AFSC (American Friends Service Committee)

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A sanctuary atmosphere: creating safe, emotional and mental space for people in solitary

Wed, 2018-04-11 12:36
Ending mass incarceration Sanctuary Spaces

Note: In a very honest conversation, AFSC Prison Watch Coordinator, Bonnie Kerness, explores the different ways she believes one can experience sanctuary: in isolation, in groups and from within.

What is sanctuary, what is the definition? For me part of it is recognition. It is not only that we are housing an individual, it is that we recognize that individual. More broadly, it is about providing a safe space for impacted communities, including those inside prison. It is about giving them that space to speak, and giving them that personal recognition. 

Sanctuary in isolation

AFSC publishes "Survivor’s Manual: Surviving in Solitary,” – which was written by and for people living in isolation and which includes letters to AFSC. The manual represents an opportunity for those currently in prison to read political analysis, and through the words shared in these letters, to see that they are not alone in their struggle. 

We are one of very few organizations in the country who take the words of prisoners, the wisdom learned from what they go through, and how they survive, and then place them into a survivor’s manual. We send hard copies to prisoners for free, and share the links with family members and volunteers, other advocate agencies and students. It’s parents, the loved ones of prisoners and people inside prison themselves who find sanctuary from this and a level of peace within themselves. I’m reminded me of a quote: “They may have my body, but they don't have my soul and they don't have my mind.” To push through legislation on isolation is one thing, but to hear the voice of someone who is going through it share their survival strategies with another prisoner, another family -- there's a bridge there, something unifying that happens between people.

Some of the most brilliant submissions to the Survival’s Manual were literal instructions: When you wake up, you spend an hour working out, then you turn on your radio and listen to National Public Radio for an hour, then you write letters. The prisoners advise to stay street oriented by getting a subscription to a newspaper through a family member. There are instructions for Tai Chi, meditation and more. The folks inside are reading about the experience of others inside and how they survived – there is such a strong a level of community there. This very same dynamic comes through in all of AFSC's publications that contains the voices of those inside.

Sanctuary in groups

Sanctuary becomes a way to grow, a way to gain skills, especially when you have sanctuary with one another. We had a youth group that was very much sanctuary oriented in that the young people had a place to come three days a week after school. It ended up being that they were there five days a week – they didn’t want to be on the streets; they wanted to be safe. They wanted, even when there was no programming, to be there learning computer skills and about non-profits, advocacy and organizing. In one case it even led to these young people organizing about the quality of school lunches. Sanctuary is having a safe space and being able to communicate with people who "get you.”

Sanctuary within

I'm looking at a thesaurus: asylum, refuge, shelter, haven, safety, protection, immunity, place of safety – and that very much describes what happens internally to people who want to stay healthy inside, while they're in prison.

There is a man whose family comes from the United Arab Emirates. He was arrested in Pakistan and charged with terrorism. During sentencing, he received 45 years and he will do them in isolation. We first heard about him through his father who was highly upset and agitated when he reached out to every group he could think of in the United States: Human Rights Watch, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights. AFSC was the only one who responded. The man’s father maintained contact with us, and we did all we could to comfort him. 

When the man’s mother came here for the trial and the sentencing, one of our volunteers accompanied her to court. Each time she came out to the office she saw the kind of work that we were doing and engaged with the students. For her to be able to speak, to share with students and volunteers her story, to be in a non-judgmental space, is sanctuary.

We attempted to get the Survivor’s Manual into this young man’s hands a number of times through the lawyers, but he never received it. Eventually, by talking with the prison authorities, we were able to send it directly to him. He had been in isolation for four years and felt that the thoughts he had meant he was losing his mental abilities – he thought he was going crazy. It wasn't until after he had read the words of all the other prisoners who had been through this that he felt comforted. He felt equipped to provide for himself. The manual helped him look in healthy directions inside himself. He said he felt more at peace than he had in years. That to me is sanctuary. 

Prisoners in women's institutions, students, and volunteers – many of whom are recently released women are now working on "From Her Mouth to Your Ears: A Survivor's Manual by and for Women in Prison." This is a community of people who know how important sanctuary is. 

And I believe that sanctuary can be individual, it can be group based, it can be an atmosphere. Sanctuary doesn’t have to be a physical space. What AFSC is transmitting is that sanctuary can also be an emotional and mental space.

I can remember being impressed with one prisoner; he was just so mentally healthy considering he had been abused - something happened with a guard. We were talking about anger, and he said one of the things that AFSC has taught him is that to be angry at a guard is a waste of energy; it's the system that is causing this, not that guard. And I thought to myself, wow, that's something we taught, and we didn't even know we taught it. In our writings, the literature alone is sanctuary. Not just the survivor’s manuals, but all the literature that AFSC produced historically, are treasures. 

