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An Awful Experience, Proper Hell | A reflection by Riccardo Matlakas

11th December 2017

Today we make space for a tale of the irrationality of border control with a reflection of performingborders interviewee Riccardo Matlakas on his recent lived experience of detention, dehumanisation, and injustice at the US border.

This is an unusual performingborders entry but these experiences are far from unusual and keep being happening too often, to too many people, with degrees of violence enforced by public officers that shouldn’t be accepted. Let’s keep sharing these stories!

flag from scratching borders

Image courtesy of the artist


‘An Awful Experience, Proper Hell’ by Riccardo Matlakas 

In December 2017 I was invited to Miami in order to deliver two performances for two events during Miami Art week. My two works: “Melting Borders” and “Sweet thorn” which are about the concept of Borders and the issue of the refugee crisis and migration. I was very happy to join the program and to go through borders to show my works which have been shown already internationally, without having any problem at all. So I filled up my ESTA application as an Italian Citizen, which was instantly approved.

When I arrived at the airport after a 10-hour flight, the officers noticed that I had been to Iran in August 2017 and said that my Visa was not the right one for entry to the USA and that I should have applied for a different kind of Visa, due to my recent visit to Iran. I explained to the officer that I am dyslexic and when I applied for the visa I hadn’t realised or been informed of this peculiar detail. I also had medical reports of my disability as proof.

The officer sent me to a room where more than 50 people where already waiting and more people were coming, hour by hour. At first, I waited with no complaint for about two hours. Then at some point I began questioning officers, but their attitude of superiority coupled with the fact that I had no means of communication with the outside world began to make me feel uncomfortable to say the least.

After the third hour they took me to a room, and asked me what I had done in Iran, I answered that I went to perform. They asked me if I had friends there, I said that now I have many friends as I have been there. I was asked what I was intending to do in the USA and I explained that I was invited to perform and if they wanted I could show them the proof. They made me complete a questionnaire before they sent me to a cell without informing me what the procedure was or why I was being sent there. Before entering the cell, they searched me, including intimate areas. They took all my belonging, the laces off my shoes, all my items and allowed me to keep only my jacket. When I told them that I was cold and I needed something to keep warm, they insisted that I could only have my clothes on and only one jacket. I had nothing with me, and they put me in a weird room, after 4 hours, it was 8pm, the room was locked straight away behind me with no explanation.

In the room there was a thirty-three-year-old man from the Philippines who had the right visa and was just transiting to see his family but had been there since Midday. There was a guy who slept all the time wrapped up by two tiny blankets, and a fifty-four-year-old Spanish man who was just transiting for a holiday in Lima. The guys I talked to, where waiting for a verdict since Midday but they did not know what they were going to do. The room was very cold and we all had just a few Flight blankets, and whist we waited, the room got colder and colder. So I knocked on the locked door to ask for more blankets, the officers said they did not have any. Furthermore, the room was always lit and it was hard to sleep with a neon light constantly on. The toilet flush did not work properly so Urine and faeces floated in the toilet. I did not even own a toothbrush and tooth paste to brush my teeth, no soap at all, there was nothing. There was a mirror window from which the officers could observe us from, a microphone to hear our conversation and of course cameras (for our safety they said), even locking us there was for our safety.

From time to time, I knocked at the locked door, I could hear the noise of the big bunch of keys from the officer and every time I asked them a question they told me to wait (hours and hours) I was treated like a mentally ill person or a criminal. We were fed once every 6 hours with a tiny portion of crisps and a warm microwave pasta. I did not even want to eat. I said to one of the officers that I’d rather be homeless than be locked in that room. The officials asserted overtime that we were put in a safe situation and that indeed it was a comfortable one. It felt like they were denying the truth of the situation. Finally, after many hours insisting I was allowed one more phone call. The other two guys after 23 hours did not call anyone but when they saw me insisting, they also asked. When I was talking on the phone with a loud speaker so they could hear my conversation, I said that I was imprisoned, the officer in front of me said out loud that I wasn’t imprisoned but just detained. But in all honesty, it was a prison, and I hadn’t done anything wrong to be there.

I was locked in this room from 7pm on 6th December 2017 to 6pm on the 7th December 2017, for about 23 hours after the long hours waiting (Officer asserted that there is people detained there at the airport even for the whole week and that I was lucky).

After that I was sent back for a further 10-hour flight back to London. It was a horrible experience. It was also a financial loss and professional loss as I was unable to complete the project I had been appointed to do. This experience reminds me of the many souls who travel by sea to reach a country after months of struggle, arriving with a hope and sent back to their own country and even detained in worse conditions than mine.

There is something in this world that for Nationalistic reasons is put on the side and this is the integrity of each person, and the denial of the fact that we are all human beings and we are sharing this world. As a European and Artist I have the privilege to talk about my experience, which although bad for me, I imagine is nothing compared to some experiences. We have to wake up. I have been scratching the borders of USA as many others scratch other borders in the world and are not given a chance, but instead treated like animals. Something here clearly needs to change.

.Read Riccardo’s interview with performingborders here

Featured image credits: ‘Scratching Borders’ by Riccardo Matlakas, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

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