At Immigration, the power of integrity on display

opinion September 03, 2018 01:00

By Carleton Cole
Special to The Nation

A Sudanese fleeing persecution back home has earned a fresh start thanks in large part to the strength of character he showed Bangkok expats



When Mia met Galal, two truisms coalesced in moving, meaningful ways – that it’s better to give than to receive, and that it’s better to teach someone to fish than to give him a fish.

Mia, a New Zealand native, had countless beautiful memories of visits to Thailand with her husband. When he died a few years ago, she returned to fill her abruptly altered life with resilience. “I realised I had a lot to offer,” she says. “I have a lot of energy.” 

She decided to become a volunteer English teacher and, in meeting the requirements for a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, found the empowering opportunities she was looking for. 

She was helping migrants who’d come to Bangkok looking for second chances of their own but who were experiencing hardships. She was giving victims of political repression, economic migrants, and people in limbo between national borders and the requisite paperwork the valuable life skill of communicating in English. 

It filled Mia, who worked for more than 30 years in recruitment and management roles, with a rediscovered sense of altruistic purpose. 

“Galal stood out because of his stature and the way he conducted himself,” she says of the gregarious Sudanese student who so impressed her.

While other students would sometimes fall asleep in class, chat or otherwise be distracted, Galal regularly welcomed the newcomers and, if they became confused, helped them with the basics of classroom conduct and English grammar. “He was always willing to help people find their way,” says Mia.

After completing the course, Galal contacted mutual friends to get back in contact with the teacher whose kindness had touched him. In time they became Facebook friends. Then, one day in early 2016, Mia noticed that Galal’s Facebook page carried this message: “Goodbye, brothers, I am going away for a while.”

She asked around and heard he’d been taken to Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC). “I had no idea where it was or how to get in there, but I wanted to go,” Mia says.

A few weeks later, she heard the IDC mentioned again by expatriates chatting about some among them who regularly visited the facility to help asylum seekers. She signed up for a visit the following Monday, the usual day the group goes to see the detainees from Somalia, Israeli-occupied Palestine, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. “I got involved with this expat support group because of Galal – and without hesitation,” says Mia.

Never before in world history have there been so many migrants. Never before has there been such debate over whether immigration should be stemmed or allowed to continue as much as is necessary. It’s a subject that tops political agendas and threatens to make or break governments from the United States to Germany to Australia. 

While nationalists demand that borders be all but closed, the needs of those suffering in the refugees’ countries of origin grow more dire as repressive regimes and economic dissatisfaction continue to challenge global society.

Visiting the IDC is not unlike boarding a commercial airliner. Documents are checked and various items are confiscated. The “transit” takes much longer for 

the detainees, of course. 

While some ask visitors to bring them a particular type of food or the basic necessities they’re lacking, Galal was more circumspect, Mia says, maintaining the same quiet dignity and self-sacrifice she’d sensed in the classroom. 

“Galal wouldn’t ask for things. You had to plead with him to find out he’d appreciate some bananas being brought to him.” 

Moved once again by his stoic bearing, Mia began what would become a two-year act of compassion, delivering him the hope he felt deprived of in Sudan.

Since Galal has relatives and friends still stuck in transit in his oppressed homeland, he is circumspect about what information he shares. But, in an online message, he said he feels fortunate in being able to leave Sudan. 

He faced daily threats of abuse or arrest from the government, which also made him insecure about receiving aid from the UN agency for refugees. Eventually making his way to Qatar, he flew to Malaysia and then entered Thailand overland.

Galal’s struggle was similar to those of many IDC inhabitants who wind up caught in a system of abuse, financial strife and demands they start the process from scratch. Mindful of this, Mia keeps taking food, reading materials and sanitary items to others. 

“You need to bring them joy,” she says. “I think you have to be in a very good emotional state to do this. You can’t go in there overly concerned with your own problems, because they have enough problems already.”

She says Galal’s fellow detainees – and their minders – also noticed his exemplary behaviour and leadership. Immigration officials asked him to help translate Thai into French, Arabic or English. 

“He ended up being a team leader in the IDC,” Mia says. “The police would have liked him to stay and were appreciative of his coordinating efforts. He had access to a phone and a private room.”

The teacher-student relationship based on integrity and mutual respect gave way to an engagement of mentor and mentored, in which lessons learned morphed into a life experience that neither person will forget.

A few weeks ago Mia and other expat volunteers saw Galal off at Suvarnbhumi Airport. He and three other African nationals were holding “IOM” tote bags given them by an officer from the International Organisation for Migration. Dressed in one of four business suits purchased by supportive friends, Galal was bound for Canada and another fresh start.

Mia says the joy she endeavoured to bring him at the IDC was fully returned when she saw him and the other three travellers all smiles in their new outfits and shoes, ready for a long-denied second chance.

“Life often isn’t about what you planned,” she says, “but about the resilience you show when faced with its challenges.”