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[Herald Interview] 'This is Your Country' shares stories inside immigration detention centers

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : May 6, 2023 - 16:01

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"This is Your Country" by Lee U (Munhak Dongne)

In 2021, a Moroccan detainee in his 30s was subjected to inhumane treatment at the Hwaseong Immigration Detention Center in Gyeonggi Province, where people facing deportation are held.

Surveillance footage showed him on the floor with his feet and hands tied together behind his back, with his head covered.

In her latest novel, “This is Your Country,” published by Munhak Dongne, novelist Lee U takes us inside these detention centers.

The novel follows a first-person narrator, who recently became unemployed due to the closure of the bank branch where she worked. With newfound free time, she comes across a pamphlet from an immigrant rights' group, which catches her attention.

She then decided to pay a visit to an immigration detention center, which ends up turning into multiple visits on which she discovers the stories of those inside.

During her visits, she witnesses various human rights abuses revealed by the people she meets there.

Lee U (Munhak Dongne) Lee U (Munhak Dongne)

The story is loosely based on the author’s actual experiences of visiting an immigration detention center.

“The beginning was quite similar (to real life). It was totally by chance. I was doing research for something else (North Korean defectors), then the words like refugees and immigrants kept coming up. I thought I ought to see the center myself,” said Lee in an interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday.

Lee visited the center once every two weeks for almost a year.

“(After the first visit), I just thought, ‘I have to go there again.’ Thinking back, the feeling is most likely a sense of responsibility -- to let (the detainees) know that ‘I know you are here,’ and ‘I know how long you’ve been here,’” she said.

“It seemed like a totally different, isolated world. When I came home after visiting the center, I couldn’t do anything. So I started keeping a diary and documenting what I saw, heard and felt. Otherwise, they would just disappear,” Lee said explaining that filming or recording was not allowed during the visits.

After each visit, the visitors would stand in a line outside and take a group photo near the fence -- like Mr. Park and the visitors in the book.

The book reads, “It meant that as long as the place exists, there are people who will not forget it and the people imprisoned inside will not be forgotten either.”

The story is woven together in an omnibus format, introducing people the narrator meets in the center. The author said the most memorable character is Paran, who fled to Korea after losing his parents in a religious conflict in Nigeria. Paran cleans the toilet at the center more than 20 times a day. It turns out, the cleaning was to feel “that he was doing something useful as a human being.”

This character was inspired by a real-life person who had spent three or four years in detention before he was eventually released in Korea. The author witnessed the moment he was released and it was as if he became a new person -- someone who was now vividly and fully alive.

“Inside the center, he was small, passive and pessimistic -- like a withered leaf. When he came out, I could feel that this person was alive. His eyes twinkled, his expression changed … it was the first time I realized that he was so tall. Freedom was emanating from his whole body.”

The story does not limit itself to the discrimination within the center, but also extends to discrimination faced by Koreans abroad, as revealed by Ji-yeon, the narrator’s friend who worked with her at the bank. The bitter reality the book highlights is that anyone can be a foreigner abroad and be vulnerable to discrimination.