Locked Up as Punishment for Seeking Safety

Editor’s Note: Mr. Damus shared his story about his imprisonment from his jail in Chardon, Ohio. It was translated from Haitian Creole. 

In another life, I was a teacher. I stood in front of young people, delivering lessons on ethics and morality, as well as math and physics. Now, I am a prisoner. For the past 16 months, I have been locked inside the Geauga County Safety Center in Chardon, Ohio. 

“Safety Center” is a strange name for a jail with no outdoor space, where immigrant detainees are kept in windowless rooms. I have not felt fresh air in my lungs or the sun on my face for more than a year. I have not felt safe for years. 

My troubles began on Sept. 15, 2014. I was leading a youth seminar in my hometown of Grand-Riviere-du-Nord, Haiti. I was mid-discussion on the problem of corruption in Haitian politics when I named a local government official — Benjamin Ocenjac — as an example of someone who works with gangs to terrorize the population. 

That very day, I was attacked by members of “La Meezorequin,” the Shark Bones Army, a well-armed gang that supports Mr. Ocenjac. Men dragged me off my motorcycle and savagely beat me — leaving me with scars which I bear to this day. They set my motorcycle on fire and threatened to kill me. 

Fearing for my life, I fled Haiti 10 days later, leaving behind my wife, two young children, parents, and siblings. I was in Brazil for 18 months, living first at a refugee camp, and later in a shared, rented room. I found work in construction but faced discrimination. I was told I was an animal, that people like me were flooding the country to steal jobs. There was no life for me there, but I was afraid to go back to Haiti. 

In October 2016, I arrived at the California border to seek asylum. I was interviewed by an officer who found that I had a credible fear of persecution. In April 2017, an immigration judge granted my asylum application, giving me the opportunity to start a new life in the United States. However, the government appealed the decision and the Board of Immigration Appeals called for more proceedings to determine if my time in Brazil had rendered me ineligible for asylum, as the government claimed. I had a second hearing and, in January 2018, the judge once again granted my asylum. She found that I was eligible for asylum in the U.S. and that I would continue to face threats from La Meezorequin, who had since been harassing my wife, should I return to Haiti. 

The government appealed again, sending my case into further proceedings. 

All the while, I have been imprisoned. Some would call it detention, a euphemism. But I am a human being trapped behind metal bars and walls, with no access to the outdoors, the internet, or email. For the past 11 months, there have been no other French speakers at Geauga whom I can talk to. I spend my days in near total isolation, finding comfort only when I’m reading my Bible. 

My teacher’s mind struggles to find a lesson in my experience, but I can’t make sense of this. The United States has allowed people fleeing persecution to apply for asylum for decades, both as part of its laws and culture. When I feared for my life and arrived at the border, it felt like the U.S. had extended an open hand to me. Yet in accepting it, I have been condemned to indefinite imprisonment, even though I have committed no crime. 

I know that I am not the only one in this situation, and this isn’t the way that it should be in the United States. Growing up, I always heard talk about America and its promise. In previous years, those who sought asylum were released on humanitarian parole while their cases were decided, but now the government has simply stopped letting people out. 

At Geauga, I have seen other asylum-seekers give up and return to countries where they fled danger because the price of seeking safety — imprisonment for months or years on end — was just too high. I am still fighting. The ACLU and partners filed a class action lawsuit on my behalf as well as for more than a thousand other asylum seekers who are currently locked up across the United States. We are suing the Department of Homeland Security for depriving us of due process. 

In telling my story and fighting for basic rights, I’m hoping that America will prove to be better than this. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Ansly had broken bones following the gang's attack on him in Haiti. He did not.

Tell Homeland Security to stop the illegal detention of asylum seekers

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Anonymous

It was only a matter of time as to when they would begin "editing" the comments. Notice how they now have a delayed posting of the comments?

Mydoghasfleas

Tim it was bad. If your going to follow trump. Do it somewhere else.

Dr. Timothy Leary

"It was translated from Haitian Creole." While he is in jail why doesn't he learn to speak English? He has had 16 Months to study so far. He claims to be a math a physics teacher back in Haiti so he should be at least somewhat smart. Wouldn't learning English be to his benefit should he be released into the U.S. ?

Anonymous

What is he going to study with? He has no access to the internet and paradoxically immigration detention centers rarely provide access to materials. Fellow detainees may also not be English speakers and his contact with them is likely limited as well, in addition to the fact that they are not there to be his personal English instructor--they're also political prisoners.

Dr. Timothy Leary

On his part, as the saying goes, "where there is a will there is a way".
On your part, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, perhaps this is your chance to help the man by providing him with study materials to learn English. Put your money where your mouth is.

Anonymous

English is not easy to learn. Of course you would not know that. Just because he is an intelligent man does not mean it would be easy for him to learn English. Go to China and see how easy it would be to learn the language. Do you speak French?? Or Italian? Malayalam?

Dr. Timothy Leary

I am not immigrating to China, France, Italy or Malomar . He is immigrating to the U.S. of A. If he does not speak English (or Spanish) how will they understand him at the welfare office ?

LADY LIBERTY

Timothy (not referring to you as "doctor", because I think WE would ALL agree that you are anything but a real doctor) I would rather refer to your last name "Leary" (Irish descent of course) and how little you must know of the plight of "your people" when they first came to this country. SHAME on you for casting such judgement towards this good man. There is great evil happening all around the world (people fleeing from unspeakable danger and terror) and now people like you are making this great nation one more to fear (from ignorance and bigotry) As an American (born and raise here) I am proud to be able to communicate in numerous languages (to welcome our brothers and sisters from foreign lands) Cher Damus, nous sommes vraiment désolés que vous soyez dans cette situation horrible et que vous vous unissiez pour faire tout votre possible pour vous sortir de là. S'il vous plaît, ne perdez pas espoir.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Lady Liberty,
Thank you for ethnically profiling me.
Thank you for your inspirational message to Mr. Dumass in French.
I was able to read it. Would he be able to ?

CLAUDE

While your introduction to America was a fair one, the color of your skin in the problem for some in the American government.. I your skin was whiter or brighter, and you were from Europe, Japan, Twain, or even China or Russian... you would almost NEVER be challenged. Welcome to this white man's world in America.

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