From detention to sheltering

Ben has been with us for two weeks. The first week we took it easy. The second week we also took it easy but for different reasons.

The first week we were all catching our breath. He was getting settled into his second-floor suite in our house, greeting friends who had preceded him out of detention in previous months, getting electronically connected. We were doing a bit of shopping for essentials and getting used to each other–which was not at all difficult. We knew each other pretty well after four months of almost daily phone calls. We celebrated his arrival with a party on Friday, March 13. All 6 of his cohort of African asylum seekers who are in this area showed up, along with some of their sponsors and a number of our friends. We cooked African food together. This is something I had dreamed of doing ever since we signed on to sponsor an African asylum-seeker back in October.

We didn’t try to do any official business that first week, like get him a medical checkup, transfer his legal representation to someone local, establish a bank account, and a few other things. We were set to begin those things in Week 2. His initial ICE check-in was scheduled for March 31 in Chicago.

But Friday the 13th was the day everything began to shut down. We didn’t realize that cancelling a family birthday party on Saturday the 14th would turn into radical sheltering-in-place for our entire household for the foreseeable future.

As I wrote in my last post, that hasn’t been too bad for my husband and me. How has it been for Ben? What was it like for him to move from more than four months of prison-like detention to this condition of very restricted freedom? A bit like house arrest, perhaps?

“No, Mom,” he says. “Not at all. It is for my good.” Ben takes the virus seriously, refusing even to have coffee with friends who invite him. His home country is also shutting down. His children have been dismissed from school for the term and everybody is stocking up on staples like flour and beans. (Who knew that dried beans are also a valuable staple here? Our main grocer is out of them.)

As for restricted freedom, Ben says he is quite satisfied with an arrangement where he can look out of windows and go outside for walks, experience snow for the first time, sleep as long as he wants in comfort, and eat what he wants when he wants to. He has a phone and computer to connect with friends and family here and in his home country via WhatsApp and Facetime. He has established a daily routine that includes prayer and YouTube-assisted exercise. He  stays in his room till late morning and then comes to the kitchen and makes himself a breakfast, He goes back on his own for the afternoon and we have dinner together in the evening. He has done a little cooking but mostly he insists on cleaning up the kitchen. He does a great job. Vic is getting spoiled.


Ben’s breakfast of choice yesterday was five slices of bread with peanut butter and turkey bacon and hot water with cinnamon and sugar. In his country the tea would have been made with bark and leaves of the cinnamon tree.

If we want to talk or do something together, we text and he comes downstairs.

His project for the moment is studying Rules of the Road so that he can pass the written test to get a learner’s permit as soon as the BMV opens up again. This is important because the permit is a valid form of government ID. He isn’t all that eager to learn to drive. His project for April, he says, will be learning to play guitar via YouTube. We’d been thinking for some time of getting rid of our son’s old guitar but never got around to it. Good thing.

I try not to worry about all the official stuff we can’t do right now. The one thing that concerns me is the ICE check-in—and the fact that some ICE functions are shutting down but it’s unclear which, and it’s impossible to get information from the Chicago office. We (vulnerable old folks) don’t want to go into an ICE office. If worse comes to worst, we may drive him to Chicago and wait in the car while he checks out the situation.

It shouldn’t be hard to find a place to park in Chicago right now.

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