Immigrants are meeting God in Thai jails
Immigration | Christians seeking refuge in Bangkok find opportunities to share their faith with fellow detainees
by Sophia Lee
Posted 1/29/16, 07:38 am
BANGKOK—Arbab’s bright, young face immediately stood out among the row of solemn detainees in bright orange shirts sitting in the small visiting room of Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center (IDC). The 21-year-old Pakistani refugee wore a bright smile and waved at me with such delight that nobody would have guessed he’d been stuck in IDC for more than six months with no hope of bail. His hair and beard had grown long, so he frequently shook back dark locks from his eyes as he peered at me through two portable chain-link fences about four feet apart.
Half the detainees called out for visitation that day were Pakistani asylum-seekers fleeing religious persecution. The others were migrants from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Most were men, but the group included women holding babies.
Despite their bleak surroundings, many of the Christians in IDC professed a renewed awareness of God’s presence and provision behind prison walls. As they drew closer to Him, their cellmates began to ask about the bright hope that seemed so unjustified.
It was hard to hear Arbab in the tightly packed room because two dozen 60-minute visitations were taking place at the same time, with everyone alternately cupping ears and shrieking, “Huh? What?” But whenever the clamor hit a lull, Arbab and I gripped the fence to talk. I learned he and his family fled Pakistan after his father, a lawyer, defended Christians against Muslims and started getting death threats from Islamic groups.
He told me life in IDC is “very hard.” His cell sometimes gets so packed he barely has space to sit or lie down. Visitation is his only chance to escape his squalid cell, and the sliced bread and bottled drinks church visitors bring him are sweet relief from the meager soup-and-rice meals he’s fed three times a day.
“These visits mean a lot to us,” he told me. “They make me very happy. Thank you.”
What troubles Arbab most is having no contact with his family, who are still somewhere in Bangkok, hiding from immigration officers.
“I’m the eldest son, but I can’t take care of them,” he said, and for once his cheery face drooped in anguish. All day, he stares into space and dreams of freedom—and prays. He shares his cell with many Christian refugees, he said. They get together twice a day to pray for freedom, for comfort, for peace.
Peter told me his life changed during his 45 days in IDC. His cellmates included two pastors, so they made “a little church” by praying and worshipping together with other Christian cellmates. In that kind of desperate situation, every small answer to their prayers offered assurance God was with them.
During sweltering hot days, for example, they would pray for relief, and immediately, a breeze cooled and dried their sweaty backs. Each time something like that happened, the men bowed their heads and praised the God who provides. Peter said his faith strengthened during his suffering at IDC.
“We had so many miracles take place. My God listened to everything!” he said.
Funyas Masih also experienced a God who listens during his time of hardship in IDC. He and his two sons were detained for seven days because they couldn’t pay the 20,000 baht ($556) fine for their overstayed visas. They used their time in IDC as an opportunity to share the gospel with their cellmates. They tried to boost energy and morale by motivating everyone to clean and scrub the filth from the cell, and on days when the enclosure was less cramped, Masih’s teenage son led calisthenics workouts to improve spirits and blood flow. Whenever they could, they talked about Jesus Christ.
Among the cellmates were two men with mental disorders whom others shunned and bullied because of their erratic behavior. But Masih and his sons decided to show them love. They spoke kindly to the men, touched them, and prayed for them. The two men loved listening to the gospel, and they said they felt better each time Masih prayed for them.
“We were fully covered by Jesus during that time at IDC,” Masih recalled. “We felt another power outside of us working with us.”
Other cellmates noticed the change in the two previously disruptive men and began approaching Masih and his sons for prayers. Some swore they finally got a good night’s sleep afterward. They said, “You guys are different somehow.” The atmosphere in the cell shifted from gloom and despair to thanksgiving and hope. Within four days in IDC, Masih said he baptized four cellmates: two Muslims, one Hindu, and one Sikh.
The day Masih and his sons were released from IDC, most of their cellmates wept to see them go. Life in IDC was terrible, but Masih and his sons couldn’t help feeling reluctant to leave.
“If God gave us more time in IDC, maybe more people would have converted!” Masih said.
For more on the plight of Pakistani Christians in Thailand, see “Life in the Shadows” in the Feb. 6 issue of WORLD Magazine.
Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.