Finding Family in Unlikely Places

Finding Family in Unlikely Places

Advocacy. Emotion. Family. 

These are three defining words that summarize my interview with Dr. Angela Naimou, professor of contemporary literature and its interconnections with race and migration theories, and Dr. Joe Mai, professor of French cinema and contemporary society and civilization.

Naimou and Mai co-run a creative inquiry at Clemson University that travels to Stewart Detention Center through El Refugio, an advocacy group for detainees and their families in the remote town of Lumpkin, Ga. Before designing the creative inquiry, Mai had traveled a few times to the detention center through El Refugio. While reflecting on his experience, he connected with Dr. Naimou, and together they decided to organize visits to the detention center with students.

“I thought it was a really valuable experience for me, but also valuable to talk to other people around me about this experience, and it got me interested in immigrant advocacy,” said Dr. Mai. “I thought that this would be an exciting thing for students to study and meet some of the advocates working on behalf of immigrants. I remember having a conversation with Angela [Naimou], we agreed on some logistics, and we thought we should go ahead and pursue this as a CI.” 

In our interview Dr. Naimou described that a large part of the CI is listening to the detainees, trying to understand the hardships they are going through and advocating for their mental and physical health. Mentally, detainees face the fact that their court proceedings will be stretched out for months at a time, and they can be put into solitary confinement for no reason at all. Physically, detainees are put through layers of added stress. During protests inside the detention center, the detainees are shot with rubber bullets by the wardens, are subject to bad food, and cannot receive surgery or medical care unless approved by ICE, which can take as long as their court proceedings. 

As an advocacy group, El Refugio tries to combat these conditions by providing friendship and support to the families of immigrants and asylum seekers detained at the Stewart Detention Center. El Refugio also provides a hospitality house, where families can stay and eat at no cost while visiting their family members in detention. 

“There is a brilliance in the way El Refugio operates. It provides what the founding director Amílcar Valencia calls radical hospitality: from the welcoming space of the hospitality house itself to the visitation program and more, El Refugio centers immigrants as active organizers and participants in the practice of humanitarian care,” said Dr. Naimou. “They bring together people across citizenship or legal status to help people in distress while also calling for the end of immigration detention. Our visits become one way for people in and out of detention to share information about the current conditions of solitary confinement, political suppression, bad food, or bad health care. At the same time, visitors learn directly and specifically how the detention system harms people, and how that harm connects to broader problems in how our society has been organized.” 

Visiting the detainees is where Naimou, Mai and their team of 12 students come in. The team travels four hours to work with El Refugio and spends two nights on a farm in Lumpkin, Ga. They visit the detention center and talk to detainees through a no-contact plexiglass wall and corded phones during the day. Many detainees are only allowed one visit a week, and families are often traveling from as far as Florida or California to sit in a waiting room for up to four hours, sometimes only to be denied visitation. This means trips to see loved ones are few and far between, and some in detention do not have family visits. The visits from those involved in the CI serve as a bridge between family visits and allow detainees to feel listened to. 

“[El Refugio] set up the visitation program to invite this connection with another person in detention, to be there to listen and to share the stories that our friends in detention ask us to share. It is a form of witnessing while also recognizing the complexity and fullness of each person in detention. Collectively, our conversations with friends in detention have included accounts of migration as well as ideas about faith and intellectual life, books or music, joys and concerns, organized protests within the detention center, or how people cope with detention” said Dr. Naimou. “These kinds of conversations can be part of challenging the infrastructure of confinement that we see in detention centers as well as prisons. Visits can matter, even if we are with someone in detention for that single moment.” 

When I asked about how the CI had transpired and what they expected in the beginning, I got a simple answer from Dr. Naimou. They had no expectations. And in a way, they had simple plans. They had a shared reading, Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, and wanted to explore stories of detention, refuge, and hospitality. Both professors wanted it to be a collaborative effort between themselves and the students, creating an open conversation on the topics relevant to their visits to El Refugio and Stewart Detention Center. 

“For many of the students involved in the CI, this experience may be their very first time doing any advocacy or activism,” said Dr. Naimou. “The U.S. has the largest carceral and immigrant detention system in the world, so we are living in something that constitutes so much of our everyday lives. Sometimes the effects may seem indirect, and sometimes they cut to the core of your life. The experience of listening to stories and allowing the students to reflect deeply on relationships within their communities has given all of us involved a way to think about the most fundamental aspects of our lives.” 

Last year, the CI team held symposiums or other events for students to share what they learned from their experience at Stewart Detention Center. However, this year will be slightly different given the circumstances surrounding the detention center protocol on COVID-19. This has not hindered the creative inquiry’s original goal of advocacy. Instead of traveling to

 the center with El Refugio, they will meet with volunteers at El Refugio online and learn more about their new post-release program. Students are also conducting independent projects that contribute to the CI goals for research and practical experience on issues of immigrant detention, refuge, and advocacy. Ideas for their projects include researching healthcare in detention centers, conducting interviews with DACA students enrolled here at Clemson, interviewing leaders of the New Sanctuary Movement in Atlanta, and researching the issues around detention as part of prison abolition. To showcase everything the students have been working towards this semester, their projects will be compiled and put onto a website to be viewed virtually. “Rather than slow down or delay the work of our CI, students have taken the lead in designing marvelous projects that will come together on the site and in our regular online discussions,” said Dr. Naimou. “The CI brings together advocacy, intellectual community, and student research in a creative and truly collaborative way.”


If you are interested in learning more about the creative inquiry, please contact Dr. Angela Naimou,, or Dr. Joe Mai, 


Written By: Elizabeth O’Donnell


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