Nelly is 28 years old and originally from an African country south of the Sahara. There she was forced to marry a much older man who already had three wives. She escaped to Belgium and married a Belgian who had a residence permit. In fact, the man was a drug addict. Quarrels broke out and her husband gave her in to the police saying that their marriage was a sham. Nelly was arrested at her house and taken to a detention centre, prior to being sent back to her land of origin. In the meantime, her husband greatly regrets what happened, but what has been done cannot be undone, and it looks as if there is no possibility of avoiding the expulsion.
Some weeks ago I asked Nelly what her prospects were if she were returned to Africa. This is always a difficult subject. People never want to go back; they want to stay. Nelly is very much afraid of returning to her homeland. Her mother died recently (she showed me a photo of her), and she thinks that the old man had a hand in her death. Magic? Poison? This is Africa… Nelly used to be a hairdresser at home. With that one can gain a reasonable living, but people are much poorer back home than in Belgium.
African women invest much time in their hair-dos, which I have noticed even here in the detention centre. Long artificial hair is interwoven with natural hair and braided with skilful fingers into complicated plaits. Many hours of work are required. Should you happen to visit a woman who is involved in the process, you just have to wait – or else you can go and sit by her while the braiding is taking place.
Today, Nelly and I just sit side-by-side for some time in silence. What is there for me to say? We did all we could, but the expulsion order can no longer be avoided. Occasionally we have spoken about a Bible passage and about God, but today I can find no words that may bring her consolation. All words fall short. When the time comes for some exercise in the inner yard, I can see Nelly playing with a ball. How vulnerable she looks! She appears far younger than she is, almost still a child. At times she runs lightly round the outer barrier, just to get some exercise. This may well have been the last time I saw her.
Some days later Nelly phones me. She is due to be repatriated the next day. "What am I to do? I feel so helpless…"
There is a card hanging on the wall of my room: Nelly has written her name on it and adorned it with sparkles. It used to hang in the day-room along with other drawings that the women had made to pass the time. I asked one of the officials if I could take it with me. So it hangs now in my room, a memento of the vulnerable girl from Africa. What can have happened to her?
Pieter-Paul Lembrechts, SJ of JRS Belgium regularly accompanies people held in detention centres