As a former teacher the word detention was unfortunately part of my regular vocabulary whilst working in schools. Something perhaps less well known, thought about or understood though, was that detention was issued often not to punish, but rather with the intention of getting to know a student who was causing some sort of trouble. Troublesome behaviour often turned out to be a cry for attention, for someone to talk to about something which had been playing on their mind, or for affirmation and encouragement. These detentions then were often a new beginning, a starting point to a different way of being…even though at first sight they seemed negative, the result was actually positive.
During my time in Tokyo I visited a detention centre where the word detention seemed to have all the negative connotations and stereotypes that our minds would first jump to. Whilst in the waiting room I met a man who had settled in Japan many years ago as a foreign national. The waiting room was a funny sort of place, one of those places which helps you to forget where you are or why you are there, with a collection of toys in the corner, a television on the wall and quite a bit of coming and going. There was a strange sense of community around shared experience which encouraged conversation between perfect strangers. As conversation was initiated with this man, he was different to the others I had encountered in the waiting room. He did not want to talk, he did not want to admit any association with anything to do with the detention centre. His words still stick in my mind. He was keen for everyone to know that he was here with a friend who was visiting, nothing to do with him; “I came here years ago, but not like this. These people are something else….”
For those who were being detained who I met, the story was rather different. Most who allowed me the privilege of hearing their story had been forced to leave their homes because their lives were in danger, real danger – returning home would result in death, and not because they had committed a crime which was punishable by death. The reasons for these threats to life were based on matters which we, in the UK and the West more widely, take for granted: some may have chosen to follow a different faith to the majority; others to align themselves to an alternative political path than the ruling regime; others still because their birth has brought them into a tribe or group which is hunted. Those I spoke to were desperate to go back to their homes, yet they also wanted that to be a safe place. They did not want to live in Japan, and benefit from all that that society offers, they just wanted to be safe. Safe. It is a small word with huge meaning, with feeling which cannot always be evidenced or explained. Safe. The journey towards which has led to vulnerability and further feelings of fear following any number of years in the detention centre which I visited – most over three or four, some as long as eight years.
Other stories I had the privilege of hearing were about people who had settled in Japan. They had spouses and children, they had lived there for a number of years, and now were detained, for reasons which they could not understand. For those of us on the outside, it is easy to draw conclusions, to claim that there must have been good reason for their arrest and subsequent detention. It can be easier to convince ourselves of that, especially in the face of the deep uncertainty of no apparent reason. The harsh reality seems to be different from good reason though. Neither is it something that is only happening in Japan, far away from our homes, and where we can have any influence. @DetentionAction are working so hard to tell similar stories of people in the UK who have been detained indefinitely, whom the Home Office have detained after years of them working and paying tax in this country.
This Christmas I found myself thinking about the stories I have heard, both at home and abroad, and the real people behind them. As I witnessed the nativity story being acted out and retold in any number of ways by school children, at crib services, and carol services, I noticed how little has changed since these times. Mary and Joseph, as well as Jesus when he arrived on the scene, were refugees far away from home, strangers in a foreign land. To add further complication, once Herod had heard of the little baby born King of the Jews he ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed – Mary and Joseph were then fleeing for the life of this little baby. There was such hostility towards them in these stories as people of difference, people who posed a threat, and sadly that hostility still seems present in our world today, in the stories of those who are still fleeing for safety.
My prayer, as we approach Epiphanytide, is for greater understanding of the stranger, for ears that wish to hear, eyes which are willing to see, and hearts which are burdened with a deep sense of compassion for real people behind real stories, which we may prefer to ignore, yet have a duty to hear….
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Martin Niemöller, 1892-1984