Read the Survivor’s Manual.


Related posts 

Sanctuary Spaces: An introduction  

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration - part 1

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration – part 2

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back oppressive systems from the inside out - part 1

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back oppressive systems from the inside out - part 2

Longing to be free: Speaking up for Gaza during the Great Return March

Tue, 2018-04-10 14:41
Building peace Ending discrimination Palestine-Israel

Note: This action event in Chicago was organized in three days and supported by these Chicago area organizations: American Friends Service Committee, American Muslims for Palestine, Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Middle East Task Force/Chicago Presbytery, US Palestinian Community Network.

Why are we here, people ask us?

We are here in the cold streets of Chicago because we are outraged that our elected leaders are silent when Palestinians nonviolently protesting for their rights are gunned down by Israeli snipers and Israeli-operated drones.

For a second Friday in a row, Palestinians are protesting in Gaza as part of a nonviolent protest known as the Great Return March. Seven Palestinians have been killed today and others have been seriously wounded. Palestinians in Gaza have said they will remain on the border and will continue Friday protests through May 15th, demanding action to address Israel's occupation and denial of their rights.

Last Friday, an estimated 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza took part in the protest. The Israeli military responded with a brutal show of force, opening fire on protesters and deploying tear gas with drones.

By the end of the weekend, 18 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli fire and over 1,400 more were injured. Yesterday, the number of Palestinians killed from last Friday’s protest was 22. No Israelis were killed or injured.

Palestinians today used burning tires to protect themselves from Israeli sniper fire as they returned to the Gaza boundary.

Palestinian human rights lawyer Raji Sourani explained that Palestinians in Gaza, "After all this pain and suffering, people wanted to demonstrate for their dignity, for their rights of having an end to this indiscriminate, illegal, inhumane siege."

This year marks 70 years since Palestinian refugees arrived in Gaza, thousands fleeing the war in 1948. Since that time Palestinians have demanded their rights under international law to return to their homes. For Palestinians in Gaza, their home villages and towns are located just over the boundary fence in present-day Israel. The Great Return March highlights the injustice of the unresolved issue of Palestinian refugees. Palestinian writer Saree Makdisi writes today in the LA Times, “Palestinians are not merely a ragtag collection of refugees; they are a people purposefully kept from their homes by an army of occupation.”

Why are we here? Because we believe that people should live in dignity and freedom.

This week we are remembering the life and death of Martin Luther King. In his famous April 3rd speech “I’ve Been to the Mountain top” 50 years ago, Dr. King said:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee - the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

Palestinians in Gaza want to be free. They do not want to be a name that we call out in remembrance for their death, or to be represented by a pinwheel in the sands of Lake Michigan, or worse to be a statistic without a name in a news report.

We are in Chicago today, not on a mountain top, but we must use our voices to speak for Palestinians in Gaza – those who have been killed and those who remain alive and steadfast in their desire to be free.

Yesterday a volunteer at AFSC in Chicago called every Illinois Congressional office to see if they have a statement on the killings in Gaza. Not one did.

Israel receives $3.8 billion in U.S. military aid every year, making it the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance. U.S. laws, such as the "Leahy Law," the Arms Export Control Act, and the Foreign Assistance Act, are supposed to prevent U.S. weapons from being used by other countries to commit human rights violations. Countries that violate these laws are subject to penalties, including a cut-off of additional weapons.

The Israeli government must be held accountable for its actions.

We are here today to call on our members of congress to hold Israel accountable for killing Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

As Gaza writer Rawan Yaghi wrote after attending the Great Return March last week, “I left the protest thinking of the rest of Gaza — shellshocked for years, its borders closed and its United Nations-funded infrastructure in decay. I thought of the kids in my neighborhood who play football in what used to be the ground floor of a tall residential building, with bare concrete columns and poking iron rods as their only audience. And I thought: Once again, Gaza the Injured has come out to protest, and to scream for life.”

Let’s hear these screams for life. And act now.

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back against the oppressive systems inside out – part 2

Tue, 2018-04-03 13:39
Ending mass incarceration Ending discrimination Mass incarcerationSanctuary Spaces

Larry White and Russell Tucker served 32 and 23 years in prison, respectively. They tirelessly seek to reform the criminal justice system. Larry is the founder of Hope Lives for Lifers and a public speaker on prison issues and preventing recidivism. Russell works for Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation and re-entry program that works on inner reflection and reform. In the second installment of this two–part interview they share stories from life inside prison and how they’ve found strength, safety, and growth through the American Friends Service Committee.

