The Red Cross Hotel (Part Four)

04/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Something odd happens the second day: I feel a strange kind of normal, or perhaps it's just a new stage of shock. The high alert thrumming is still there, I continue to feel feverish and my head still pounds, but it's all turned down a couple of notches. I decide to wear my colorful scarf so I can blend in more with the other women. I kiss my husband on the top of his head and leave him resting on his bed, reading his book.

I have the lay of the land, know how things work. I know where to get change for the soda machine (the Red Cross), how the toilet only flushes when you unlock the door, how to stand at the window downstairs and wait for a policeman to walk by so I can check for messages on my cell phone. I learn that if you need help or want to talk to other detainees there'll always be a crowd at the public phones.

Thanks to the patience and kindness of an Algerian man who sees me struggling with my phone card, I finally get through to the United States and South African embassies and tell them of our plight. They both commiserate, adding that situations like these seem to be happening more often. They say there is little they can do for us as it's the weekend and that we are truly at the mercy of the French immigration police. They say there's nothing we can do but wait until Monday and leave as we've been promised.

While I'm waiting at the window to check my cell phone a young man wearing a Ray Ban T-shirt stops to talk. His name is Rajiv and his English is perfect. He asks what brought me here and when I tell him he shakes his head in disbelief. In a gentle voice he tells me how terribly sorry he is.

I ask him why he is here and he tells me he is from Bhutan.

"I am waiting to go to court, so I can apply for political asylum," he answers.

I ask him what will happen if he doesn't get it.

"They will send me back to the refugee camp in Bhutan and that is where I will die," he says softly.

I stare at him, not knowing what to say.

"Please do not worry about me," he says. "Maybe God will take care of me."

Then he tells me about his friend Dev. Dev has been living in Paris for 10 years. Dev has a good job, a wife, two little children. Every few years he'd go to India to visit his family and returns to Paris. There was never a problem. This time the police at Charles de Gaulle arrested him and won't let him go back to his family. Dev's wife knows he's where he is, but he tells his children he is still in India. He doesn't want to frighten them.

"Maybe you'll meet Dev while you're here," Rajiv says. We say goodbye and wish each other good luck and he gives me a smile that is filled with sweetness and light.

Later Norman and I go outside to the tiny yard with the barbed wire fence and the view of the Hilton and the little boys pushing each other up the slide. We learn that those who checked their luggage only have the clothes they came with, hence the attempt to stay as clean as possible by washing their clothes in the tiny sink and spreading them out on the bushes to dry.

A woman wearing jeans and a headscarf walks around the perimeter of the yard with a girl who looks about eight years old. It's clear they are mother and daughter. She has her arm around her daughter and talks to her softly as they walk. Even from where I'm sitting I can see the deep dark rings beneath the child's eyes.

Another mother, also wearing a headscarf, scolds her chubby pre-teen son for not playing nicely with the two little boys on the slide. She gives him a time out and when he protests she walks him to the door and tells him to go to their room. Although I don't understand a single word of their exchange she is speaking a language I'm well familiar with: Mom.

On a nearby bench an Asian woman pages through a small photo album. Suddenly she begins to weep. We can't hear her but we see her body shake and watch her wipe away her tears.
I can't stand just sitting there so I walk over and sit beside her. She shows me photos of her home in the Philippines, of her 10-year old son in his karate clothes. Her name is Lily. She tells me she wanted to find work in Italy and then send for her son. She takes my hand in her hands, which are so dry they are cracked. I go up to my room and bring her the tiny tub filled with hand cream in my Ziploc baggie.

Lily is as grateful to me as I am to her. I am well aware that without these simple human exchanges I would quickly succumb to despair and panic.

The seeking of this kind of comfort seems to be innately female. Although some of the men huddle in groups many of them appear to be isolated and depressed. Upstairs, on the second floor in front of the toilets and the Red Cross office, a large group of traditionally dressed African women have spread themselves out on their blue blankets. They talk, laugh, braid each other's hair. They come from different countries, speak different languages, but their bonding is thick and instant. A little girl sits in the middle of the group and it looks like she has many mothers. Seeing them brings Norman back to his childhood, growing up in the bush, where the African women spread themselves out on their bright blankets in the village under the shade trees.

That night we are seated with a frightened looking young Asian woman wearing beautiful black shoes and a lacy cream-colored cardigan. She is so pale her face has a greenish tinge. As usual, Norman fetches and pours the water and then we start to speak. Her name is Isobel. She lives in China and works for a French company. She was on her way to visit a friend in Germany and to spend a few days exploring Paris. She had all the right papers, but the customs police said she didn't have enough money. Her English is fluent.

"But I brought 400 Euros and two credit cards!" she says. "How much more money did I need? I don't understand. I didn't think it would be this complicated."

She speaks about being held in a locked cell at the police station for hours and about how terrified she was and how much she cried.

She shivers although the room is not cold. She has no clothes other than the ones she is wearing because she'd checked her luggage on the plane. She hasn't eaten all day but she has no appetite and cannot swallow her food. She says she is frightened she will not be able to sleep. So I take her to the doctor and sit in the waiting room, while she sees him. When she leaves she looks a little happier.

We go up the Red Cross office to see if she can get something warm to wear. The guy has us follow him to a storage room which he unlocks. He rummages through a pile of clothes and hands her a thick pink sweater. Then we go to Isobel's room. She gets her police papers and shows me the date they stamped for her to leave to go back to China. She is to spend four nights here.

She tries on the pink sweater.

"What do you think?" She stands on her toes, trying to see what she looks like in the mirror.
"You're lucky," I say. "It looks really cute on you."

She rolls her eyes.

Then we walk back to my room where Norman is meditating. He hasn't meditated for years but here at the Red Cross Hotel he slips back into it as naturally as if it's been a lifetime practice. The three of us chat a while, go over the details of our arrests and detainment.

"Will I see you in the morning?" she asks.

We tell her we'll see her at breakfast, before we leave to catch our plane back home.
"But are you sure they will let you go?" she asks. "Just because you have a date and time on your police papers, how can you be sure they will honor that? Maybe they will try and punish you some more."

We've had these thoughts ourselves - many times. There is nothing about these police that we trust.

Before we go to sleep we make sure we have everything packed so we can have breakfast and be ready to leave. I read Day Seven of our itinerary:

The morning activity takes us to Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in Italy... A beautiful, pristine area where bike rentals are available for riding around the lake or boat rides to visit the islands in this vast lake. (To Be Continued)