Jacqueline Lee

(WOMENSENEWS)–“Remember to bring your passport. We don’t want them to think you were trafficked here,” one of the other volunteers said, half-joking and half-serious, the day before I went to Detention Center Zeist in Amsterdam for the first time.

Under Dutch law, when someone illegally in the Netherlands claims to authorities that she has been trafficked, she is first permitted three months of time to reflect. If the person decides to press charges within that period, she is granted B9-status and can legally work and live in the Netherlands at least temporarily. Before so-called “illegal residents” are determined to be victims of human trafficking, or while they are deciding whether or not to press charges, they are held in detention-deportation centers.

Volunteers from Humanitas, an Amsterdam-based social services group, visit the women about twice a month, conducting arts and crafts workshops.

As an exchange student from the United States, I was tapped by a professor to volunteer with a program that helps victims of human trafficking. Because I speak Mandarin, the program director decided I would be a perfect fit for talking to Chinese women in detention centers.

The barbed wire that rimmed the high concrete walls of the detention center provided a prison-like atmosphere, threatening and unnecessary; no one could ever hope to scale a wall that high.

The barren vegetation surrounding the center was a stark contrast to the rolling green hills of the Netherlands. The guards were friendly, but still thoroughly scanned our identification, searched our bags and checked our boxes of snacks and art supplies.

Gray Tables, Blue Chairs

After we got inside, we waited for the women in a room with five gray tables pushed together and surrounded by 60 or so blue plastic chairs.

We had brought apple juice, chocolate Easter eggs and tessellations–flowered, geometric patterns–for them to color. The detainees filed in wearing the same outfit they had on the day they were detained, including fluffy winter socks, plastic sandals, leg warmers and house slippers.

They immediately and obediently sat down to color and decorate with the eagerness of school children on a holiday. Our visit not only provided them a chance to leave their cells but also gave them an opportunity to talk with others from their same nation. Soon the room was filled with the chatter of Russian, Mandarin, Dutch, Spanish and lesser-known languages.

Most were from northern China and spoke “pu tong hua”–China’s official language, Mandarin–and their native dialects. None of these detainees spoke English or Dutch. For many, I was the first Mandarin-speaking visitor to come. I felt I had a huge responsibility, but I wasn’t sure what good I could do.

I sat down next to a woman from Suriname, but she did not look at me when I said hello. I looked at Michelle, another volunteer, who gestured encouragingly for me to try again. I introduced myself in Dutch and asked her what her name was. She stopped coloring her tessellation, folded her hands and turned away from me.

“How are you? Would you like some juice?” I colored my own tessellation for a while and then decided I wasn’t going to give up. “Where are you from?” I decided to ask. She looked at me dead in the eye to say, “I’m from nowhere.”

Crying for ‘Freedom’

The second time I visited, she scrawled the word “Freedom” across her watercolor and had to be escorted back to her cell because she could not stop crying.

I was never sure what question would cause them to turn away or stop talking. Taking charge of caring for me–just as any Chinese woman would for a younger one–the Mandarin-speaking detainees asked me about my family, whether I had children, how my day was. I asked them similar questions, although I worried whether a polite inquiry about their families was wise or cruel. I had no guidelines.

Women at the detention center are only allowed 30 minutes outdoors every morning. They typically spend the rest of the day with six women to a cell; a space they told me was too small for each woman’s anger, tears and confusion. Because of language differences, they find themselves in cells where they cannot communicate with anyone.

No laws regulate how long they are detained. The women do not know if it will be a few weeks, three months or a year before their paperwork and identity are sorted out. Because of the language barrier, Chinese women, in particular, are uncertain of their legal rights and there are not enough translators to help inform them.

The women face many uncertainties, but they are sure of one thing. I asked every single woman I spoke with whether they wanted to go back to China and the answer was always the same: an emphatic “No.”

“Why not?” I asked. Don’t they miss their homes, their families, their former lives? Some said China did not have enough jobs and they were starving and unemployed at home. Others said they did not even know where their families were anymore.

Reminded of My Grandmother

On that first visit, the two hours went by quickly as I rotated among the women. I spent a lot of time with the oldest Chinese woman in the group because she reminded me of my grandmother, soft-spoken and calm compared to the more animated younger women chatting noisily.

“Drink, drink,” she urged in a grandmotherly tone, just as my grandmother in Los Angeles would. She poured me three cups of apple juice, saying that otherwise the guards would just throw it away and it would be a big waste. She showed me the chocolate eggs she hid in her pocket and put some in my hand as if it was a secret we shared.

“Is it too cold at night? Are your joints in pain?” I asked her questions I ask my own grandmother. She answered a few questions and emboldened, I went further. “Why are you here? Do you have family members you can call?” Her silent, defiant, graceful tears began to fall.

After a long silence, I commented on the colors she chose for her tessellation–green and blue–and told her those were my favorite hues.

“Do you know why I colored with green and blue?” she asked and I shook my head. “When one is free, one can walk outdoors on the green grass and look at the blue sky whenever she pleases, so in Chinese culture these colors mean freedom.”

She grasped my hand–until the guard gently guided her away–and said she hoped to see me again in the future, but for her sake, she hoped that she was gone by the next time I visited. I came twice more and when I asked about her no one could say for sure where she was.

Jacqueline Lee is a Los Angeles-based reporter interning with Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

Humanitas (in Dutch):

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

Human Rights Watch, Campaign Against Traffickign Women and Girls:

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