Christina Elcock: How did you find out about this program and this safe space?  

Larry White: I first became aware of AFSC while I was serving time in prison. I had a life sentence and served 32 years. During that time, we started developing what we called non-traditional programs which are programs for and developed by prisoners. In doing that, we came across the Quakers, they had a religious organization inside the prison system and we used to go down and talk to them. When I was finally released to come home, I got back into contact with AFSC. I met Lewis Webb who is in charge of their Healing Justice program. He asked me if I had any problems after leaving prison, and I told him I had social anxiety because I hadn’t been used to the outside world for 32 years. I was unsure of myself, I’d lost a lot of confidence – I didn't know anything about computers and stuff like that. So, Lewis said I could come down and use the computers. He would let other people who were just coming home from prison do the same.  

Russell Tucker: I was inside with Larry and he was facilitating classes called non-traditional post-criminal justice and he drummed into us these ideas of being involved in the community, so when I got out, I searched for him. I started working at Fortune Society – he was there prior to me, and they told me he was at AFSC. So, I left Fortune Society and came to where he was at AFSC to continue to do work that we had started inside: community activism, reintegration work and taking part in the political, social, religious aspects of our community. 

Christina: What else are you learning from this experience?  

Russell: For me growth has come in many different was. First, the programs and the events that we host or take part in has helped me develop by speaking to other people, talking about the program, and just interacting with different groups. But, it happened in so many other different ways, for example, at AFSC, we rented a charter bus and took a trip to Albany to listen to the hearings of people who were incarcerated and actually participate in the debates ourselves. That was a change for me because now I was on the other side of the fence, now I'm a free man listening to the debates about the people who are inside. I remember bright and early one morning we were going to Albany, we had this really big charter bus and just before I got on, I stood in front of the bus steps and said, "this is the first time I'm going on a charter bus without being shackled; this time, I was free.”     

Larry: When you go to prison everything changes. Life in the free world, as we refer to it in prison, is something we take a lot for granted. What going to prison really means is losing your ability to make decisions on your own. You're told when to sleep, when to eat, when to move, you're given a uniform you have to wear – you lose all your autonomy in the prison system, and your life becomes fixed. No one tells you how to serve your sentence and still hold on to all the things and people you left behind. As far as the prison is concerned the idea is: Here's a rule book, follow that rule book, and any problems you have, we can't help you, you have to deal with that on your own. I served a 32-year sentence – that's over a quarter of a century! How can I do 32 years in prison in such a way so that when I'm released I'm not a broken individual?   

While I was in prison, I got together with some other people and we began to develop programs that addressed prisoners needs. We started teaching other prisoners about how they should develop their own causes, how they could develop their own potential and know that a person had to be aware of their own potential if they were to live a better life in street because otherwise, these things weren't being taught in the prison systems. 

Christina: How has the program here at AFSC impacted your lives?  

Russell: AFSC has been a safe haven for me. It's been a place where I could come and meet people who have the same commonalities. It’s been a place where we can build and learn and do things together. It has been a voice and has allowed us to have a platform. Under AFSC we've been able to visit other places and talk about Healing Justice and the programs that we have created. It has been a way to network and build a strong community. It has been home, so to speak, it has been a pleasure.  

Larry: There's been a time where maybe 20 years have passed and I've met people on the outside that I knew through the prison system and they say, "I thought you were dead, I've not seen you in all these years." And then about a week or two later they say, "You've changed. You're not the same man I knew back then in the streets. You're different."   

When I was in the streets, before I went to prison, it was all about me. Remember those trips outside of my community that I told you about with my grandmother and seeing the economic differences? That sparked something in me. I thought no matter what, it's now all about me. But once I came to prison and lived through the oppressive system, that changed. I was able to adapt to the oppressive prison system, but others weren't. It was when I looked around me and saw people who weren't surviving, people committing suicide because they couldn't stand that pressure that I began to feel angry. I found myself standing up for other people, and gradually began to feel for other people. I never had that in the streets.   

When I came out of prison, I began to understand my people, and it's not all about race, either. The relationships you can develop in prison can feel almost like family. You can have a cell right next to somebody for years. You and that person may do something wrong and go up to the box (solitary confinement) where they don’t have anything up there. Whatever little bits you get, you share with the man next door. Have you ever seen those little sardine cans? There'd be about nine to 10 sardines in there, you take one out and you pass it down, everybody gets a piece, and you begin to feel for each other. When the police comes and beats that guy up, you feel it and it hurts me deep inside. So, I rise up and tell everybody to rise up, too. I got that feeling in prison, sister. Now I involve myself with people, it's not about me anymore. Prison helped me a great deal, I can't say prison was all bad. I came out a different person, I came out as a person who cares for other people.  

