What makes a criminal? Is it by the skin they have? The religion they believe in? The country they live in? Or by the actions they take? While this may seem like an easy answer with it being that criminals are the ones who have done wrong doings, certain people with privileged lives might see it differently. Those people can look at you and with nothing but past events by bad people who look like you or believe in the same thing, they can decide that you’re a bad person too.
I think back on this day often in my mind and I ponder on what went wrong. Did I leave the plane too fast after we landed? If I had just waited a few minutes to enjoy a view, would I still have the same outcome? Maybe there’s another universe with another version of me who lands from Vienna to London and catches the flight to Dublin she was supposed to take. She has an amazing week in Ireland, she heads back to England to be a bridesmaid for her best friend and then only when she is good and ready, she goes home. As much as I envy that version of myself, I am not that girl. I am, however, the girl who rushes to catch her flight from London to Ireland and gets to border control where she is then detained for sixteen hours in a room meant for criminals to then be kicked out of England for false accusations. I am this girl and this is my story.
I arrived to the airport two hours before my flight from Vienna to London, but it got delayed for forty-five minutes which was a little alarming because I still had a flight to catch from London to Dublin. But as I sat there at the gate waiting, I thought everything would be fine and I would arrive to Dublin with no problems.
The flight from Vienna to London was short and uneventful and I remember feeling anxious to get off the plane once we landed because the only thing going on in my mind was that I didn’t want to miss the next flight. I rushed to border control, that I’ve gone through many times, thinking it would be an easy process and I would quickly be on my way.
I got in line with the rest of the foreigners who were also not U.K residents and I waited, when the lady in front of me was nearly called she told me to go ahead because she had to finish writing her papers. I didn’t think anything of this precise moment, but that’s when everything changed. Maybe this was the universe’s way of saving me from something bigger but I’ll never know from what.
I was up next and I got called to walk over to where the U.K citizens go through because their line was short and one of the ladies working at the booth was free. I am no stranger to being nice to border control agents because I know how mean and aggressive they can sometimes be and I just kept on my happy attitude.
I walked up to the booth and said hello to the lady who ignored me and took my passport and papers. She was blonde around her early to mid-thirties, she looked sad and angry like she had had a bad day or this was the reaction to a bad life.
“Where are you coming from?” She asked uninterested.
“Vienna” I told her.
“What were you doing in Vienna?”
This is another one of those moments, I can see that shifted itself to what would become my reality. I panicked at the question because my mind suddenly ran back to when my boss from the summer camp I worked at took my passport along with everyone else’s to legally make sure we were able to work for the company. But I couldn’t remember if my boss had written something on the passport to say I had worked.
So I told her “Um, I was working throughout Italy and Austria teaching children English.”
“Do you have a work permit?” She asked suddenly.
“No, but we signed papers to make it all legal that I have in my suitcase but it’s checked in” I said.
She then asked when I arrived to Europe and I told her I had come on a cruise back in May but I had only stayed in London for three days.
“Do you have a ticket home?” She asked me.
“Yes, it’s for the twenty-eighth of this month out of this airport, but I’m going to Ireland now and I’ll be back to go to my friend’s wedding in Cornwall.” I told her, still thinking everything was fine despite the amount of questions. She told me that I was going to be England’s problem then if I was coming back.
She asked to see my ticket home which were in my emails and I didn’t think to print out. I told her I couldn’t pull it up on my phone because there was no Wi-Fi.
“Why do you have so many stamps?” This question struck me as odd because why would anyone have stamps in their passport. It meant they had traveled, gone places and lived. I got my passport a few months after my eighteenth birthday and even though it had only been two years, it had filled up quite a bit. So I just answered that I traveled a lot.
That was when, I guess, she had heard enough and she sent me to sit down in a small area in the middle of border control where people had to wait if they had forgotten or lost their passports or for one man who look middle eastern but carried an Irish accent, they were checking to make sure his Ireland passport was legit because he had seemed a bit too different.
After an hour of wondering how much longer I’d be waiting, they called me up and walked me over to grab my luggage. We then walked into an area I would soon find out was the detainment area. At first I waited in a small room that looked like it was meant for criminal investigations, with a table and two chairs opposite of each other.
