Blog - Why I am involved
Visiting asylum seekers in detention centers
By SIH Board Member Leslie Neve (pictured left of asylee Sam)
(Spring 2021) I have been visiting detainees in New Jersey detention centers since Bill Clinton was president, initally through First Friends of New Jersey and New York and now with Seafarers International House (SIH).
First, I visited several men who were being held at the Hudson County jail and who had been in the United States for several years. Most had come into the country legally, but then never applied for a “green” card, stopped keeping their documentation up to date, or had their green card taken away. So, they became undocumented and awaited hearings in immigration court to see if they could stay. I visited most of them over a period of several months in the visiting room, where the detainee was on one side of a plexiglass barrier and I sat on the other. We talked over a telephone. I always felt like I was in a James Cagney movie.
I remember the first time I visited. I went with First Friends, and after the visit I said I felt so bad because I had done something or gone somewhere that weekend, while the person I had just visited had been stuck in jail. I was hesitant to talk about what I had done. I remember Sister, she was a nun, said, “no they want to hear about what you are doing.” So at my next visit we talked about my explorations of the Hudson Valley around West Point – that was where the detainee had lived before he got picked up driving a vehicle with no registration. He loved hearing about my adventures. We laughed a lot together – until he got deported ...
Then I visited a young man from West Africa, who had a long and complicated story - and a wife and a 5-year old daughter. I became a marriage counselor for him, as his wife was acting out because of his long absence. He would teach me about customs in Ghana. And I would share what I had found out on the internet regarding his case. He was to be deported, but Ghana would not let him come back. The county jail opened the doors one night during Clinton’s government shut down and let him walk out. I never found out what happened to him.
There were others, the last was a man from Haiti, who I had to stop visiting when I had foot surgery and with cast and crutches could not make it to the jail. He called First Friends to ask how I was doing, he was concerned about me, when he was about to be deported.
Then I started visiting with Seafarers International House at the Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC). The folks being held there are mostly new arrivals to the States, who are applying for asylum. They had fled their home countries for political or religious reasons, because they were running away from gangs, because they were gay, or because of war. They were afraid for their lives if they got sent back. I find these gentlemen much harder to visit because the only thing they know about the States are the highways between JFK airport where they arrived and EDC. There is no commonality. They don’t know about leaves turning color in the fall, or snow, or the ones from Africa, what humidity in summer feels like. And they are never allowed outside for fresh air, enduring climate controls that are often too cold. It is hard. But when I come back that second time to see someone, the brightness of that smile, when they see us, makes it all worthwhile.
Note: Trips to EDC will resume as soon as they are permitted in 2021. Please check the web page VOLUNTEER for updates.
Seeing the unseen
By SIH Board Member Rev. Susan Tjornehoj
Growing up on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, I was thousands of miles away from the nearest port. Ft. Carson Army Base and the Air Force Academy, close neighbors, kept this little girl grounded or looking to the skies, never anticipating the arrival of a tanker or a container ship. Water was a precious commodity there, thawing glaciers provided beaver ponds and cascading creeks, while watering lawns was possible only certain days of the week. I was 12-years-old the first time I saw a ship and boarded my first ferry while visiting family in Denmark.
Yet water and ships and oceans and the seafarers, the most precious and unseen cargo, Seafarer’s International House (SIH) are now part of our Estate Plan. As people of faith we often speak boldly of things seen and unseen. The ministry of SIH literally sees the world’s unseen, whether domestic seafarers awaiting their next assignment, asylum seekers or tending to the crews of massive ships arriving in port. SIH makes known the lives of those at sea, sojourners, those unknown.
