TSW reader Claire Dion visited Kewei Chen in ICE detention and shares this account of his time with Pornchai Moontri and Fr Gordon MacRae behind These Stone Walls.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: In an early April, 2017 post, “Stone Walls Cannot Repel Our Sadness or Contain Our Joy,” I wrote about how Pornchai Moontri and I were able to walk with our young friend, Kewei Chen, through the labyrinthine ways of prison until he could return to his home and family in Shanghai, China. If you missed that post, I highly recommend it.
I followed it with another in early May entitled, “Dreamers of Home: The Slow ICE Deportation of Kewei Chen.” After it was published, Western Australia reader Clare Farr stepped up her efforts to negotiate some progress with the Chinese Consulate in New York and ICE agents in New England. What could have been a bureaucratic logjam of six months to a year – while our friend, Chen languished in a cell awaiting deportation – ended up taking less than three months. After a three-year absence from his family in Shanghai, Kewei Chen is expected to finally be sent home by the day this is posted.
We are most grateful to our friend, Clare Farr, for her pursuit of justice and mercy to move the mountain that stood in our way. (By the way, Clare is the wife of Malcolm Farr who wrote our recent TSW guest science post, “Look at the Cosmos and See the Hand of God.”)
Now I want to introduce you to Claire Dion, a friend of These Stone Walls from Bridgton, Maine. After the above posts appeared, Claire sent word that she lives within driving distance from the ICE detention facility where Kewei Chen has been held since leaving this prison on March 24. Claire contacted the facility and arranged to visit with Kewei Chen on two occasions in recent weeks.
It is not often that a TSW reader gets to meet a prisoner about whom I have written. Claire approached the visits as a sort of interview with Chen, and she became very excited about sharing her impressions with TSW readers. So I asked her to consider doing this as a guest post. It is also a rare occurrence that readers get to see inside These Stone Walls through the eyes of a fellow prisoner who endured living with Pornchai Moontri and me.
I have to admit that we were a little nervous about all this. Chen likely has a few stories that we hoped he would NOT share, and we are not certain he can tell the difference. Anyway, if you think President Donald Trump built a bridge to China through his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that pales next to the bridge built with Kewei Chen now forever linked with us through the power of Divine Mercy.
Claire Dion is a retired Registered Nurse, the mother of five wonderful adult daughters, ten grandchildren, and soon expecting her sixth great grandchild. A graduate of Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College School of Nursing, Claire had a career as an obstetrics nurse at Lynn hospital in Lynn, Massachusetts, the city where I grew up just north of Boston.
Claire Dion has not been idle in retirement. She serves on the Adult Faith Formation Team at St Joseph Parish in Bridgton, Maine, and is an active advisor to the Lakes Region Substance Abuse Coalition which has built much success in responding to the opiate crisis gripping the Northeast. It is an honor to share her guest post about our very dear friend, Kewei Chen.
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On April 5th Father Gordon MacRae posted “Stone Walls Cannot Repel Our Sadness or Contain Our Joy” on TSW. In previous posts Father Gordon had told us the story of how he and Pornchai had reached out to Kewei Chen and taken him under their wings. Father Gordon wrote:
“We stumbled upon Kewei Chen on our path – a stranger and an alien in a strange land called prison. A nineteen-year-old from Shanghai, China who spoke little English, Chen was in no way equipped to cope with an American prison. The stress and emotional isolation that would await him here would be the least of his problems. The reality is that there are some here who would lie in wait to cruelly exploit the challenges he faced.”
Now after three years Chen was being taken to the ICE detention facility in Dover NH; from there ICE would deport Chen back to China. The intensity of the emotions that flowed mirrored the deepness of the friendship that had developed over these years. It was a very emotional post for us TSW readers and, like many of you, I wrote a comment.
I said that I would be happy to visit Chen if he could have visitors and asked if Father Gordon thought that was a good idea. Father Gordon replied that it was a “…great idea and it might be a real blessing for Chen to learn that you have read of him.”
I Googled the facility, read all the rules for visiting a prisoner and, through the help of Charlene Duline, set up a date to visit Chen. I had to call the jail in the morning to make sure that my name was on the list, so I called the jail.
“No, your name is not on the list.” Oh, I thought, they must have made a mistake, so I called again. “Didn’t you just call? Your name is not on the list!” he angrily said and hung up. Oh, oh, now I am in trouble with the ICE detention facility – not a good beginning!
A few days later I received this letter from Chen, complete with drawings and with his permission I am sharing it with you.
Hi Claire How are you? My name is Chen, Kewei. We haven’t meet yet. I am sorry about the last time. I should double check it before you come here. And last night I received a very great news from Clare Farr, a friend and lawyer in Australia. She told me that consular in NY get travel document for me and will send to ICE on Friday. How great is that (happy face).
But that also means you won’t be able to come here visit me anymore because I will leave USA soon. I am very happy that you want to come here and visit me. We never met and you still care about me. You are so nice! G told me a lot of time, he says Claire is a very nice lady and he wants me to say something good about him. Which I am going to do right now (hand over mouth hee-hee).
G is very nice man young man. I have live with G and Pornchai for two years (smiling face with glasses and eyebrows). He is truly a great man. I bet everyone who reads his articles knows this. When I just got to prison, him and Pornchai took me under their wings to protect me. Specially they don’t even know me at that time. Right now they are like my family. I am so sad that I left them, even if I left prison and going home I feel like something is missing in my heart. I will keep contact with them. I want to see them come out of prison someday. I love them.
