Chang is a 10-year-old girl. She is sweet and giggly, and has the most joyful smile. She speaks Vietnamese, Thai, and some English. She told me (in English) at the beginning of our conversation, “You have a pretty face!” My heart sank to my stomach as I received the compliment. Chang is the bravest girl I have ever met. She is an older sister, a younger sister, a daughter, and a prisoner.
This morning we were up early and in cabs by 7:45 AM en route to the Immigration Detention Center in downtown Bangkok. We met up with the pastors of Life Center Church (the church I attended my first Sunday in Bangkok) and some other volunteers to fill out some paperwork. When we were finished we headed over to IDC. Our only briefing on the situation was that there would be a room with a fence, and a 2-3 foot gap, then another fence that separated the room into 2 sections, with a walkway in between (where only guards were allowed to walk). We knew we would be speaking with people who were either caught trying to illegally enter Thailand, or who had overstayed their VISA and were caught. We knew that they separate men and older boys from the women and children. And we knew that the fate of the people lies with the United Nations to grant them refugee to another country, because Thailand does not offer refugee status. Other than these few things, we had no clue what to expect.
Very suddenly, we were rushed to the front window, and a huge floor to ceiling metal door slid open. We were each provided a name, a number, and a bag of food that we topped off with cards of encouragement we made at our group dinner last night. We could trade our passports (temporarily) for a key to a locker where we were instructed to store all of our things. Then we walked through a metal detector, set our food bags down to be inspected by Thai police, and entered into the place where we would spend our next hour.
It was crazy. There were kids running around back and forth behind the fences, and up against the fences were the adult prisoners with their hands gripping the wire, and their faces as close as they could be. The noise of the metal and the kids combined with all of the prisoners trying to shout to us on the other side made it almost impossible to hear. My friend Emily and I started a conversation with an African man who was about our age and who shouted to us in very good English, but still was hard to hear. He was happy to make conversation. Then we began talking to a Pakistani family that had entered Thailand to escape religious persecution in their country. They had been caught after overstaying their allotted 30-day VISA 9 months ago.
After our conversation with the family, we noticed the most stunning young face held high and smiling through the fence at us. We waved and said hi to her. There was a woman next to us from the church who spoke Thai, and offered to translate for us. After questions and answers (and lots of giggles), we learned the story of this girl.
After the Vietnam War, many fields became land mines. The Vietnamese people tried everything to farm the fields, with no luck. Due to the warfare that took place on the land, a lot of their fresh water is no longer safe to drink. It has become necessary for many farming families to seek alternatives to provide for their family. However, the opportunities are not readily available in Vietnam, so many families choose to move to another country in hopes of being able to at least provide a minimum to eat. We did not ask for the exact story but somewhere along the way, Chang (8 at the time) along with her father, 3-year-old sister, and 1-year-old brother were caught in Thailand without papers and detained to IDC to await refugee status. That was two and a half years ago. Like I mentioned earlier, the women and children are held separate from the men and older boys. So Chang was left to care for her two young siblings, while their dad was detained in another section of the prison.
IDC offers daycare that the Life Center Church is allowed to help run. The children are then able to come into contact with people who will teach them the language and help stimulate play and other child friendly activities. So, Chang has learned Thai and some English in her 2.5 years there. The church goes for a limited 1-hour visit every Thursday, and is only allowed to request one prisoner per volunteer. So on the days that they call Chang’s dad, the kids are allowed to come out and see him. The younger brother was at daycare today, but Chang told us she always comes to be her dad’s translator so that he can hopefully receive news about the rest of his family who have no way to visit them. Chang told us that in Thai her name means “elephant.” She giggled at it, but I think it’s fitting. I had thought going in that the “elephant in the room” would be the bars and the limited time we had to spend there. However, I realized that the “elephant in the room” was not the prison or the time at all- it was the joy of the people, that was revealed to me through this little girl- my personal elephant.
We watched as Chang sweetly walked back to encourage more of the children to come up and meet us. It was clear that she had taken full responsibility to love the other kids. She was putting her arms around them and hugging them and smiling the whole time. The really young children were allowed around the gate if they wanted. And suddenly, almost out of nowhere, Chang’s little sister (who we met and is 5 now) came running straight at me and jumped into my arms giggling. She hugged me close, and when I let her down she ran around back to her dad. It was so sweet to bond with this family. And even sweeter to see the passion and the joy that Chang was clearly passing on to those younger than her. She misses her mom and her home, but she takes care of the other children and she makes sure to be there for her dad- all with a beaming smile on her face.
Loud bells began to ring signaling that it was time to say goodbye. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and talk to this little girl, this little elephant, forever. I turned around to wave goodbye one last time, and had to whip my face forward to fight the tears. This prison is where Chang is living her childhood. She is a prisoner-indefinitely. And yet every part of her just flowed with joy. I couldn’t really wrap my mind around how this girl who was quite literally barred off from the world could be so joyful. Then this afternoon we had another incredible ISM session, where we were taught about compassion.
Here is what I learned: Jesus calls us to be compassionate as He was in His time on Earth, in His death, and in His resurrection- and we know that He blesses us as we follow His call. Even at the young age of 10, Chang finds joy and purpose in caring for people.
My sympathy for Chang and her family doesn’t do anything for her. The empathy I experienced as we conversed with her cannot change her circumstances. Sometimes it’s the simple things that we take for granted, that people need the most. The act of sacrificing time to spend just talking with her and showing interest in her clearly made her happy, and the time we spent with her ended up blessing me. I know and experience freedom every day. I am free in Christ and I am physically free from any detainment. Chang is not physically free, but the freedom that she allows to permeate and flow from her is that of something only one person is able to bring: Jesus. As I strive to compassionately live my life outside of prison walls, I know that Chang is compassionately paralleling me inside of them. She sees the needs of the children around her, and she has taken joy in filling those needs.
Today I learned that the true meaning of compassion is love lived out-regardless of your circumstances…and that sometimes it is the small things (like a small Vietnamese girl) that speak the loudest compassion to the people receiving it. Tonight I am thankful for the Lord’s compassion and that He has gifted us with the ability not only to give it, but also to receive it. And I am thankful for the compassionate heart of the “elephant in the room”…a 10-year-old girl that today, has blessed me and will hopefully inspire and bless you too.