Working with Lewis has helped us accomplish so much. We have developed this thing I have called the Freedom Auditorium; it’s a play about what happens in the prison system and when you come home. We have it at different churches and other places. We're going to other states and we're bringing in a new awareness to people in prison so they know that they don't have to commit a crime and that there are other ways to deal with different situations.  

Russell: I bring the group I work with over here as well so Larry and Lewis can talk to them. It’s important they can understand that – since most of them are addicts – being sober is just not enough, you have to start healing internally, as well. I bring about 15 to 20 here, and Larry and Lewis talk to them about their responsibilities and how to get involved. This helps them out, and after some of them finish the program, they come back and get involved with AFSC.

Related posts 

Sanctuary Spaces: An introduction  

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration - part 1

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration – part 2

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back oppressive systems from the inside out - part 1

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back oppressive systems from the inside out - part 1

Thu, 2018-03-29 12:04
Ending mass incarceration Ending discrimination Mass incarceration

Larry White and Russell Tucker served 32 and 23 years in prison, respectively. They tirelessly seek to reform the criminal justice system. Larry is the founder of Hope Lives for Lifers and a public speaker on prison issues and preventing recidivism. Russell works for Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation and re-entry program that works on inner reflection and reform. In the first of this two–part interview they share stories from life inside prison and how they’ve found strength, safety, and growth through AFSC.  

Christina: How do you push back against the oppressive systems against you, especially being a part of this program?   

Larry:  The majority of people in the New York state prison system come from disadvantaged communities in large urban areas like New York City, Syracuse – mostly where people of color live. Most communities expect the prison system to reform them and send them back to uplift and develop their communities as changed individuals. The problem is the bulk of the people who are released into the communities violate and go back. There are conversations today regarding the prison system being broken and not working, and there are people like Michelle Alexander author of "The New Jim Crow," to showcase just that.   

There are a lot of people who were involved in criminal justice reform in their communities before they got arrested and continue their work in prison to try and change the system. When I was in prison, the first thing I did was organize the prisoners to write to community organizations and invite them to come into the prison to see what was going on. When we came out [of prison], we connected with community organizations, re-entry organizations and social justice organizations like AFSC. We told them what kind of changes that need to be brought into the prison system and we worked with them to bring about these changes.   

Working with [AFSC staffer] Lewis Webb's Healing Justice initiative, we developed programs that should be taught in prisons but weren't. I brought out a program that prisoners could develop but nobody else would get involved with it except the AFSC. They [AFSC] went to the prison, talked to the commissioner and he loved the [Hope Lives for Lifers] program. Hope Lives for Lifers, provides opportunities for people who are serving long-term sentences, particularly those between 18 and 26 years old, to manage their sentences in a way that leads to a more peaceful and mindful time in prison, with the overarching goal of better access to parole or other forms of release. That's how we got to the position we are now and how we fight the oppressive systems.

Russell: You fight against the oppressive systems against you by being involved. We make connections with other organizations too, we participate in their activities and some of them participate in ours. We are conscious, we pay attention when we see an injustice, but we need more people. Some people are in painful situations and just accept it as the norm, but some of us who are politically conscious and are aware of our community and our needs, we write letters, we campaign, we march, we do whatever we need to do to make those changes, so that people can live a more decent life. It's people like Larry and AFSC who are conscious of the political system and the egregious things and we organize those people and make them aware of their rights and get them involved.   

Larry: Tell them about the organization that you work for, Russell.   

Russell: I work for Phoenix House, a drug rehab program that has a re-entry section. We also get people in who are users, we stabilize them in rehab, then we re-entry. The re-entry and reintegration part I take from AFSC and Larry. We try to get them housing and get them involved in the politics of the community as well. Re-entry for them is re-integration, to be able to go back into their community and do some healing, not just by having a regular 9-5 job every day, but by taking part in their communities; the activities of their communities, the politics of their communities and the religious aspects of their communities.  

Christina: What does safety in the midst of oppression look like, and is it possible?   

Larry: We live in a country where people aren’t treated equally and where there are lot of people who don't feel safe in their own bodies. We're told that we live in a democracy, that we can rely on one another and that these things are supposed to apply to everybody. Well, I find certain people don't feel the same kind of safety that the average person who is not subjected to that kind of discrimination feels.    

