Sitting in a pastry shop in Astoria, Queens, Abdelmalek Hadjab recalls the first adjustment he had to make after he was granted asylum in April 1997. “When I stepped outside,” he says, “I had a problem with my vision for three days. I had to go like this”–he rubs his eyes hard. “I couldn’t see clearly.”
Hadjab had been held in an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center since he left Algeria for the United States three months earlier. The vision problems he encountered are not uncommon. Patrice, who was granted asylum in September, also remembers that when he first left detention, “I had a bit of vertigo, and everything was blurry.” Months of confinement without access to natural daylight takes its toll in unforeseen ways.
It’s not just light deprivation that proves disorienting–the very experience of seeking asylum in the United States is profoundly unsettling. Propelled by forces outside their control, asylum-seekers come escaping persecution, seeking safety. But unlike refugees–who arrive in the U.S. under the auspices of resettlement agencies that link them up with housing, social services, English classes and employment–the asylum-seeker makes a solitary and uncertain journey.
If, like Hadjab and Patrice, they arrive without proper travel documents, their first impressions of the U.S. are grim. At Kennedy Airport, asylum-seekers are routinely shackled to a bench until they are transferred to the nearby detention facility in Jamaica, Queens; another center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, houses those who arrive at Newark. There, they are strip-searched and given prison uniforms, incarcerated while their asylum claims are pending. Though federal guidelines allow asylum-seekers to be released while their cases are pending, New York-area INS offices generally ignore them.
Once granted asylum, they are left on their own to adjust to a new language and culture, find work, deal with the traumas they have experienced, and build a new life. Some three years after having been granted asylum, Hadjab, now 29, is still trying to find his way. He has lived in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania with a variety of roommates: an Egyptian, a Vietnamese family, and, currently, with three fellow Algerians. He has held a dozen or more jobs, and among other places has worked at a print shop, a tool factory, two 7-Elevens, a restaurant, a clothing store, and a sausage shop–this last job lasting only one day. “I couldn’t support it–the smell was so bad in there,” he says.
For the past several months, he has worked as a driver for a car service, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, from 6 p.m. until 6 in the morning, sometimes longer. He eats in the car, and when he isn’t working, he tries to get some sleep. “I don’t know how this happened, how I came to live here,” he says, still trying to sort everything out.
He says it makes him too sad to speak of what happened in Algeria, but then reconsiders generously, “I will tell you if you like. We had a hundred thousand people killed in six years in Algeria.” Among them were Hadjab’s two sisters and brother. Now, only he and his mother are left; she has found safety in France. The losses hang over him like a cloud.
He had intended to seek asylum in Canada, but on a layover in New York, immigration officials stopped him. They gave him a choice: return to Algeria, or enter detention to pursue an asylum claim. “I figure, OK, I go to see a judge, maybe spend two or three days in prison,” Hadjab recalls. He spent the night shackled to a chair at the airport, then was transported to Elizabeth at 10 the next morning. He remained there not three days, but three months.
Patrice, too, was en route to Canada when he was stopped at Kennedy, shackled, and brought to detention. He had fled his African country, where he’d been imprisoned for political activities, and had left behind four children and his pregnant wife. “I was in prison in my country,” he says. “And then I was in prison in the U.S. I would watch the news in detention, especially New York 1, and they would say this one was shot, this one was robbed. And I would think, there, on the outside, there are criminals; and we, who are not criminals, are on the inside, in prison.”
Imprisoned asylum-seekers still try to hang onto the idea of America as a land of opportunity. The hope sustains them while they wait; explains Patrice, “Everyone talks how when you get out you [will] have money, you have home, you have job.”
But though he has landed work as a security guard and his attorney helped him find temporary housing, Patrice is still trying to find his place. “When you get out, it’s another struggle. Once I arrived here, I was safe, but everything I came to know was vastly different from what I had imagined.” He has now been out of detention for five months, and the transition has been lonely and difficult. The INS took four months to issue his work permit. Red tape delayed his ability to get food stamps and other transitional assistance. He even had to make several visits to a health clinic before getting the tuberculosis medication he was prescribed after being exposed to the disease while in detention.
For detainees lucky enough to have representation (and not all are), their attorneys provide virtually their only link to the outside world. “On the day I was released, Mary came to get me,” recalls Hadjab. Mary McClenahan, his attorney from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, found him a room at the Y. “Everything good that happens here is because of Mary,” he says. “She’s nice. She’s one of the good things in this country.”
Hadjab has found other saving graces, too, including a Spanish-speaking cleaning woman at the detention facility who bought him a celebratory Pepsi when she saw him in the waiting room, preparing to leave; the openness and diversity of America; his opportunity to join with advocates in Washington last November to talk to members of Congress about detention; even the INS office in Nebraska, where his green card application is pending and where, unique among INS offices, a human being answers the phone and responds to questions. “There are nice people in Nebraska,” Hadjab says. “Maybe I’ll go live there.”
But his green card is still a couple of years away; his sense of dislocation is constant, particularly as he drives people around New York. Hadjab tells of a passenger he drove from Sutton Place to the airport; she got into his car, commanding him to make the trip fast and safe. He joked with her: “I can get you there safe, but not fast; or fast, but not safe. Fast and safe? It doesn’t happen.” Hadjab knows that he has found safety, but at an extraordinary cost. “With no family, I don’t feel great,” he says. “Sometimes I feel guilty for what happened to my family. I keep to myself at those times.” He adds, smiling, “You are lucky I was OK to come talk with you today. I’m not searching to be famous for this stuff–just for people to know what’s going on.”
Karen Kaminsky is a Manhattan-based freelance writer and foundation consultant on immigrant issues.
Not his real name. He fears offending the INS, which he is still counting on for his green card, and for approval to bring over his family.