LET’S TALK: About bayonets and blankets

Memories are tricky things. It’s always been important for me to ask people about their earliest recollections, especially about family.

Some respond with certainty, others respond with doubts about the accuracy of their story. I’ve talked to adult siblings who recount the same event from childhood, each with a different spin on what “really” happened. Some memories lay dormant for years and suddenly are recalled by some overt or covert triggering event. And some memories are actually memories told to us by others — often parents recalling an event that occurred in their lifetime — that are passed on to the next generation. These “post memories” can be precious remnants of a parent’s experience never fully spoken about, often leaving the adult child to be the guardians of a story woven with emotions without context. I recently had one of these “post memory” experiences.

I had been invited to speak at an interfaith gathering in Austin, Texas. There were about 300 people, 95 percent Caucasian with a smattering of people of color, who were preparing to march in a demonstration the next day. They would gather to protest the incarceration of mothers and children, being held in so-called “family detention centers” in nearby Dilley, Texas. A 2,400-bed facility, completed in January of this year, will house families from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S. These mothers, escaping violence, with no recourse for protection in their own country, sought refuge in the United States. But with newly intensified government policy to use “detention as deterrence,” instead of obtaining refuge, they are finding themselves treated as criminals, held with their children in prison cells furnished with baby cribs, for an indefinite period of time.

It was a young Yonsei, Carl Takei, an attorney working for the ACLU’s Prison Project, who asked me to join the effort. He explained that a more humane solution to the refugee crisis could be implemented allowing women and children to be housed in the community with case management services while awaiting court approval of their status as asylum seekers. Yet the politics of the time, has instead, led to incarceration. These women and children, viewed as “national security risks,” are being arrested and removed to remote prison sites, unable to have regular communication with the outside world.

The circumstances are clearly different from the World War II Japanese American incarceration experience, but the “solution to the problem” reflects the same political machinations and outcome — the incarceration of people of color for an indefinite period of time for no justifiable crime committed.

Seeking asylum across borders is not a crime, and in America, you don’t have to be a citizen to be allowed due process of the law.

Outraged and numbed by what I had learned after visiting women and children in the Karnes, Texas prison, and witnessing the trauma expressed in the children’s behaviors and stories, I felt at a loss for words when asked to speak at a pre-demonstration gathering. What could I offer to all these amazing volunteers, ready to stand with the victims as compassionate witnesses and speaking out in protest? What could I say that would bolster morale, clarify the injustice, and help people focus on the purpose of the protest? While leaders from the ACLU, Interfaith Council, Grassroots Leadership, and RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) took their turns speaking, someone leaned over to me and asked what I was going to say. I had no idea.

When I finally got up to speak, looking out on the sea of faces, I was filled with a feeling of gratitude and awe. All these people, moved by the spirit of social justice, had taken time from their own lives, to give a hand, a voice, to do what is part of our American legacy … to protest.

Then the memory came up — a story my mother had told me. I think I was a child when I first heard it. I shared with the audience that it was over 70 years ago since I was a child in a prison camp with my mother and brother in Crystal City, Texas, not too far from where we would be marching the next day. I told them that much of my work with other Japanese Americans who had also been “children of the camps,” focused on the memories of their World War II incarceration experience. I explained that some people recalled only the horror of their experience, the bayonets that the soldiers carried, the heat, the dust, the fear and anxiety. Others focused on the “good memories” of their time in camp, mostly related to friendships and bonds created with neighbors and families helping each other.

My parents were forced to leave their home in San Francisco. They were bused to the Tanforan “Assembly Center” to be housed in former horse stalls until more permanent facilities were completed. It was a racetrack in San Bruno, Calif., south of San Francisco. Prisoners could look out through the fence and watch life in the city go by — people, cars, trees. My mother told me about the women who came to the fence from time to time, to toss fresh fruits and vegetables to the prisoners on the other side. They were Quakers. She was pregnant at the time. A woman caught her attention and said, “I hope this helps,” as she heaved a patchwork quilt over the fence, landing in my mother’s arms. She treasured that blanket and still had it on her bed when she was ill and failing. In a quiet moment, I asked her why this blanket was so precious to her. She replied softly, “It always helped me remember that someone outside cared.”

I closed my story, heart full of gratitude. When we marched the next day, we were loud and noisy protestors, singing and carrying posters in English and Spanish. I hoped the prisoners, especially the children, could hear us and know that someone outside cared.

Daruma psychology is about seven times down, eight times up. When we reach out to help others, our own healing takes place. We use our gambatte spirit towards making this a kinder more humane world. Please write to your congressperson and demand a stop to the incarceration of innocent women and children.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist with specialization in intergenerational trauma. She can be reached at satsukina44@gmail.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” — www.children-of-the-camps.org and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story” — www.fromasilkcocoon.com). The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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