When I went to prison, the first thing that struck me was that people of color (POC) were the majority in the prison system when in the streets we're a minority. I knew a great deal of people from my same community in prison. How did we get here? that was one of the basic questions that we used to talk about when we got together in the yard. Why are there so many of us in here? You begin to question, why am I a criminal? In prison you have the opportunity to educate yourself and to read and that's what I began to do.   

I remember reading a book by this man, Paulo Freire, he's an educator from Brazil who educates disadvantaged people. In reading his books, I began to understand what it means to be alive in this world. That I am one thing and the world is another. I interact with the world and the world interacts with me. Just like this room, there's only so much I can do in this room because of the shape of the room and what's in the room. When I apply that to this community and look at all the constitutions in society: the schools, the social institutions, the economic institutions, recreations, I begin to realize that a lot of the things that I did were also dictated by the conditions within my community. I would think to myself, how do I overcome the disadvantage I see? And, in my self-evaluation see how I used crime to do that.      

Growing up, I came from a very poor neighborhood; abject poverty. My mother died soon after I was born so my grandmother raised us. We were on welfare, and I used to go with my grandmother downtown to the welfare place to get food and clothing. Before we left our community, I thought my community was the whole world, I'd never seen or been outside of it. When I went with my grandmother we went through different communities, I saw different people, I saw kids my age who had on different clothes and had different toys. I thought, what's all of this? I want some of that. And then I began to notice that my grandmother - she was a very jolly person - I would notice when we passed the different neighborhoods and the different people, I could feel a kind of tension coming from her, she didn't feel comfortable. I began to understand what my mother used to go through when she went down there.  

I was a young kid, maybe nine or 10 years old. I didn't know what poverty was, I didn't know that I was poor. I didn't know that the difference I saw between myself and those people was poverty. I remember I used to come back home and my older sister would tell me we're in poverty, we're poor, that that’s why we don’t have all those things. I would notice how people from those communities would address the same problems. It was that difference that I recognized between me in my community and others in theirs that outraged me. “They have all of this and I don't have it? That’s not how it's going down. I'll get mine one way or another, I don't care how.” And that's what led me to crime. So now we fight against those things, against discrimination, we try to make sure that everybody has an equal shot within this society by changing the system, even when you find you're facing a whole ocean of problems.   

Russell: Larry and I were in maximum-security prisons in upstate New York where a majority of the police officers were from and they have a different culture than we do. We came from the city and had different ideas about everything in general, but they were in control, they had the sticks and the guns. We lived with prisoners who had 200 years or more life sentences and so they didn't really care. Not only did we have to worry about the officers who were in control, but we also had to worry about being in that environment, getting stabbed or cut without necessarily having to be involved in the situation. There were so many different gangs inside, you had to walk a thin line.   

To survive, you had to be aware and always conscious of your surroundings. Most of us went to school and we participated in these classes trying to better ourselves, which kept us out of the big fights in the yard. Inside, we created our own little environment where we could get together as positive people and continue our growth. 

Related posts 

Sanctuary Spaces: An introduction  

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration - part 1

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration – part 2

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back oppressive systems from the inside out - part 2

A Sanctuary atmosphere: creating safe, emotional and mental space for people in solitary

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration – part 2

Thu, 2018-03-22 12:11
Ending mass incarceration Ending discrimination Mass incarceration

Note: Lewis provides sanctuary at AFSC's New York City office for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, and provides safe space for young people in AFSC's Liberation Summer camp program who have a parent or sibling in prison. In this piece he reflects on what those spaces have meant for participants and for him. – Christina 

Often, you're only allowed to tell your story as a poster person and then you're pushed to the side while the academics and "experts" do the work. This space has provided a different approach: to engage every individual who has come with the opportunity, if they are inclined, to get involved. That's how you build a community of advocates.  

When I joined the organization one of the first things I read was a statement written by someone within AFSC called In a Time of Broken Bones by Katherine Whitlock. She talked about the way the system breaks people by not only taking them away from society, but also by tearing them down as people without a plan to rebuild them. It’s from putting a number on their shirt and that's how they're identified inside. It's telling them that they're here because they're bad people and they need people who don't look like them to fix them. That's why we do healing justice, so they can be restored.  

Part of the restoration demands comfort; you can't heal a broken bone if you use it and stress it. So if we're really about healing the brokenness that these systems have caused, then we've got to provide a space for that that isn’t tense or demanding. It has to be a space that provides support, but also steps back when they need to be alone. This can be difficult when you can see all their needs, but you have to understand that you're dealing with people who have fended for themselves in prison for so long that they have built up this wall, and sometimes they're not ready for you to chip at it.  

