Drawing Detention, Creating Connections

An Interview with the No One Is Illegal Arts in Detention Group

by Oona Padgham

A version of this article was published in FUSE magazine, June, 2005. The project no longer exists, the immigration authorities have denied the group access to the Centre.

It is estimated that 20,000-200,000 immigrants live in Canada without full legal immigration status. Most people became non-status because their visitor or student visas lapsed or their refugee applications were denied. Non-status immigrants live, work, and attend schools in our communities. They pay taxes, raise their families and participate in Canadian society. But people without official immigration status live with the constant fear and uncertainty of their lack of status being discovered and ending up in jail or detained at a detention centre like the Heritage Inn. Approximately 8000 people are deported from Canada every year.

Looking inconspicuous along a strip of suburban highway, the Toronto Immigrant Holding Centre, or the Heritage Inn, is neighbor to a mall, a car rental and a Tim Horton’s. But the Heritage Inn serves a more sinister purpose than its name implies. Located at 385 Rexdale Boulevard and formerly a hotel, the Heritage Inn has been converted into an immigration jail that can hold up to 300 people. Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver also have immigration detention centres, and there are people held on immigration violations in jails across Canada. At the Heritage Inn, each converted hotel room holds up to four occupants. The men and women are segregated, separating families and loved ones. Children held in detention are usually with their mothers. Detainees are incarcerated until their documentation and citizenship is confirmed or they are deported back to their country of origin. This can take anywhere from a few days to several months.

The group No One Is Illegal (Toronto) works on developing and supporting campaigns for immigrants’ rights, through education, mobilization and networking. The primary focus is on people who do not have full legal immigration status. No One Is Illegal organizes forums, rallies and days of action and is actively involved in the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ campaign in Toronto, a campaign which seeks to make city services available to all Toronto residents, not just those defined as ‘legal’ by the state. In December 2003, No One Is Illegal began an art group project with the women and children being held in detention. The story of this art group is told through a conversation between Oona Padgham and members of the No One Is Illegal Arts in Detention Group, Jean McDonald, Farrah Miranda and Sima Zerehi; all four are members of No One Is Illegal (Toronto).

Detainee Arts

Oona: Why did you start an art group in the detention centre?

Sima: I was doing other work in the detention centre and it was clear that something was needed, some kind of positive activity. Someone suggested we do an art group and the idea fit. Art production is a good way for people who do not all speak English to relate to each other. It is also totally distracting and different from the everyday routine people in detention face. We thought that we could use the art produced to do outreach and education, to build awareness around detention. It is a way for participants to document and communicate their experiences to people outside the detention centre.

Oona: What opportunities does the art group provide for the women and children in detention at the Heritage Inn?

Farrah: It gives the women a social space that is free of guards where they can talk to each other. It gives them a chance to get out of their rooms and do something that is actually human.

Jean: The only other thing they have to do is watch television. At the new detention centre at the Heritage Inn, there are three different levels, so the art program gets women and children from different levels who wouldn’t otherwise have any interaction to meet each other and talk to each other.

Sima: Through the work they produce and by interacting with us, the women get a chance to get the message across about their situation and what it feels like to be in detention. A lot of their work is quite political, whether it’s images of their homes and children or families, or explicit political messages and phrases. Often their art talks about wanting to stay in Canada, wanting to be free, stating that they are not criminals and that they shouldn’t be in detention. It gives them an outlet to tell their stories.

Jean: The art group is a really big deal, especially for the women and kids who have been in there for a long time. The more they come, the more they open up. People who at first weren’t so interested came to look forward to the group and would come as soon as they saw us.

Oona: Many of the women and children are very traumatized by their experience in detention. Do these issues come out in the art group? How do you deal with that?