Two different women came in, one to check through my bag and the other to search me for anything that seemed suspicious. The one who looked though my bags was older and seemed nice. We chatted about life, the weather and she told me I would have an interview soon.
The second was closer to my age and I talked to her about Cornwall and my friend’s wedding that I was to attend. She got a surprised look on her face and asked me “Do you know what you’re here for? I told her I didn’t. She shook her head like she knew something I didn’t, not as too why I was there but that I wasn’t going to be leaving anytime soon.
They then sent me to the final detainment area where I heard they could keep you for twenty-four hours and that’s when reality hit me as I sat down and looked around. I was in a small white room with red chairs facing a wall and a hospital looking TV that was hanging overhead.
The gravity of the situation hit as this odd American women started talking to me and she told me her story on how she had arrived to England wanting to start a new life. There was another man who was big and bulky wearing a grey suit and he was sweating profusely but he kept his gaze on the ground as he sat there not moving.
With everything hitting me all at once, I kept thinking these people were criminals. That’s not me. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but maybe neither had they. Another man came in, this one was younger and he seemed as panicked as I felt about the whole thing. He was wearing a red sweater. I never got anyone’s name but I will always be upset that I never got his, so I call him Red.
I was there for less than thirty minutes when I got called for my interview where a very nice old man sat with me and interviewed me and wrote everything down. I told him exactly when I arrived, where I had been, when I was leaving and how much money I had. He was really cool, we chatted about interesting American cities and I thought the interview had gone well and this would all turn out to be a mistake.
When I walked back to the room it was empty, the lady and the sweating man had gone and I was relieved because they had both seemed a bit odd and I don’t know with everything if I could handle them.
Red walked back to the room shortly after me and he seemed as upset as I was but we didn’t speak. Because this was a detainment area, I wasn’t allowed anything but the clothes I had on and to stay in the room that was locked from the outside where we were watched by security. I was finally allowed my phone call after my interview and I called my parents, who I’m sure were worried because I would have landed in Ireland already. I told them what had happened to me but I was still optimistic about the situation and that I would arrive to Dublin that night.
I hung up the phone call with my parents and ate some disgusting microwave food they had available to hold me over until I could leave this jail cell I was in. I began talking to Red and he told me he was thirty-one from Miami, Florida out of all places in the world. He had been just finished studying in Madrid and he had wanted to travel after studying so thought he could go to England as a student and leave with a tourist visa. It didn’t work out and there he was with me in a holding cell. He was extremely nice, and not in the way guys were nice to girls in order to gain something but nice in the way that he was kind and felt like a friend. We spoke about our lives and I remember seeing movies in a container we could watch and because I didn’t know how long the decision for us to stay was going to take I thought we should watch Jurassic Park to distract our minds.
But the old man who interviewed me finally came in to deliver the new and handed me some papers and for a moment I thought this was it, I’m free.
But he told me that he had given his bosses everything and they made the decision to not allow me to enter the country. My heart froze. He handed me a piece of paper stating that because I had worked in Europe illegally (which was false), they said I had no care for immigration laws and they believed I wanted to work in England. But it was all lies and I was at a loss for words. That is when I finally broke down and cried.
It felt like all my fears hit me at once as I realize I wouldn’t visit Dublin, see my friends in London and the worst, not be a part of my best friend’s wedding that I had been so excited to attend. I sobbed big sloppy tears and my chest felt like it was aching. The man told me that I would be in the room until three in the afternoon the next day on a flight back to Vienna. I had entered to the room at five meaning I would have to wait in this hellhole for twenty-two hours. I just cried more and Red came by with tissues for me to wipe my tears.
When the man left, I told Red that I was innocent and they were making me out to be this criminal I wasn’t. I felt hopeless and lost.
I thought about all the mistakes I could have done to have gotten me to the position I was in. Were they right? Was I a criminal? I stopped myself because how cruel could these people have been to make an innocent girl in love with the world think she was anything but amazing and make her question her own integrity. This tight space in the too brightly lit room with all its emptiness was filling my head with hateful words and lies. I could do nothing but listen to it and that was the worst pain of all. I could escape myself, the situation or my breaking heart.
