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.

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Linda

I cannot believe what has happened in the US - instead of giving this man already granted asylum a chance to become a productive/lover of the country we imprison him and keep him and others there without communication/information/humane conditions - if this happened to a US citizen in another country we would be furious - we pay to imprison him and are creating people who no longer will believe anything they hear about the goodness of the US and will more easily turn away from supporting us

Mrs Walker

FYI: Timothy Leary was an American psychologist and writer known for advocating the exploration of the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions. Wikipedia
DIED IN 1996..... poser....

Dr. Timothy Leary

Thank you Mrs. Know-It-All Walker.

Mary

Some of the comments on this post are absolutely pathetic. If you did any amount of research, you would see that Haitians have historically been treated differently than other immigrants. For those of you claiming that he is lying, or a coward, have you ever been in danger for your life? Have you had to worry about your family being in danger because people were after you? I highly doubt it. For those of you stating that he should learn English, exactly how do you think he is able to do that when he is imprisoned? You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Do a little research and find out how immigrants are treated, specifically Haitian refugees, especially in Florida. It would take you about 5 minutes to learn about it, and then you would be a little more educated on the subject and understand why he is going through what he is going through. You would understand how people are treated by our government.

Madeleine

I find this harsh, cruel and unjust, and the same to those who judge this person, when they have not had to endure his life.

Mr Scibby

Hmm. I thought under international law you are obliged to make an asylum claim in the first safe country you get to. In this case wouldn't that be Brazil? If you don't like living in Brazil and want to get to USA for a better life then you become an economic migrant not an asylum seeker, and you take your chances like everyone else if you get picked up? Grateful for the legal advice of ACLU if I've got this wrong.

Anonymous

Hate post5. By a Nazxi.

ken

What happened to the oath you made to protect your wife and children until death do you part? You are a coward in my eyes, leaving your family to face persecution along. I cannot offer sympathy to you.

Angeleigha

Once ICE clears you, it will be better. Trump has brought light unto out immigration policy, and I agree with Trump that it must be fixed. This is a sad story.

Anonymous

You should have applied for refugee status to Canada or some other free country. You made a serious mistake. I hope you will soon be free of it.

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