Instead you just say, "there's a computer over there, I'll be in here. Knock on the door, come on in if you need me. If not, just let me know when you're leaving." And that's OK, because right now if it seems like that's what they need then to that degree we can provide that, and I really believe that promotes healing. 

There was a documentary done about Larry White a week after he came home from prison, and I got to watch it. The man that was in that documentary is so different from the man you’ll meet today. Not just because of time – he's been home about seven years – but the self-esteem, the growth of his sense of self-worth, his sense of belonging somewhere again.  

Russell Tucker has been amazing, too. I think he was inside for 23 years and out for six years, and maybe three months after he left prison he came here. But he couldn't find a job, and at that time he had an 8-year-old daughter who was trying to reconnect with him, but he didn't know how to do that. And so I’d say to Russell, "your daughter and my son are the same age, let’s go to Chuck E. Cheese." We've been able to share birthdays together and that wouldn't have happened if he didn’t come here to find sanctuary.  

Larry is the one who recommended Russell come here. He’d told him, "they're not going to stretch you. If you want to try and redo your resume, they'll help you. If you just want to relax or to have lunch with us, that'll happen." Russell likes to eat, I don't know if he told you that. But he came, and we developed a friendship that I hope provides sanctuary for him. He's an amazing person. He’s gainfully employed serving others, and I want to believe at least in part it's because of the time he's spent here. I think he’s found something here that is healing for him.  


Related posts 

Sanctuary Spaces: An introduction  

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration - part 1 

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration – part 1

Thu, 2018-03-15 10:29
Ending mass incarceration Ending discrimination Sanctuary EverywhereSanctuary SpacesMass incarceration

Note: Lewis provides sanctuary at AFSC's New York City office for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, and provides safe space for young people in AFSC's Liberation Summer camp program who have a parent or sibling in prison. In this piece he reflects on what those spaces have meant for participants and for him. - Christina

When I started this work in 2010 and realized my perspective was very limited, I immediately looked to people who had been incarcerated and the family members of those who are currently incarcerated and asked them what we should be doing. They each were excited to talk about major reforms, but in each of them I saw a pain that they were not talking about


One of them actually said they wanted to come down to the office, but were having some trouble in doing so. I thought he meant he needed money for a metro card, but his issue was that after being incarcerated for 40 somewhat years, he didn't know how to cross the street and was afraid of the fast moving cars. When I heard that, I realized that we can change systems, but only until we provide a space for these people to re-socialize, and learn what it is to be here again. This has really been the most important part of the work I've done over the years, advocating not just for what I think needs to change, but what those who've lived the realities of incarceration know needs to change. It’s really about taking guidance and support and engagement from the communities that have been most impacted and about building a true healing justice paradigm here in New York. 

The safe space we have created means formerly incarcerated individuals can learn how to have lunch with people because so often you either eat in a mess hall filled with 500 people in prison or you sit in your cell to eat, but you don't have those opportunities to sit and have lunch with three or four people who are casually talking about the day or sports or whatever it is. It certainly serves as a space for dialogue. We talk about the issues, we get perspectives that I don't have and we get bodies. There's a sign in this office that says, "Our life, Our story." One of them brought that to me and he said that that's what this space is.

Sanctuary Everywhere goes beyond immigration. It's not just hiding from someone or preventing someone from reaching you, it's feeling safe somewhere where you're not going to be judged, you're not going to be challenged in being successful in what you're supposed to be doing, and you're going to re-socialize. And if you need help using a computer or walking from here to the train, someone will walk with you. If you need to just relax outside of the confines of a halfway house or walking down Broadway, come here and we'll be there for you.  

We have a similar activity in the summer here at this location. We call it a Liberation Summer camp where we work with another group who needs sanctuary: children of incarcerated parents.  


What they do here is advocate for the issues that lead their parents to prison, or may lead them to prison. Ninety percent of the participants have a parent or sibling who is incarcerated, so they have the safety of commonality, and with that comes openness, energy and some fun. There’s also a freedom of, "I am not alone in this. I can share my story without being judged because the person I'm talking to is living the same reality."

I want to believe that that's sanctuary for them. They are stigmatized in society, but there are no stigmas here. Some young people are offered sanctuary here, people who have lived 50 years in prison find sanctuary here, and because of that I experience sanctuary here also by having them around me.


