(Before I get into this next part, I want to let you know I found out that I was not “deported” from the UK, I was “removed”. There is a big difference. “Removed” is much better and is far less punitive.)
So, we last left me sitting in a small room with only a desk, two chairs(one on either side) and my luggage. I was alone for a few moments, enough to send one last text to Hannah before a woman in a white uniform came into the room. She introduced herself and confirmed that I had all my luggage with me and that there wasn’t anything circling forlornly around the baggage carousel. She then very politely informed me that she had to search through my bags. I must say, she was very kind and not at all aggressive which was a huge relief at this point. She then took me to another room where a gentleman took my fingerprints and a photograph. It’s not one of my best, although weirdly I did try to smile for it. (I was unsuccessful.)Anyway, I’m quite sure my immigration photo will not be showing up on any social media lists of “hot deportees”. I ended up having to go through the process twice, as for whatever reason the initial prints and photo didn’t save. Then I and my luggage were taken through a locked door and into the area in which I was to spend the majority of the next 24 hours. It consisted of one main center room that contained the guards desk, and two locked rooms branching off that were for detainees. There was also a small room where all of our luggage was stored, and a “kitchen” area with microwavable meals, fruit, chips(crisps) and instant foods of the “add hot water’ variety. The most important thing in the kitchen however was the machine that dispensed coffee, tea, juice and water. During the entire time I was there I only managed to choke down two banana’s…but I used the hell out of the drinks machine. Lots of coffee…and a lemon tea that I have to reluctantly admit was rather delicious. (Seriously, it you ever find yourself locked up in Gatwick Airport South Terminal Immigration Control, go for the lemon tea.)
My luggage was placed in the small side room along with that of my fellow detainees, and I had to say a temporary goodbye to my phone as it had a camera and no photos are allowed. I was then taken by yet another woman into the first of the locked rooms (which was empty of people), and as she proceeded to put on a pair of latex gloves my heart literally stopped. I am fairly certain I was dead for at least two seconds. I looked into her eyes and said “Please tell me those gloves aren’t for what I am currently freaking out that they might be for”. She started to laugh…a good hearty belly laugh…and assured me that no, I was not getting “probed”. She just needed to pat me down and it was procedure. Once that was over, she asked if I would like anything to eat or drink, and when I answered “No, thank you” she moved me to the other locked Room, opened the door and ushered me in. She showed me where the toilets and shower were, asked me again if I needed anything and then out she went.
(Before I go any further, it is very important that I let you know how amazingly kind our “keepers” were. They are completely separate from the “immigration officers”…the “keepers” don’t give a hoot what brought us into their realm. Their only job is to keep us as comfortable as possible. Without the genuine care and concern these men and women showed for each one of us “detainees”, an already fraught experience would have become downright unbearable. They also often served as therapists of a sort…listening to those of us who just needed a kind soul to lend an ear in sympathy. I have been in churches and doctors offices whose staff haven’t been even as half as genuinely kind as these people. )
So, now there I was, locked in a room with strangers in the heart of Gatwick airport…frightened, alone and exhausted and not having any damn clue what was going to happen to me. All I knew was that I was to wait to be ‘interviewed” by an immigration officer. When that was going to happen and what that would consist of I had no idea.
I looked around my new surroundings, trying to decide the best place park myself. I’m horrible at measurements, but if I had to guess I would say the rectangular Room was 25’ long by 12’ wide with a long window on the wall that faced the “keepers” area. (For the sake of a better name, I am going to call the center area between the locked rooms as “the Yard”. ) That wall also contained the door to the Yard. Along three sides of the Room were long metal benches consisting of 5-7 “seats”, and in the center were two diner type tables with benches on either side. You know the kind…like a picnic table but in one piece of molded plastic with no padding. Clearly all the furniture was chosen for its inability to be used as a projectile or weapon. The other locked Room across the Yard was decked in a similar manner, except with the addition of a crib and toys, as that was the Room for minors or anyone with children. At the far end near the doors to the toilet were two faux leather mats laid on the floor. Also inside, directly opposite from the main door, was a very large, weird looking phone and a television high up in the front corner near the window.
I chose one of the diner sets to sit at as they were empty and wearily laid my head down upon the table. By this point I had been awake for 30 hours and four of them had been spent in crisis mode. I think I dozed off for five minutes or so before the door opened and a person dressed in a black uniform called out the name of one of one of my “roommates”. This tossed me cruelly back onto the real world, and I was instantly wide awake. I began to scan the Room for anything that might distract my brain from its current situation. I did see a ledge by the window that held a number of magazines and books…and while reading is usually my “go to” de-stresser I was highly doubtful that I would find any relief in an issue of Vogue. I found myself more interested in the other occupants of the Room. The first person I noticed was the young woman I had seen earlier in “the pen”. We made eye contact again, but this time we didn’t manage any smiles, weak or otherwise. Just the raised eyebrow and grimace that conveys “you too?” I found out later that she was from Portugal, so that will be her name henceforth. In fact, I will reveal no names of any of my compadres in this adventure, they will only be called by the name of their home country or other pseudonym if country is not known or applicable.
There was Phone Lady, a black middle aged heavyset woman who had staked her claim to the telephone and stood next to it as if she were guarding the Queens jewels. The phone rang about every five minutes and she would lunge at the handset possessively and begin speaking loudly in a language I did not recognize. Then she would slam the handset down, shake her head, mumble to herself (and sometimes us) and retake her stance by the phone. Occasionally it would ring and turn out to be for the man I shall name Young Asian. She would aggressively glare at him till he was finished. It got so bad they eventually let him use the phone in the minors Room. Young Asian spent most of the time he was there just sitting on one of the bench seats and staring. Not AT anything, just staring. The only other person in the Room at that time(that I recall) was a very tall and muscular bearded man in his late 20’s wearing a black track suit who was reclining on one of the mats on the other side of the room. More about him in a bit. The other mat was unoccupied.