As a college student, I lived, studied and worked for a while in Hamburg, Germany. My workplace was a Schiffsausrüstung, Hagen und Co., which was a major marine equipment company. It was there that I became aware of the global connections made possible through the shipping industry. A first call along the Bering Sea coast, then to a Midwestern setting of churches supporting a fresh water port ministry to now living near the Port of Baltimore, the ministries serving the precious cargo of this massive global enterprise, the seafarers themselves, are spiritually, ethically and economically of vital importance. A recent drive across country, dodging semi after semi-truck, I imagined each of the ships that had first carried the cargo now being driven somewhere that carried your new car or truck, the clothes that we wear, the utensils in the kitchen drawer, the components of your laptop and phone.
SIH provides a connection, a link of compassionate connection, a human touch, a tender and powerful thread which binds us together. In this time of pandemic which revealed the precarious lives of those at sea, which has impacted the guesthouse and the ministry of SIH, what a privilege it is to serve on this board whose vision is laser-focused on the mission, on seeing the unseen and providing for the stranger among us. Your knitted cap, a prayer, a financial gift, making SIH part of your legacy giving, is part of God’s work of making visible what is invisible, seeing what is unseen.
Now as I take my daily walk/run around Ft McHenry and watch the ships come into port, I envision those on board, away from their families for most of a year, the precious cargo, that through your generosity is welcomed to port and seen as children of God. It just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?!
Welcome the stranger
By SIH Board Member Stephen Bennett
(pictured on the left with other volunteer visitors in Novemer 2019)
Part of the reason that I serve as a board member is because of my experience visiting asylum seekers with Seafarers International House (SIH) in the detention center in Elizabeth, NJ. My last visit to the detention center was a story of hope and sorrow as they often are.
There was a group of 8 of us that decided to go on a cool, crisp late autumn Saturday morning. The front desk only allowed two groups of three to go in. It was contentious to say the least to even let us have those go inside. Six of us went in. Three at one table and three at another. We waited. And waited. We were already delayed getting into the room. Every second we wait is less time we get to visit and talk with an asylum seeker. Unfortunately, this will be a shorter visit. Finally, the asylees came into the visitation room. As always, they wear jumpsuits. They walk up to our tables and then they sit in the specific seat marked for them. They don’t have a choice.
The asylee we met with had been in there for months and was no longer optimistic. He came to this country with hope in starting a new life, leaving after near death experiences and threats to his life. He feared for his life and fled. He had an upcoming court date and was feeling somewhat hopeful. As he talked about it, he revealed he was increasingly depressed and upset. He wanted resolution from his court date. Let him stay or send him home. Staying in the same room day after day had taken its toll on him.
As the conversation continued, he became quieter and sat in sadness. We asked him about his interests. Some included soccer and business. He liked the idea of being able to find a job and learn about business when he was released. This was a moment of hope, hope in the future and possibility. There were smiles around the table at this prospect, a moment of joy. That quickly returned to the reality of the detention center, of the sterile room, of the colorless atmosphere except for the colored jumpsuit he was wearing. He looked upset again. The three of us continue to engage him and let him know that when he gets out there is a place for him to go. We all hope he is released. He hopes. We hope. A small bit of light in a dark situation. Our time was nearly over and we wrapped up our conversation.
As we got back in the van, the whole group began to discuss our experience. We always start by hearing how long the asylum seeker has been in detention. Do they have any upcoming court dates? Do they have a lawyer? The team at SIH takes note and works with organizations to ensure that we know of any possible releases and if we can help find them legal representation. After making sure SIH’s team has the facts so we know how best we can help them after the visit we share more about our experiences.
The other group of three had a completely different experience from mine. Their asylee was so hopeful. He praised his faith for continuing to guide him through this difficult time. He had been there a few months, but kept saying that God had a plan for him. What did they do for work? What was the best way to get an education? He had so many questions for them. His thought revolved around plans of what he would do after his release and trying to get advice about how best to succeed. Their conversation was filled with potential and opportunity. They felt moved and inspired by his passion and optimism. His excitement made them contagious. They could not believe how much joy he had and how strong his faith was. This juxtaposition between their group and our group could not be stronger.
