Language Barrier

By Ashley Zarle

I have never had the English language fail me as much as it did while I tried to write this blog post.  When I was told we would be visiting Stewart Detention Center and getting to spend an hour one-on-one with a detainee, I expected a language gap to add some difficulty to my experience—especially considering I have zero proficiency in Spanish.  What I didn't expect was that the largest language barrier, the most difficult to overcome, would be that between my emotional experiences and verbal expression.

It was one of those weekends where everything blended together—I'm not even sure what happened on  which day or in what order.  Reflecting on it is like watching a non-linear movie play in my head, one similar to Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind (if you haven't seen it, you totally should).   I was so tired and the emotions I felt were like none I had ever before experienced, I'm not sure there is a word in the English language that portrays what I felt.

As we sat in the lobby of the Stewart Detention Center,  I think I felt a combination of every emotion imaginable: compassion, confusion, despair, hopelessness, hurt, exhaustion, fear, curiosity, disgust, just to name a few.  When I went to hand in my visitation forms, the woman behind the table told me they were about to do a shift change and I had to sit down and wait.  She never smiled.  I felt belittled.  “Whatever,” I thought, “she's just tired.”  About an hour and a half into this shift change, I thought my bladder might explode.  I stood up, walked up to the lady, and asked to use the restroom.  She stood out of her chair a bit, and very aggressively told me to sit back down and wait until the shift change was over.  I sat down and fumed.  As I looked around, I saw tired children clinging to exhausted mothers after hours (for some, days) of travel.  How could someone look around this room, I wondered, and still talk to people the way this woman was speaking to me?  Did no one care about the plight of these families?  The facility certainly didn't foster any sense of comfort or peace.  And let's not even get into my experience of walking through the metal detector with an insulin pump...

I sat in that waiting room for five hours (was it five?) before I was taken back to visit with a man my own age from Rwanda (guess I didn't need to know Spanish after all—score for taking four semesters of French in college!).  When I walked back to the window that kept us divided (cue an ineffable emotional response from me), he wasn't even there.  They had forgotten to call him (insert ANOTHER emotional response here).  I had prayed and thought about what I would say when I met him—I just wanted to be whatever he needed.  But again, I found myself lacking for words.  We were both shy and, frankly, he didn't want to discuss anything “serious,” he just wanted to talk casually to someone, to anyone.  He ended up doing most of the talking and I listened.  We laughed a bit, we bonded, we experienced some awkward silences, and then it was over.

I got in the van and I think we went back to Alterna, but I know for sure that I slept for hours on the drive back to Atlanta.  When I went to work on Monday, my coworkers and supervisors asked me what we did, how my experience was.  All I could do was stare at them blankly.  How do I even begin to describe to them my exhaustion in Alterna, my amazement and disbelief of what I learned from Latin American immigrants in LaGrange, or my first ever first-hand experience with racism in Americus?  My head began to spin.  Every time I try to talk about these experiences or what I did, every time I try to think about them, piece them together, or make sense of them, my brain comes to a complete halt.  There are no words.