He was tall. Long would actually be a more fitting description. He was as long as a mid-summer’s day casting a shadow across the hot pavement. And he was black, as black as a moonless December night. He had not an ounce of body fat, he was lean and muscular. He may have been in his mid-twenties and he was alone in a sea of inmates on the prison yard. The various races would have nothing to do with him. Sadly, this included the African Americans. Perhaps he was too black.
He pensively entered the prison library. Thus began an evening ritual. He would ask to approach the half door and speak with me. When it was a quiet evening with no pressing issues, I allowed him to do so. And he would talk. He was hungry for conversation, thirsty for human interaction.
After our first meeting I knew instinctively what the issue was. He was a foreigner and it was difficult to hold a conversation with him as sometimes much was lost due to either his or perhaps it was my accent – God only knows.
I was first struck by the gentleness of his eyes, the broad smile and his ever so white teeth, although one of the front teeth was broken. It turned out that was his concern. His tooth had been broken when he was thrown to the ground by the police during his arrest.
It took weeks for the story to unfold. The story… his story… history, if you will. For this we must travel back a number of years to the Sudan for as it turned out, he was one of the lost boys of the Sudan.
In 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese Government had been at war in southern Sudan. The conflict had already claimed more than 500,000 lives and displaced huge numbers of people. Among these were at least 20,000 children, mostly boys, between 7 and 17 years of age who were separated from their families. These ‘lost boys’ of the Sudan trekked enormous distances over a vast unforgiving wilderness, seeking refuge from the fighting. Hungry, frightened and weakened by sleeplessness and disease, they crossed from the Sudan into Ethiopia and back, with many dying along the way.
Mind you, I had been aware of the Sudanese conflict back then, and of the displaced children, but what could I do? Even our own nation seemed to turn a blind eye to this plight. Perhaps my taking the time for him was in a sense my act of penitence. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned, not as an act of commission, but more so of omission.”
He was employed by a car dealership and detailed cars. Sometimes he was asked to drive a car from one dealership to another. It appears that what transpired was a gross case of miscommunication between managers and this difficult to understand young man. One manager had sent him to deliver the vehicle to another lot and somewhere along the way another manager was in search of the vehicle to show a customer. When it could not be found, the police were called.
They found the vehicle and when the young man pulled over; he was summarily dragged from the vehicle and slammed to the ground. His tooth was broken. He wanted to know if it could be fixed. I tried to explain to him that this could be handled in a civil suit once he had been released from prison. Much, very much was lost in translation.
I feel much was lost in translation when it came to the police department, his employer – who wanted to drop the charges but for one reason or another could not and then of course with the court appointed legal counsel. No one wanted to take the time involved to listen to this immigrant with broken, hesitant English. So he was advised to take a plea, go to prison, serve a term and go home and begin again. How many times must one begin again? That was a rhetorical question.
At home, he had a younger brother and cousins waiting for him to return. They were relocated to this country by Amnesty International. Can anyone argue they were not political prisoners at the most and victims of horrific circumstance at the very least?
Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in over 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights.
Their(our) vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
They (we) are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion, and are funded mainly by our membership and public donations.
After more than 50 years of groundbreaking achievements, Amnesty International is now embarking on a major process of evolution, to adapt to the dramatic changes in the world we operate in, and to increase the impact of their (our) human rights work.
What could I do? I was merely a lowly prison librarian caught up in the story of life. I prayed. I fretted. Finally I contacted Amnesty International and provided them with his name and his number, his location and a brief history of what had transpired. I also told them I could possibly lose my job for doing this. Sometimes, one has to move beyond comfort and become involved. To be a candle in the wind, a voice crying in the wilderness, a heart pierced by injustice.
This experience happened years ago. It was only recently I learned from a dear friend who worked in the prison’s Visitation at the time, that a lawyer from Amnesty International did indeed come to visit with the young man.
I pray this young man has begun again.
~The Prison Librarian