is a 15 minute walk from BTS Sala Daeng and MRT Si Lom in downtown Bangkok.
The registration office is open from 8.30–10.00 am Monday–Friday. Visiting times are between 10.30–11.30am. To visit you will need: – Your passport with a valid visa. – A signed photocopy of your passport and visa – The ID number for the detainee you would like to visit – A local address to put on the registration form
- Dress comfortably. No shorts or spaghetti strapped shirts.
*We had an incident where one of the guards put our volunteer's passport in the wrong place and wanted to send her out of the center without her passport. Since there were 4 of us stating that we were with her, her passport was found and returned. If you decide to visit, especially if you are black and female, go with a group and watch where the guards put your passport.
To learn more about the IDC Care Initiative, including how you can donate your time, supplies, what supplies to donate, who to visit, or to participate in future fundraising events and initiatives, email Tere' Howard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Cathryn D. Blue, 2019. All Rights Reserved
Soul Sunday Artwork Courtesy of We Got Soul Productions