Scottish Detainee Visitors asked their volunteer visitors to write a few sentences about a memorable experience they had while volunteering with them – visiting people detained in Dungavel detention centre.
They asked them to start with the phrase ‘I’ll never forget….’
Here’s what they said.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a young Afghani man. He was telling me that he had gone to school one day and when he came home his house and all his family had been destroyed by a bomb. Then he told me that being in Dungavel made him feel worse than anything he had felt before.
I’ll never forget the horror I felt 25 minutes into my first car journey to Dungavel when I realised I’d forgotten my photographic ID. I’ll also never forget the look on the guard’s face when I presented my Partick Thistle season ticket to him as “ID”. Suffice to say, it didn’t work, and a wait of an hour and a half in the car park followed.
I’ll never forget all the people who have thanked me for my visits and for my motherly care (I am somewhat older than the young people we usually see). Some people do eventually get out of detention. I love the way we can keep in touch these days. I now have new friends in London, Glasgow, Inverness and Pakistan and sometimes get phone calls from various African countries It’s such a pleasure to be able to visit those people who live near by and to see photos of other friends’ growing families on Facebook.
I’ll never forget my first journey down to Dungavel, feeling very nervous about what I could say or do for those detained there, but it turned out to be far less intimidating than I’d imagined, and I began to realise that, as well as practical advice, the folk there also wanted lighthearted conversations about us and our worlds. On one visit, I even ended up dancing with an African guy, (he didn’t think I could shake my booty!). It made all the others laugh, and one person came up to me afterwards saying thank you, – that was the first time he’d laughed since he arrived. So I still try and get someone to dance with me if they will!
I’ll never forget when a shy skinny Syrian refugee (via translation from another person we were visiting) told me before he fled Syria he was constantly being asked to fight for various different groups. “I am an ordinary man. I am not a political man,” he told me. “I don’t care who is in power as long as I can live in peace. How can I fight for a group when I don’t even know what it is I am fighting for?” I always think of this man when I see comments online from British people suggesting the Syrians should have stayed and fought for their country. I wonder if these people would be quite so confident and brave if they were being used in a tug of war between different militant groups.
I’ll never forget my first visit to Dungavel, and not just because it was only a month ago. I was a little anxious in the car journey, but my fellow visitor put me at ease. When we arrived, I was pretty overwhelmed at the scale of the razor-wire fence surrounding the giant old house. Once fingerprinted and through security, I spent most of my time talking to a young Iraqi-Kurdish man who had been in detention for just a few weeks and was clearly still extremely bewildered at the whole system of detention. I soon realised that I couldn’t offer him any quick fixes, just a sounding board and some empathy. The Sorani-Kurdish phrases I was able to sprinkle into our conversation went a long way to letting the young man know that I was visiting him as a support, rather than being part of the bureaucratic machinery he was fast becoming used to. As it happens, he was released on bail just a few days ago, and I’m going to meet him for lunch today. Having to try and find his feet in a new, freezing cold city must be pretty intimidating for him, but I’m keen to offer him any support I can.
I’ll never forget arriving at Dungavel with three other visitors on a cold winter night. We waited outside in the cold for ages before the gate was opened. And then it took a long time to book us in because we had a lot of things to leave for the people we were visiting and the staff had to record everything. As we waited for all this to be done, one of my fellow visitors sat in reception whistling the theme tune to ‘The Great Escape’.
I’ll never forget when a woman detained in Dungavel quietly told me she had been trafficked and followed it quickly with a shy smile. Later in the visit she told me it wasn’t too bad in Dungavel and everyone was really nice. I had a stark realisation of where I was in the luck end of the scale in the world, simply because of my circumstances and the country I happened to have been born in.
I’ll never forget the first woman I spoke to at length in Dungavel. She had been in the UK for 10 years and was suddenly detained. She was dignified, strong and sad. I realised that while everything we can practically do is important, the best thing we do is listen.
I’ll never forget the first meeting we had with someone newly detained. He sat down grinning, and, with a flourish, pulled a bar of dark chocolate out of his jacket like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. We are not allowed to bring food into the visiting room, and this young guy breaking a bar of chocolate to share with the group also broke the ice.
I’ll never forget a conversation with three people who used to be detained. They described sitting at home, not allowed to work, watching the people outside busily going about their lives. They would close the curtains, because it was too painful a reminder that their lives, still, were on hold; still under the control of immigration; still not free. One described it as ‘detention without walls’.
I’ll never forget James, who we visited in Dungavel for more than two years. How he managed to stay sane and strong I will never know, but he did. He liked to buy us a drink from the vending machine in the visits room, to try and make the situation feel more like friends meeting in a café or bar. He eventually got out of detention and was able to build a life in Scotland. And a couple of years after that, I danced at his wedding.
I’ll never forget the time we hit a pothole on the way to Dungavel and burst two tyres. Four of us sat in the car until 11pm when the AA arrived. It was winter and snowing and we were stuck in in the middle of nowhere. We kept the engine running to keep warm, shared half a flapjack and a handful of dried apricots. And we played ‘I spy’.
I’ll never forget Rima, the lovely young woman for whom we bought fashion magazines and Asian cloth so she could make her own clothes. She was in Dungavel a very long time, and was scared of being sent back as her family had vowed to kill her. She was sent back. We’d promised to keep in touch and to check on her. A few of us tried writing to her email address several times, but she never replied. I hope she is fine. I worry she is not.