Related posts


Sanctuary Spaces: An introduction

Sanctuary Spaces: A place for healing from incarceration – part 2

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back oppressive systems from the inside out - part 1

Sanctuary Spaces: Pushing back oppressive systems from the inside out - part 2





Just trying to go home: A Palestinian family struggles to stay together

Wed, 2018-02-28 12:49
Building peace Ending discrimination Palestine-Israel 

In 1984, my husband’s immediate family left via Ben Gurion airport to America. My husband is, in Arabic, ibn Ramallah. He is a native of Ramallah, a founding family of the once stunning Christian town. The family was deeply committed to their community in Ramallah, but they left in desperation, hoping for medical aid that would save my late father in law’s life. He was deeply ill with emphysema.

Nearly two years later, Aziz Saleh Totah died in a foreign land.

In 1992, my mother in law Lourice Totah flew into Ben Gurion where she was greeted with the shocking news that she was a visitor in her homeland, permitted by the Israelis to enter and remain in Palestine for a mere three months, as a foreigner traveling on a US passport. The entire family was in shock.

Lourice Totah died a decade later, like her husband, in a foreign land. Like so many Palestinians stripped of their right to return, their right to their homeland.

My husband also returned to Palestine the same year his mother was informed she was no longer a welcome Palestinian. He was issued a 3 month visa as a foreign visitor as well. At the end of that time period, he applied for a visa extension and the Israelis denied him, informing him that he would have to leave his home that was no longer his home. He left. He was afraid that if he broke the Israeli rules and overstayed his visa, they wouldn’t allow him to enter again. And so he returned to the States.

That exodus began 12 years of in and out, back and forth, coming and going. It began 12 years of 3 month visas, 10 day visas, 1 month visas, entry denials. He jokes that they forced him to travel the world. But humor is how we cope with hurt. In reality, he was a beggar at any and every port of entry to Palestine, just trying to go home.

When Saleh immigrated to America at 15 years old, he vowed to return to his hometown, to the home his father built, to the community his great grandfathers founded. But the Israeli blacklisting that is news today is not so new. The Israelis have been barring activists, academics, professionals, families, volunteers, tourists, etc. for entering for decades and decades, particularly targeting Palestinians with foreign passports, like my husband.

At one point when entering Palestine via Ben Gurion, he was put in a prison cell for the night and the forcefully put on a plane and deported to America via Greece. He debarked in Greece and flew to Jordan. He went first to the Israeli Embassy, seeking a visa to enter the West Bank. They denied his request and told him that at the Israeli controlled Allenby Bridge, he could obtain a visa and enter. When he tried to cross into the West Bank via Allenby, he was turned back by the Israelis. Three times he tried to cross, the first two times he was sent back to Jordan. On the third time, he had the genius-idea to try crossing on the Shabbat. And it worked.

That was 2008. He decided to remain without renewing his visa. He realized at that point it was a greater risk to continue playing by the rules when the rules were not followed by the rule makers.

Let us just recap here. From 1992 to 2008, for 16-years, Saleh Aziz Totah was a visitor to his own home. In 2008 when he decided he would not be forced to leave, he invested his time and sweat into building a cafe in the front half of his father’s house, his home. He is one of the luckiest Palestinians I know in terms of residency, because after 16 years, he applied for residency and he got a hawwiya the same year! That’s almost unheard of since the Israelis have all but frozen the family reunification applications since 2000 with limited exceptions .

I’m the beneficiary of my husband’s persistence as much as he is. Because he got residency, I am allowed to apply as his wife for visa extensions. Before we married, I was also an every-3-months (or sometimes 1 month or sometimes 10 days) traveler. When I taught at Birzeit University, I used every last shekel of my salary for the most basic cost of living and visa-runs.

In 2008, I moved to Palestine permanently. I came in June with a Fullbright-Hayes Fellowship. The US Consulate promised to help procure me a 1 year visa if I sent them a copy of my contract at Birzeit University, where I would start teaching full time in August. The Consulate’s Office stopped answering my phone calls and emails. I tried to obtain the visa through the University and the new President informed me the University could not pursue foreign nationals’ work visas. I was in and out on 3 month- (or sometimes less)-tourist-visas. In December of 2009 I was made to leave the country (the Israeli MoI in Jerusalem prolonged the process of extension, rendering my visa expired, and then refused to renew that visa. They extended it for a few days after it was expired, only upon providing a plane ticket receipt to the US and writing and signing that I would not return to Israel).

I taught my courses at BZU for an entire month via skype. They were held usually around 2 or 3 am for me. It was terribly ineffective.

I decided to leave BZU after 2 years of full time lecturing. It was untenable to spend 100% of my income on cost of living and visa-runs to renew. I left to the States to pursue a PhD but came back shortly after and decided to marry my Palestinian partner of 2 years in order to obtain a visa.