This is just one of many stories of visiting asylum seekers and shows the range of experiences. Hearing about feeling lonely and rejected by society, wearing a jumpsuit (even though you haven’t committed a crime), and being locked up is heartbreaking. At the same time, you hear about possibility and the future ahead, the desire to make the American Dream a reality, and how God is always there alongside you. This is inspiring. Yet, they both wait for a judge to hear their plea and decide their fate. Stay or go.
There can be hope in struggle, light in darkness. Seafarers International House brings a little hope with every visit and they will keep visiting. SIH offers a ministry of presence, of sitting with someone and engaging in conversation. We visit the stranger and let them know that we care about them, we want to know them, we want to be present with them, and when they are released, they will have a place to stay with some familiar faces. They are not alone. After they leave detention, Seafarers will come and pick them up at the detention center and they will stay in our guest house as SIH works with First Friends and other organizations to help get them on their feet. Before SIH gives them shelter we give them loving conversation. SIH invites anyone to visit these asylum seekers and bring some hope and welcome to the stranger in our midst, our future neighbors.
SIH keeps going every month to visit asylum seekers to hear their hopes and dreams, to hear their struggles and doubts, to be present with them. This is why I keep going back to the detention center. It is to visit these asylum seekers and give them conversation and connection. It is to try and be a presence of loving and welcoming the stranger. I keep visiting. I will share the story of the asylum seekr in detention so others will hear of their plight. I will invite everyone to visit the detention center with SIH and engage first hand with these incredibly brave people. The more we visit, the more we hear these stories, the more we share them, the more we can spread awareness of the plight of asylum seekers and advocate for them. We can build support for the rights of asylum seekers and ensure that more of them feel holy, loving hospitality upon their arrival.
I invite anyone to please visit the detention center with SIH, hear the stories, provide connection, and welcome the stranger.
Recognized and treated as people
By SIH Board Member and President Captain Richard Schoenlank
(pictured with wife Sharon at the Right of Asylum Reception 2019 benefiting asylees)
I’ve had the good fortune to work in the maritime industry and meet many seafarers from around the world aboard ships from most maritime nations. They are unseen and forgotten as commerce moves non-stop throughout the world, arriving and departing at ports and terminals at all hours, then vanishing across the sea. They are invisible to most people, removed from interaction with much of humanity – but not to Seafarers International House (SIH).
Here, they are recognized and treated as people by chaplains visiting them aboard ships, and by the wonderful staff at the Guesthouse. They are offered solace and comfort through the words of God, and the acts of those who care.
And then there are asylees – who leave their homelands to flee persecution as a last resort, having no choice but to leave loved ones behind, desperately hoping and praying for a chance to make a new life and bring their families to a safe place. They are invisible to most people, also – but again, not to Seafarers International House. SIH offers hope through volunteers who visit them at Detention Centers, and a path to establish a life in this country once released – with a private room, clothes, food, and help finding employment.
That is why I am a director – to help those in need through the efforts of SIH.
Sometimes fleeing home is the only solution
By SIH Board Member Kelly Kandler
(pictured back row second from left)
In 2012, a close friend of mine invited me to visit El Salvador. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about the history or living conditions within the country, I only knew that I love to travel, and it was a country that I hadn't yet visited. Little did I know how profoundly that trip would open my eyes and effect my existence in this world.
I very quickly learned that El Salvador struggled through a bloody and heartbreaking civil war throughout the 1980s and early 1990s whose effects are still being strongly felt three decades later.
Among many other effects, the end of this war saw the expansion of a controversial Latin America foreign policy for the US plus the massive influx of organized gangs who made themselves at home throughout Latin America's Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In 2014, El Salvador had the highest murder rate per capita in the world thanks to gang violence, often flip-flopping back and forth each year with Honduras. It is one thing to read such headlines in the news, but it is very much another to meet the people and communities affected face to face.
