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American Girl

Rasha and Reem shared a cell: two unhappy beds and a stainless-steel toilet. They were given thick, itchy blankets that didn’t seem to bend. It was like sleeping under hairy cardboard. And they began to live, or at least survive, there. Rasha had had setbacks in the past, but she had never felt this sad, this powerless, this misunderstood. She contemplated hurting herself. She considered suicide. For a while, she stopped eating. She would lie on her bed sometimes for two or three days, finally lugging herself out of bed one day when the cell door opened so she could join the others and eat. Like lab rats, she thought.

Rasha’s depression slowly gave way to anger. Why was she here? For what? Because she had overstayed her visa and was now undocumented? She hadn’t committed a crime, and she was being punished for someone else’s acts. For someone else’s crime. She hadn’t been convicted. She had been abducted. This wasn’t justice. It was revenge.

She began to observe the little things the inmates would do to preserve a sense of autonomy. One woman would swipe the pint-size milk cartons from her meals and store them in the toilet because they stayed colder that way. Her mother slowly begin to mingle with the other inmates, and Rasha was becoming closer to her sister. The two girls held each other’s sanity like a locket, and Rasha felt the life breathing back into her. She and Reem began cracking all kinds of jokes about prison life (jokes that Rasha has since blocked out). They resolved never to wear Converse shoes again.

Over time, they met the rest of the inmates: Pakistani women, Arab women, and other Muslims detained under similar circumstances; Russians and Israelis, usually there for immigration reasons; a smaller group of Asians and a much larger population of Latinas and African-American women held mostly on drug-related charges. Everyone was incarcerated together.

If the holding area reminded Rasha of TV prison, the prison wing was different. On TV, inmates are constantly in your face, goading you into fights, organizing into gangs, carving out turf. But the women at Bergen were kind to one another. Treated by the system like beasts, they cultivated their humanity.

The corrections officers, on the other hand, were ignorant and abusive. They yelled at you. They ignored you. They terrified you. Here the gods were the beasts.

We’re cleaning out the country, the FBI agent seemed to be saying, and you’re the dirt.

Reem soon developed a horrible rash all over her body from those blankets. One night, when everyone was asleep, Reem couldn’t take the itch and pain any longer, and she began knocking on the glass. Two officers were talking on the other side, and Reem began pleading with them to come out. The officers could hear her, but she couldn’t hear them. She kept knocking, louder and louder. “Come here!” she yelled. She opened her jumpsuit to show her rash to the female officers. One officer leaned over and pressed a button. “I’m in the middle of a conversation,” she lectured. “You wait till I’m done.” But Reem just wouldn’t stop banging. She was sobbing. Seeing her older sister desperate for some kind of medical attention, Rasha began crying, too. The officer finally came out to see Reem and began yelling at her. “What the hell is your problem?” she shouted.

After three weeks in New Jersey, they were transferred to the Metropolitan Detention Center in the shadow of the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn. Rasha’s brother and father went to the same place, but in the male wing.

MDC was much cleaner than the New Jersey jail and arranged more like a dormitory than lab-rat cages. A simple common kitchen made it easier to commune with others. Maybe life was getting better. But just as at Bergen, time at MDC dragged on, and Rasha began to feel that they were never going to get out, that she wasn’t going to see her friends again, that she was not going to graduate college, get married, and move on to the next phases of her life.

What saved both her and her sister from madness was a feeling of responsibility for their mother. The living arrangements allowed the daughters to look out for her. This usually meant standing up for her to the corrections officers, who often responded to her imperfect English with impatient contempt. The conflict came to a head one day when Rasha’s mother asked a corrections counselor to call her son in Pennsylvania.

Rasha didn’t like this counselor. Some days he would look at you with these large, gentle cat eyes, listen to your problems, and help out in any way he could. But most of the time, he was just lecturing and disrespectful. He didn’t know why the inmates were there, and he didn’t care.