After some time watching the goings on both in the Room and outside of it via the large window, I began to shiver. I’m sure part of it was that the adrenaline that had been coursing through me was beginning to wane, but the main reason was because it was freezing cold in the Room. I don’t know if they keep it that cold as a “tactic”, or if the AC needs to run that high in case the Room is full of warm bodies. But with only the few of in there, it was nigh unbearable. I knocked on the door and asked the answering Keeper if I could please get my coat from my luggage. I was allowed, and after putting it on I was comfortable for about ten minutes before I started shivering again. You know that shiver…the one that starts deep in your bones and is impossible to stop. As I was sitting there shaking, the door was opened by a man in a black uniform and Portugal was taken to be interviewed. This is how I learned the difference between the people in white uniforms and those in black. The white uniforms were our kind Keepers, the black uniforms were the Immigration Officers, the ones who interview you and decide your fate. I wonder if anyone has ever noticed the irony of those two uniform color choices. Everyone in the Room sat up and took notice if they saw a person in a black uniform enter the Yard. It meant one of us was going to be called.
Eventually the exhaustion began to creep back in, and I looked over at the empty mat on the other side of the room. My usual reluctance to lie down on the floor next to a stranger was overcome by a deep need to rest and I eventually succumbed and flopped on to the mat and laid down. The man next to me took immediate note of my arrival and cheerily initiated conversation. Now, there are times you want to chat, and times you don’t. To my surprise, I found myself responding to his overtures. Apparently my need to connect with another human was stronger than my desire for sleep. He told me his name, but we shall call him Albania. He had no qualms at all about telling me his story.
Albania had been living and working in the UK for the past three years on a visa. (Albania is not currently part of the EU, it is only a potential candidate, hence his need for a visa. If you are a citizen from a EU country you do not need a visa to live and work in the UK. At least for now. There is a good chance that Brexit will change that policy) He told me that he was involved in brawl that ended up with him being arrested and jailed. He said that at his first trial, the jury had found him guilty, but that at his second they had found him innocent and that all told he had spent the last 21 months in jail. After his release from prison he was sent to an immigration detention center and had to make a choice to either continue to live there while waiting to see if a new visa application would be approved (which he said could take 6 months) or to go home. He decided he wanted to go back to Albania and was brought here to wait for his flight home. Now, I don’t know enough about British jurisprudence to know if his tale was based in truth, but I didn’t care. He was intelligent, well spoken, and interesting and right now the only person in the room who spoke English fluently. Chatting to him was like water in the desert. He also had the kind of forthright charm that can be a warning sign of a “player”, but I was hardly the person to succumb to it.(I found out later that someone in the Room HAD in fact succumbed to it while I was elsewhere. More about that further down the road.) He talked to me a bit about his home country, and how it is poor but very beautiful. He bemoaned the fact that all people know of his country is from the movie Taken and that not all Albanians are kidnappers. I told him a bit of my story and he seemed surprised that someone from a wealthy country like America could end up here. I archly replied that ‘Not all Americans are rich and privileged”. I asked him why he seemed so casual and calm about his situation, and he explained that after his stay at the deportation center, the Room felt like luxury.(Pretty sure he was also happy because the Room contained women, unlike his previous lodgings) I enjoyed my conversation with Albania and was grateful for the distraction.
It is hard to keep track of time in the Room, but It had at least been two or three hours and I hadn’t even been interviewed yet. I realized I needed to get in touch with Hannah and at least let her know I was alright. There was the phone, but you could only receive calls, not make them. Also, Phone Lady was still on guard. I had no desire to go anywhere near it. I knocked on the door and explained the situation to the Keeper. Bless him, he allowed me to get my cell phone from my bag, and as long as I stayed in the Yard and there were no other detainees being brought in and assessed, he would allow me to text her. He even showed me an outlet so I charge my phone, as it was dead. As soon as I had it powered up, I texted Hannah, and sure enough poor thing had been frantic. Now, this is the part of the story when you find out that my daughter is a bad ass. Right out of the gate she informs me that when she hadn’t heard from me in a few hours, she called the American Embassy in London to track me down. That’s right. She called the fucking embassy to make sure that I hadn’t been hauled off to some secret prison and wasn’t being tortured by being force fed mushy peas or beans on toast. I shared that information with my Keeper, as we had been chatting while I was texting. Then, at the EXACT moment I was responding to her text, my Keeper received a phone call…from the American Embassy checking on my situation. I could hear his side of the conversation, and he looked over at me with a rather amused expression on his face. I must admit I felt a huge surge of pride in my 25 year old daughter. (Tinged with embarrassment, I will admit. I don’t like a fuss, but in this case her instinct was spot on) Don’t tell me all Millennials need their hands held when things get tough. My Millennial jumped in on her own and took action as best she could from 4336 miles away. I assured her that I was alright, that yes, there was food if I was hungry, and that no, I had no idea when I when I was to be interviewed as they were short on staff and things were taking longer than usual. After many “I love you’s” and mutual assurances of mental and emotional stability I turned off my phone and returned it to my bag. My Keeper let me stay and chat with him for a while before eventually returning me to the Room.
I returned to my “luxury lounger” and chatted with Albania a bit more when the door opened and a woman in a black uniform appeared. She was for me. I was called.
Here ends part two. I am sorry, but apparently this is going to be a 4 part story. Just this bit is almost 3000 words. I’m damn near going to have a novella by the time I finish.