I have since visited El Salvador eleven times, each time meeting more people and learning more heartbreaking stories of existence in this incredibly beautiful yet so troubled part of the world. I see their faces in my mind often - a young teenage girl named Melanie whose family was forced to pack up their entire life and flee their home in a matter of hours because a gang member would not take no for an answer when he decided he wanted her to be his girlfriend and threatened the lives of her and her two younger sisters, a teenager named Miguel whose younger brother was murdered in his own home out of revenge because Miguel did not want to join their gang, a young boy of only 12 who was found dead in the trunk of a car because he dared to walk to his school, which happened to be inside a rival gang's territory. These are the far-too-common stories of children, of which I could tell you many more, and these very real existential threats, not even to mention the economic struggles within the country, are the reason that urgent levels of migration continue to exist in the Northern Triangle. It should be said that gang violence ebbs and flows every year and is a constant project that the country is working on, and that much of El Salvador's resources are put towards stopping migration. They do not want their people to leave the country. But too often, fleeing their home is truly the only solution available to its most harshly targeted citizens.
It is with this background and these experiences that I was invited to consider joining the board of Seafarers International House in 2016. I was invited by Pastor Jim Sudbrock, who had served on the SIH board for many years, and who had also visited El Salvador himself and actively participated in the El Salvador sisterhood team at our mutual home church, Advent Lutheran on the Upper West Side of NYC. Pastor Sudbrock had a sense that I was intimately moved by the plight of the asylee, because I had seen some of their stories up close and personal, and thought that I might be interested in helping in a new way, and he was right. To actively participate in an organization that so directly and practically supports asylees "on the other side", after they have made it to the US, by offering a safe place to sleep, initial provisions like clean socks and food basics, and connections to find legal help, employment, and permanent housing, is immensely important to me.
SIH may not be in the position to help massive numbers of people each year as some organizations might but I do believe that those we touch have been supported and encouraged and helped on their journey in the most profound of ways. And that gives me peace and hope that the world can be made better, if even only one asylee at a time. I am grateful for the existence of Seafarers International House. And I am grateful to be part of its team.
Landbound but caring for those at sea
By SIH Board Member Dr. Rev. Dennis A. Anderson, former Bishop of Nebraska
(flanked by staffers Marsh Drege, left, and Lucas Mietlowski, right, are Denny and his wife Barbara after a board meeting in 2019)
Here I am in Omaha, Nebraska. This is about as far from an ocean as you can be in North America, yet in several days I will join colleagues on the Seafarer International House board. Why am I serving on this board? I live in Omaha! No oceans around here!
I get into my car and notice it is 45% manufactured outside of the U.S.A. It took a ship and several oceans to get to me.
Then, I arrive at my destination, the home office of Immanuel Communities, a mission founded in 1879 by Pastor Fogelstrom, a Swedish seaman. Minutes later I drive past Immanuel Medical Center, where I underwent 3 back surgeries… a place where I feel at home. My wife and I live in one of Immanuel’s many senior communities. Perhaps I need to rethink how far I really am from the oceans and especially the seafarers who spend months bringing critical goods, raw resources for our consumption and manufacturing… and the list goes on and on!
Imagine you have been at sea for three months as your ship pulls into the harbor of one of the great seaports. Your ship is not allowed to dock for several days. There are always the official hoops…… You have waited for what seems like a lifetime to put and your feet on solid ground, do some shopping, and eat a good meal. Then you learn that a chaplain is coming on board who will be available for individual conversation. After being away from wife and family your heart beats with lonesomeness. Here is an opportunity to share your heart with the chaplain and to share in Holy Communion. A fleeting emotion of “thanksgiving” flits through your heart. The chaplain will be one who knows Jesus and represents Jesus and His caring church. Seafarers help bring goods to all of us no matter how far we are from an ocean. They can be overlooked, but the chaplains of SIH can bring them the loving grace of Jesus, connect with them, and be a light for those we too often forget.
I invite you to join me in giving thanks and support for Seafarers International House’s work amongst seafarers and immigrants.