BANGKOK (BP) — The tall, lanky man can hardly contain his excitement. He anxiously paces the narrow waiting area, stopping to tell anyone sitting in the uncomfortable, plastic government chairs his big news.
“Today is the day!” the South Asian man exclaims. Rajeevan Kuharasah is so excited that not even a big, bushy mustache can hide his toothy smile. “Today is the day I bail my wife and son out!”
His wife, Uma, and youngest son share a cell at Bangkok’s International Detention Center (IDC) with 130 women plus 35 children under age 10.
Their crime was fleeing a country during a brutal civil war and seeking asylum in Thailand, a country that does not recognize international human rights laws protecting individuals seeking asylum across international lines. Here, they are illegal migrants.
At one time, the entire family was in IDC. Rajeevan and his teenage son lived in the crowded men’s side but were bailed out a few months ago after receiving their official United Nations refugee status.
It’s been 18 months since Rajeevan’s family of four has slept in the same house, since they’ve eaten a meal together, since he’s held his wife. Thinking about everything they’ve missed doesn’t curb his excitement and optimism, though.
“We found a better life here,” Rajeevan, whose family endured everything from torture camp to rape in South Asia, said. “This is where I first heard Jesus’ name.”
He motions to a group of people stuffing fruit, vegetables and toiletries into plastic bags and marking each with detention identification numbers. “They came to visit and showed me love,” he said.
The eclectic group of 25 Thais, Asians and Americans are a mix of International Mission Board missionaries and congregants from Bangkok’s Calvary Baptist and Immanuel Baptist churches waiting for visitation to start. All voluntarily take a few hours from their jobs to visit asylum seekers and refugees in IDC each week.
They shake Rajeevan’s hand and pat him on the back in congratulations for not only the rest of his family being released today but for his being baptized less than 20 hours ago.
“I have a lot to tell my wife today,” Rajeevan says excitedly.
A loud buzzer stops the conversation and the large metal gate to the visitation room slowly squeaks open. Everyone grabs a gift bag of food, provided through the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund, and rushes in.
It’s important to be the first through the security check and firmly planted in a spot along the fence. Rajeevan explains that the only way to communicate is by yelling back and forth. On days like today, when there are a lot of visitors, people are lined up two or three deep behind the visitor’s barrier in this bare, open-air room.
Rajeevan laces his fingers through the chain link fence and presses his face against it, trying to get a better view of the male and female detainees coming out. He spots his wife’s long, flowing, dark hair and his smile grows. Not even a neon orange uniform can hide her beauty. Uma quickly pushes her way to the front of her fence, a barrier three feet away from the visitors’ side.
They can’t touch. They just look at each other as if they are alone in this overcrowded room.
The roar of conversation grows around them, yet as Rajeevan yells a description of the baptismal service held the previous day at Calvary Baptist Church, Uma is captivated. Five of their friends were also baptized along with their elder son.
When the loving husband says preparations for Uma’s baptism are underway, she gives him a quizzical look. Rajeevan gives a mischievous grin and finally blurts out that he can take her home in a few hours. As the news sinks in, tears of joy fill their eyes.
“Papa! Papa!” screams a seven-year-old boy, interrupting the intimate, yet very public, moment. Rajeevan reaches for his long-legged younger son and gives a tight hug before trying to smooth down his cowlick. Only children are allowed to cross the barrier and interact with the visitors. The father and son get to touch and play only during visitation.
When Rajeevan was in detention, the family would go months without seeing each other — that is, until through some miracle, the Christians selected the four for visitation, choosing among the 1,200 living in IDC.
The 39-year-old father remembers that the church members brought fresh fruit and vegetables without asking for anything in return or pushing their beliefs. They always smiled and chatted, but were more than happy to let Rajeevan’s clan have “family time.” The Christians do this for everyone. This unselfish act is what originally piqued the former Hindu’s interest about their God. Why would anyone come to such a depressing place and give strangers this precious gift?
He soon realized the Christians’ “gift” involved more than time: it was one of peace and hope, something his war-torn family had never experienced. When IMB missionaries Martin and Carrie Chappell shared the Gospel with Rajeevan, it was the first time he’d ever heard of Jesus. The information made his heart feel so peaceful, he knew he had to go to this church.
“I went to the church and never wanted to leave. I felt peace and …,” Rajeevan pauses to find the right word in English, then defaults to just pointing to IMB missionary David Johnson and other church members teasing and laughing with his family and friends through the two barriers. “Love! I found love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.”
The refugee father joins the celebrating group of friends just as Johnson shouts out a short Bible story and yells a prayer at the top of his lungs. A buzzer interrupts the impromptu small group. The hour feels as if it is over before it really began.
The detainees are herded back to their cells while the visitors file back into the waiting area and return to their jobs. Chappell pulls Rajeevan aside and hands him a bulging bag. There is enough food in it to prepare a celebration fit for a queen. The refugee bows his head in thanksgiving. God provided for his need. He has no money in his pocket to feed his family today. He spent every last dime on bail.
The refugee positions himself in the chair closest to the big metal gate where his wife will walk out … and waits … and waits … until finally, it slowly squeaks open. Rajeevan’s seven-year-old son sprints out and jumps into his waiting arms, chattering nonstop.
Rajeevan’s eyes stay on the gate until Uma appears with a few heavy bags containing their belongings. Their teenager skulks up to his mother, trying to be cool. She musses his hair and then holds his chin, examining the slight shadow of peach fuzz growing on his lip. The teenager is embarrassed but pleased that his mother sees he is becoming a man.
Uma turns to her waiting husband. According to their culture, they cannot show public displays of affection like an embrace or kiss. However, the love that passes between them when Rajeevan takes Uma’s heavy burden is electric.
The guard hands Uma her official refugee papers, walks the reunited family to the outer gate and offers a heartfelt goodbye. To the guard’s surprise, the couple tells her there’s no need for “goodbyes,” because they will see her next week.
Rajeevan explains, “It is our turn to show God’s love.”
Susie Rain is an International Mission Board writer living in Southeast Asia.