And Claire, it’s very nice to meet you. I am sorry that we couldn’t see each other before I go. I am very grateful that you care about us. Pray for us. I don’t know how many I want to say. You are a nice lady! Thank you. When I get back to China. I will e-mail you guys. Let you guys know what’s going on with me!
With love, Chen, Kewei
P.S. Sorry about grammar (sad face) Love Chen
Chen, I haven’t met you but you have already touched my heart. With the help of Charlene, another date was set up. The morning of May 23rd I called the ICE detention facility and was told that I was on the list to visit Chen at 5pm. The two-hour drive brought me through the back roads of Maine and New Hampshire, finally arriving at the facility.
After passing through security I was led to the room where I would get to meet and chat with Chen. It was a large room and one wall was sectioned off into visiting booths with a glass partition between the inmate and the visitor. Conversation was done by means of telephones. I was surprised and saddened to see children running around the room as their mothers sat in one of the booths speaking through the glass wall with a male.
As I am waiting in the booth Chen arrives. We wave at each other, sit in the chairs and pick up the phones. During the drive to Dover, NH, I had some concern that the meeting might be awkward. I needn’t have worried. This handsome young man with a beautiful smile immediately made me feel comfortable, and the conversation flowed easily.
Chen is the eldest of two boys. His father owns a business that makes parts for cars. He came here from Shanghai, China as an eighteen-year-old to go to college and spoke very little English. I asked him if it was ok to ask why he was in prison and he shared what had happened to him. As he spoke, I was saddened as I felt that his young age, difficulty understanding the culture and language caused this awful injustice to happen to him. His lawyer had assured him he would not be found guilty. I can still see the look in his eyes as he told me about standing waiting for the verdict and the jury foreman saying “Guilty”. After trying to absorb what had happened to Chen I said, “I had thought maybe you had robbed someone.” Oh no, he said. “I would never do that.”
I believed every word Chen said. Every day at this facility is about the same. Sleeping till 10am and playing cards seems to be the only thing to do. Going outside means going to another room with high openings not allowing you to see anything outside. Meals are ok and he goes to bed around midnight. We had a discussion about the difference between prison, where he said there are opportunities to work and learn a skill, and the ICE detention where there is nothing to do. Then he started talking about when he goes home. It will be a twenty hour plane ride but he said “I will be free and wearing my own clothes.” His father wants him to work for him but Chen said he wants to be an interpreter. He said he frequently asked Pornchai and Father Gordon, “Don’t lie to me. Is my English good?” Actually Chen speaks very good English and he was all smiles as I told him how good I thought it was. What English he today speaks, he learned in prison and mostly from Pornchai and Father Gordon.
We spoke about his time with Pornchai and Father Gordon. I asked him how he met them. It sounds like Pornchai became aware of Chen first, shook his hand and said, “You are my friend,” then arranged for Chen to meet Father Gordon. That led to a friendship that would continue to deepen over the next two years. Over and over during our conversation Chen would say, “Father Gordon, he is a good man.” When Fr. Gordon and Max were in a smaller pod, Chen said the guards would often put inmates who needed care into their pod because the guards knew they would be taken care of. They also reach out to new inmates with friendship and emotional support.
With mischief in Chen’s eyes and a big smile on his face, I also found out that Father Gordon is a “regular guy” but when he is writing his post, “You leave him alone,” and that Father Gordon was getting old. I laughed and said, “Chen, I am lot older than Father Gordon!” I don’t think Chen knew how to respond. He hesitated, then smiled again, saying, “G told me don’t tell Claire that I am bald.” Sorry, Father Gordon, the word is now out. Chen also shared some other funny stories. Sorry, dear readers, my lips are sealed! (LOL)
I asked Chen about the cross that hung from his wrist. He told me that Father Gordon and Pornchai had given it to him and that he went to Mass every Sunday with them. I asked him if he would continue to go to church when he returned home. His answer was yes, and he said that his aunt is Chinese Catholic. He talked about being very sad about leaving Father Gordon and Pornchai, but that they had promised when they got out they would come to China and live in his parent’s basement.
I had the opportunity to visit with Chen twice. When I was leaving him I asked what he would like to say to TSW readers. “Tell them Father Gordon and Pornchai-Max are very good men.” With sadness we said good-bye with promises we would keep in touch.
Father Gordon and Pornchai-Max, I want you to know that Chen looked good and seemed to be in good spirits. What a beautiful young man, and I am blessed to have met him. I am in awe how our Loving God placed Chen in their care and the part our friends behind those stone walls have played in his life. During his time in ICE detention, Chen has been able to communicate with his dear friends with the help of Charlene. You are all amazing.
To you dear readers of TSW, Chen is very aware of the love, concern, and support you have for him, and he is grateful. To you, My Lord, thank you for this great opportunity you have given me. Chen, I will miss you.
UPDATE: Our friend Kewei Chen arrived in Shanghai on Wednesday evening about 6 p.m. After a 3 1/2 year absence, his reunion with his parents and family was filled with tears and much joy. He just sent us a photo of himself and his parents and here it is. With thanks and Divine Mercy Blessings to all,
Editor’s Note: Fathers Day in America is June 18. Honor thy father with one or more of these special Fathers Day posts from These Stone Walls: