Voices From a Child Detention Camp

It has been a month since returning home from the country’s largest, for profit, migrant child detention facility. Homestead, as it is called, sits on the edge of a swamp at the southern tip of Florida. People from across the country have spent months standing in solidarity outside the facility. 

You may wonder why someone would care about what is happening along the edge of a hot Florida swamp. Yet, there have been three Maine women who have made the long journey to Homestead with the goal of seeing what is happening on our watch and with our tax dollars. And what we saw haunts us. 

Back on a snowy winter’s day I began organizing and helping folks who wanted to bear witness get to Homestead. Having communicated with all who signed up, I had a clear understanding of what witnessing entailed. It seemed logical that I would be emotionally prepared to make the journey. Yet, when I pulled up to the iconic gold building with flags flying in front and saw the witness camp, it became clear that I was not in the least bit prepared.  

For three days I battled the intense heat as I set up camp, held signs, talked with people seeking information, and stood on ladders communicating with the detained children on the other side of the fence. The paralyzing sadness while standing on ladders to see children, many of whom were taken from their families, took me by surprise. Witness stood tall with large cardboard hearts and shouted into the camp where the children played soccer. While we waved and yelled, “You are loved,” and “You are not alone,” the boys, mostly teens, waved back and made heart signs with their hands. If you have a teenage boy at home, you know that they don’t make heart signs, but these boys, so far from home and all alone, do. With great gusto, they do. While I have seen this exact scene played out many times on video clips, I hadn’t thought through the deep grief that came from this. As I stood, holding back tears,I found myself wondering, “How did we, as a country, get to this place where we take kids from their families and put them in such awful facilities?” 

Little did I know that the most difficult part was still ahead. As deeply emotional as standing on the ladders was, it was the walk around the perimeter of the camp that took my soul and crushed it into such tiny pieces that I still haven’t been able to put them back together again. While walking with another woman, who is also from Maine and had already been there for weeks, I learned about the many isolated and chilling areas of the camp. But we didn’t anticipate stumbling upon young children’s clothing floating in a pool of muddy rainwater. Speechless, we stopped. Seeing random pieces of children’s clothing so disrespectfully discarded hit us hard. The feelings that overtook us were exactly what one would expect when coming upon something sacred. What we witnessed was deserving of our full attention emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. While neither of us knew the exact history of what we came upon, we knew without speaking that it was the result of deep inhumanity. Overcome with sadness, we silently walked back to camp and continued on. 

This is a photo of the discarded children’s clothing found in an isolated and abandoned parking lot of Homestead.

The central tenet of every major religion revolves around the belief that we should care for those who suffer, especially children. Yet, as a nation, we are not summoning those deeply held religious values to respond to the overwhelming suffering along our southern border. 

Since returning from Homestead I struggle to make sense of how we could be a country who takes children from families and locks them up in such cavernous tents. It became clear to me that this moment in time is of incredible historical significance, one in which we will be remembered and judged. It deserves nothing less than the unified speaking out by each and every one of us. 

Mary(ellen)

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