We discussed my upcoming visa expiration on January 7, 2012. We believed it was highly likely border police would make good on their threats to deny me entry. So we decided since we were not willing to live in Jordan together or anywhere else, and since we planned to eventually marry, we would jump the gun. We married 2 weeks after this conversation took place and applied for a spousal visa directly.


I was given a single entry B2 visa for one year.

In 2013 when I received my passport after applying for a spousal visa extension, I found a stamp on my visa JUDEA AND SAMARIA ONLY. Shortly thereafter I received an email from the US Consulate informing all citizens to go to Beit El and have it removed. I was the first US citizen at Beit El the next day where I was told I was disqualified from removal because I was married to a green ID holding Palestinian. Only foreign nationals working for INGOs would have the stamp removed. I argued that I did work for an INGO. I was told I would never qualify. Marrying a Palestinian would always prevent my movement. When I asked about accessing my Consulate in Jerusalem or renewing my car registration in Jerusalem, I was told that I should divorce my husband if I wanted those “rights.”

Thereafter I traveled through Allenby Bridge with my husband and traveled from the Amman airport as Ben Gurion airport access was implicitly denied with the stamp on my passport.

In the spring of 2016 I used Ben Gurion and was allowed to travel. I began using it to travel, thereby renewing my visa. My car had been registered in the name of an Israeli citizen for years by then, since when I tried to register it while on a 3 month tourist visa, I was threatened with arrest for being in Jerusalem when they noted the old stamp JUDEA AND SAMARIA ONLY.

In October 2017, when entering Ben Gurion, I was held for an hour or so at around 2 am. My 1 year old was asleep on my chest. I was screamed at and about (to anyone who would listen) by the woman at the passport control window before being sent to the Police waiting room. Eventually a man from border patrol took my passport and thereby my case. He questioned me but never waited for my full responses. His position was that by law I could only be a tourist 6 months per calendar year. If I traveled and re-entered Israel, I was given 3 months and so I could only travel 2 times in a year. As I had traveled more than that, I had exceeded the amount of time I was allowed to visit Israel and thus was being denied entry.

I begged for a 3 day visa to allow me to go home and apply for extension. I was refused and made to wait, told again I was being denied entry.

About 1 hour after, I was told I would have a one month visa given to me and should renew at Beit El. I was told if I traveled again, I would be denied entry.

Ten days later I submitted my application to the Palestine MoI for a visa extension. I was given 2 months and a letter informing me I had an interview appointment at Beit El 6 weeks later.

And this is our life. 2 months. 6 months. 10 days. I have to consider myself very lucky, because at least the gatekeepers let me in, so far.

I, like most spouses of Palestinians, have applied for lem shemel to take residency in Palestine. The only benefit that gives me, an American citizen, is residency here.

Even after all these years of visa runs and visa renewal applications, and the expenses of both, I remained ambiguous as to giving up the rights I have as a US citizen abroad. A Palestinian hawwiya basically invalidates my US passport as far as the Israeli occupation is concerned.



What changed everything for me?

On July 26, 2016 I gave birth to a Palestinian baby. He wouldn’t be American for another month, once I was able to get birth papers sorted and submitted to the US Consulate in Jerusalem, where I was not allowed to go, according to the Judea and Samaria only stamp the Israelis placed in my passport. And I realized that even with a US passport that arrived 2 months after his birth, whenever we were in Palestine, or Israel, that baby was just like his father: an occupied Palestinian in occupied Palestine.

His US passport gave him no rights as a US citizen abroad. And that realization scared me to my core. If, and when, anything happened in Palestine...if we ever needed to get out, or if all US citizens were forced to leave, that child and I would have different legal statuses. On the day that realization hit me, I immediately submitted an application for lem shemel.

I have almost no hope I will get it, but as a mother I have to do everything in my non-existent power to fight for my right to family unification, my right to enter to my home, and my right to stay in my home, and my right to keep my family together. Ultimately, it is my husband’s right, guaranteed as a protected person living under Israeli occupation, to his wife’s residency and his family’s unity. It is the responsibility of the occupying power to ensure the people under their “protection” receive those rights. To the contrary, Israel denies Palestinians their rights to family and home and movement.

And isn’t that what every Palestinian has been trying to do since they were forcefully displaced in 1948 and in 1967 and thereafter, having residency revoked by the Israelis. We are all just trying to go home. And ultimately, it is a question of our most basic human rights, enshrined in international law. Which begs the question, why are we having to fight so damn hard?!