I called my family and as they listen on the phone while I poured my heart out to them, felt my pain, agony and loneliness. What was worst they could do nothing but hear my sobs through the phone of my depression.
Red told me that he was surprised they didn’t let me go and that I had had a much better chance at leaving than he did. His interviewer then came in and told him the same news but that his flight back to Spain would be at seven in the morning. I felt more alone because I would have to endure this cold room and my thoughts for hours by myself and I didn’t know if I could do it.
Red told me that they were all assholes and asked if I wanted to watch Jurassic Park which he set up himself so we could watch because he knew it would make me happy. My parents called on and off all night desperately trying to get me a flight home instead of heading back to Austria where no one was waiting for me and I had no place to go.
Red and I watched the film while we stopped it occasionally to rant about the situation or for me to cry as he sat there and talked to me. Although we were strangers and had known each other less than a day, we were in this together and I will forever be grateful to have had him there.
We fell asleep around midnight out of exhaustion from stress and for me tears. I slept on three hard red chairs with a pillow for my head and a pillow on top of me for warmth. The room was so cold and bleak and I slept in order to escape the place I was in. I dreamt of seeing my family again and felt their unconditional love from thousands of miles away.
Around five in the morning, I woke up to my parents calling on the phone and they told me I would be leaving London at ten in the morning in order to arrive in Orlando, my home. Although the crush of not being able to finish my trip the way I wanted hurt, I was so happy that I would see my family soon.
Red woke me up again before he left for his own flight back to Madrid. We held hands for a moment and I thanked him for how kind he had been. We wished each other luck and he was gone.
Red had been my savior. Although I never got his name, I knew who he was, he knew me. In those seconds, minutes, and hours of insanity, he was there to remind me of life, love and how there was still kindness in the world when I thought there was none. In that low point, he had made me laugh and feel excited about seeing my family again. He had been my anchor to hope when I wanted to wallow in self-defeat. Although I’ll never see him again, I thank him for those hours of kindness and empathy for without them, I don’t know what I would’ve done.
I went back to bed to ignore the fact that I was utterly alone in the small room I had been in too long. I awoke at nine with another call from my parents saying everything was set for the flight.
When it was time to head over to my flight, I was escorted by not one but two security officers where I was then displayed for all to see that a criminal was going on board a flight. People looked at me with curious eyes and I felt myself slink further into despair. That feeling of being misunderstood and misrepresented as a criminal continued even though I had done nothing to deserve the situation.
I boarded the flight with my “friends” and I was put to sit at the very last row on the corner of the large plane. I later learned by my mom that she had paid extra for me to sit in the aisle with more leg room so I would be comfortable after my day of hell. But alas, as the criminal I was, it was not allowed and I would be treated as such until I reached my country.
The flight was long and I counted down to the last second until I saw my family again. Although the flight attendants were curious about me they didn’t ask me any questions until we landed. One of the flight attendants was so nice that he gave me a free water bottle and Kit Kat as he told me it was on the house and I cried when he walked away blown away by the kindness.
Time has passed since this fateful day but with the recent horrific events with the Muslim Ban, I go over what happened to me and feel their pain as I once did. It’s not right that because of circumstances they cannot control they were forced into their own small rooms of hell for hours to wait on a trial for things they didn’t do. Why? Because of where they come from and what they believe in? I wonder back to why they chose me. I often get asked if I’m from the Middle East and I wonder if that’s what that border control agent thought as well, I wonder if that’s why it all occurred because someone whose been privilege all their life saw someone different.
I plan to go back to this country that thought I was unworthy of entering their border and I want to forgive those I hated so much in those moments. The airport, those people and that women did not defeat me, in fact the whole situation made me stronger and did not make me fear traveling again. I plan to travel just as much, further and as fearlessly as I had before. Because this world is still be beautiful despite the pain and heartache we face today, I think it might make it all the more spectacular because it gives us a chance to stand together for the rights of all human beings.
From yours truly and still loving life,