“In life it’s said that behind every door there is new hope and a new opportunity to love, find joy, and live life with all its ups and downs. But what happens when the door opens into a prison cell? What becomes of life then? And who do you turn into?”
This was how You Are Not Alone presenter Sirene Semerdjian introduced a recent episode of the programme in Barbar El Khazen women’s prison and pretrial detention centre in Lebanon. Within its walls she found three women who were willing to tell their stories. One was a mother who fell into drug dealing as a way of feeding her children. Another was a 32-year-old mother with a baby born in prison. The third was a Sri Lankan housemaid who killed her abusive employer but whose life has been turned around since she found Christ three years ago.
The episode in Barbar El Kazen is one of three special episodes. Another interviewed an ex-prisoner and a pastor with 36 years of prison ministry. In the third, Sirene spoke to men in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison.
Sirene explains: “You Are Not Alone always seeks to give a voice to people who feel forgotten but we had never spoken with the prisoners who truly are alone and feel rejected by society. That’s why we wanted to talk with the prisoners about their struggles and experience.”
“These female prisoners are in the wrong according to the law,” Sirene told viewers of the women’s episode. “They may have killed, stolen, sold drugs. But following their crimes and mistakes, and the rule of the law and society, there is a journey they went through and which they want to speak about.”
Watching them, it is hard not to empathise. Maisa had served over three years after she spent two years dealing in drugs. She told Sirene she is ashamed of what she did but says her only concern was to provide for her children. Her blacksmith husband was wanted by the government and went into hiding. Maisa’s two jobs were not enough to feed the family. Although she accepts her guilt, she also feels she was a victim of her circumstances.
Maisa’s husband died while she was in prison and only her mother visits regularly. Her six-year-old and 15-year-old daughters are being cared for by different relatives. Maisa fears that when she leaves prison her in-laws won’t allow her custody of her youngest.
Prison has affected her health and nerves, Maisa said, but her faith has become stronger. Before she was far from God, but she recognises that she has made the obstacles in her life, not God. She prays that He will release her and her children from their situation.
Mother and baby behind bars
The story of Rania (age 32) is distressing for two reasons: she has been in the prison for six months with her six-week-old daughter who was born here. She has not yet been tried, but the charges against her sound unfounded.
Her second husband had been running from the police after dealing in drugs. He was so anxious that he took his own life, but his family accuse Rania of killing him. She said the reason the police arrested her, however, was to get her to lead them to her husband’s drug supplier.
Rania named her daughter Heaven and it seems that she brings a touch of this both to her mother and other prisoners. “When they see her, they laugh and just want to hold her. They’ve changed: you can see joy on their faces,” she said.
Rania also has a six-year-old son by her first marriage and says it is her children that give her the motivation to continue. Her greatest fear is that the authorities might take her daughter from her. She told Sirene that her prayer is “Only that I leave prison and that the truth is revealed. I trust that the truth will be revealed and we won’t stay here.”
Sirene’s last interview is with Botika. Her crime is the most serious and her punishment the most severe. Jailed at age 20 she has spent more than half her life – 24 years – behind bars. Her experience before this is also an example of the grave mistreatment many foreign domestic workers encounter in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet her story is also the most hopeful. After 17 years of denying her crime, three years ago this Buddhist-background woman encountered Christ and admitted what she did.
Knowing Christ has changed her, Botika said, smiling: “It taught me how to be patient, how to be strong, how to be a peaceful person who loves the world and is helpful to the world. Yes, many things have changed in me.”
Originally, like thousands of other migrant workers, she came to Lebanon with the dream of saving some money and buying a house in Sri Lanka. Instead, after the first few months, her “madam” stopped paying her salary, wouldn’t allow her to phone her family and hardly gave her any food.
Botika recalled what happened after a year of not being paid and after receiving regular beatings. “I said that it’s been a year and my family hasn’t received any more money. She beat me, she slapped me in the face repeatedly. I wanted to run away from her.”
When Botika ran to the kitchen, her madam grabbed her by the hair and held a kitchen knife against her neck. “I really did believe that she wanted to kill me.” Botika said. When she struggled, the knife fell to the floor, Botika reached for it first and stabbed and killed her employer.
Seventeen years later Botika met the Christ talked about by prison visitors and found the courage to admit what she had done. “Because He forgives me,” she explained. “He bore the sin I committed. He was crucified on the cross because of me. I say, ‘Lord forgive me that I sinned, I hurt your heart, forgive me for everything.’”
As a result, Botika says she is “happy with the Lord Jesus Christ. I pray and fast, and I spend time with the other inmates. I regret what I did but I am happy that I found Jesus Christ.”
The transformation did not stop with Botika, either. She shared that prison visitor Pastor Angelo had gone to Sri Lanka on her behalf and found her family. They also came to faith as a result of what had happened to Botika.
Even in prison she has a ministry to other prisoners. “I have a message I want to spread to the whole world,” she told Sirene. “This is what I do here in prison too. I gather women and I tell them about Jesus Christ. I tell everyone.”
“Are there women who believe in Jesus through you?” Sirene asked her. “Yes, there are,” she beams. “There are.”
Coming soon: read more stories of changed lives through Christian prison ministry in our report on the You Are Not Alone episode filmed in Roumieh men’s prison.