Sima: There was this Iraqi woman who had just come into the detention centre. She was the only one in hijab and the only one who spoke Arabic. She was totally traumatized. She didn’t know what was happening, or where she was. She came to the group after being pretty much lifted out of bed by some of the other women. She was under the covers and had been there for a day and wouldn’t even stick her head out. She came down and drew a picture of a corpse bleeding. She communicated that the corpse was her husband and that Saddam Hussein had killed him. That was as much information as she could get across to us.

Oona: Did she keep coming to the group?

Sima: She was only there the one time. She was deported.

Farrah: There is so much pain in what these women and children have experienced. It’s there in the isolation and in the loneliness. The group provides a space for women to talk about that pain and to talk about their experiences if they want to. It’s really hard to be in that space and know that we get to go home and continue our lives, while they’re bound to this horrible detention centre and most of them are going to be deported. It’s a really hard reality to have to face.

Oona: How is the art group different than you imagined it would be?

Sima: I thought it would be a lot more grim, and it is, but there is more, too. There were days when I was working as a volunteer with an NGO that provides basic services at the detention centre and I would see forty people and thirty of them would be in tears. But in the art group, you also see people supporting each other, you see how they survive and keep up their sense of humor and joy of life and optimism. There is almost a forgiveness of everything that was happening to them. I feel awed and humbled by the people inside – their courage and their perseverance. To see these women help each other survive is an affirmation that expressions of humanity and organizing can happen in the worst, most desperate contexts.

Farrah: Prisons are set up to separate people from each other, but no matter how the immigration and enforcement authorities try to keep people isolated from each other, they can’t take away the support and connections these women share. The art group is the only thing at the detention centre that pulls all these women from different places to the same table, looking at each other, facing each other. It’s really human.

Oona: How does the art group affect the lives of the women and children in detention?

Sima: Some of what happens in the group continues after our art session. I know there are connections made between some of the women because I see them outside hanging out after …there is spillover.

Jean: In some of the activities the women work on something together. One time we did profile drawings of shadows. One person stands while the other person does the profile, and then you color in your own profile. People were laughing. It was really fun and we always have music on. I specifically remember this one moment. The song “Lady in Red” was playing, and almost everyone in the room started singing. It was so funny.

Sima: Since we started the art group, a couple of the women who have been there for a long time started an origami project that took off through the whole detention centre. They began making little origami birds and moved on to huge, intricate pineapples. The women gave them out as gifts to each other and to us, and used them to decorate their rooms.

Oona: And this didn’t come from you guys?

Jean & Farrah: No! They did it on their own.

Sima: I think the art group inspired them. One of the women knew how to do origami. She shared her knowledge with other women and it just took off. There were assembly lines of women working on this big ass pineapple using newspaper, magazines, whatever they could get their hands on. The art thing has really taken on a life of its own outside of the group.

Arts and Crafts

Oona: What images and themes are repeated in the art?

Sima: There are lots of pictures of home and family: the landscapes of Costa Rica, the beaches of St. Lucia, the fields and deserts of Iraq. There are many pictures depicting homeland and longing.

Farrah: Some of the women do pictures of the kind of prints you find on fabric from India.

Jean: And hearts with their boyfriend’s names.

Sima: Things like “I love Canada, I want to stay”. It’s heartbreaking.

Farrah: Because of my own perspective, I wouldn’t have expected that anybody in there would say “I love Canada”. But where these women are coming from and the reality they have to go back to makes this country an incredible place where they just want to stay.

Children in Detention

Oona: A lot of people don’t realize that Canada regularly incarcerates the children of non-status immigrants. What did you learn from the art group about the impact of detention on children?

Jean: I remember this one little girl who was three years old. When she and her mom first came to the group she had lots of energy. She was running around and excited to be painting and drawing. Two weeks later, and then another two weeks, she became a different child. The consequences on a three year old being held in detention for one month, two, three months and more are physically and emotionally visible.

Farrah: There was a period of time in the winter at the Celebrity Inn when detainees were not allowed to go outside for months. There was a small fenced in area in the back and no one was even allowed out the door, even though there were very young children in there.

Sima: Almost all the women that we work with have a strong sense of family, and they are dealing with the tragedy of broken families. They don’t know where their sons or husbands or fathers are. The heartbreak of terror and loss is overwhelming.

Farrah: Women with children have this terrible burden of trying to hold everything together so that their children aren’t equally as terrified. They don’t have anyone to talk to, they can’t cry or yell, to show their anger and frustration. They try to hold it in. The strength of the women who do that is incredible.

Jean: I remember one woman whose daughter was with her. I think she was 11 or 12. The mother had this terrible guilt about what was happening to her daughter. It wasn’t her fault, and I am sure she knew that deep down, but at the same time she wanted so badly for this not to be happening to her daughter.


Oona: Do you see the art group as being political?

Sima: Yes. At the beginning we announce that we are a political group and that part of our purpose is to get the message out to the world about the conditions and effects of detention centres. We also talk about our own personal experiences with immigration, which helps to break down the barriers and explain our motivation for being in the detention centre. I’ve talked about my personal experience with immigration to show that this is something I have a lived experience and connection with. We understand this because we have been through this in our personal lives with our communities and our families.

Oona: How does the art group project fit into the overall work done by members of No One Is Illegal in Toronto?

Farrah: It gives us a sense of who is in the detention centre and what communities are being targeted in Toronto.

Sima: We also get a sense of how people are arrested. We see the connection between police, employers and landlords and being in detention. There are huge numbers of people, mostly men of color, who are randomly stopped by police when driving a car. Women are often the targets of landlords who want to increase the rent or evict them, so they report the women to immigration. Employers often post bail for detainees and then withdraw the bail when people demand wages.

Farrah: There are also women who have called the police because they are being abused and then they get thrown into detention. This effectively tells abusers that it’s acceptable for non-status women to be abused. As political organizers we know that we have an urgent responsibility to send a very loud message to our government that this lack of protection for women in abusive situations can’t be tolerated.

Sima: It’s really traumatic to see women doubly victimized: first at the hands of their abusers and second when they call the police for protection. Often the initial reason they walked into a police station or called 911 is totally ignored when their lack of status is discovered. I have had women in detention crying again and again, just wanting to have the police go to question the person they reported, to somehow make it all worth it. Some of these women still have scars and bruises on their body.

Jean: The work we do in detention makes it urgently clear how necessary a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy is in Toronto. When women end up in detention because they’ve reported a sexual assault or laid charges of domestic abuse, there is obviously a huge problem. Similar cases arise for families who are living underground after a deportation order has been issued – if they try to put their child in school, it’s likely that Immigration officers will be waiting to arrest them. The vulnerability of people to exploitation is extreme.

Sima: I don’t think any other kind of work would have taught us so much or made us as committed to this area of activism. And I don’t think it could have been done with a different group of people. I think there are certain areas of work that have to be done by women. I don’t know how to stress that enough.

The Art in Detention Group provides the women detainees with an opportunity to connect socially and politically with each other and the activists who organize the group. It serves as a distraction from the painful drudgery of life in detention and the looming possibility of deportation. For women with children, it is also a chance to share some of the responsibility of childcare and for the children to be with other people. For both the women and children, it is time away from the guards. The art itself is an outlet for frustration and pain, but also an opportunity to express hope for the future and what gives joy and meaning to life.

The Arts in Detention Group is also part of a larger anti-deportation, anti-detention movement, and the women who participate in the group know this. The women from No One Is Illegal are activists working to end deportations and detentions; this helps to establish trust with the women in detention. The art group provides a space for activists and people facing deportation to connect and share knowledge of who is in detention and how they got there and to develop strategies to fight against deportations. As a continuation of that political work, No One Is Illegal is beginning to display the artwork produced in the detention centre at events and galleries. The art is used as an educational and outreach tool for developing allies and building solidarity amongst immigrant and activist communities. The artwork produced is powerful, and viewers cannot help but be touched by the expressions of fear and loss contrasted with images of home and family that the women and children convey in their artwork.

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