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UNG students make eye-opening trek to immigration detention center
Group visits detainees, helps local shelter
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Twenty-three University of North Georgia students visited the Lumpkin detention center Saturday to visit detainees at the prison and help the nearby shelter El Refugio. The Goizueta Scholars at the school organized the trip and fundraising.

Days after his trip, Bryan Herrera can still remember the Stewart Detention Center detainee’s name and identification number.

As he was leaving the South Georgia facility, he looked back at a man he considered hopeful and patient.

“The day when I came back from home, I couldn’t get him out of my mind,” Herrera said.

He was part of a group of 23 University of North Georgia students who headed to the Lumpkin detention center Saturday to visit detainees at the prison and help the nearby shelter El Refugio. The Goizueta Scholars at the school organized the trip and fundraising.

The weekend was “eye-opening” for participant Nataly Morales Villa.

“Once you hear their stories, it’s heartwarming. But it’s also heartbreaking,” she said.

El Refugio serves as one of the few respite areas near the detention center for families visiting detainees.

Villa said the group helped paint and clean the shelter before giving a $3,000 check to Marie Marquardt, who is on the shelter’s board of directors.

“The expression on her face was pretty heartwarming, to know that all our hard work really impacted her organization,” Herrera said.

Omar Hernandez said he and three others worked to raise money through local churches as well as receiving donations of food, bedding and clothing. Those helping the cause included St. Michael Catholic Church, El Centro Pastoral and La Tapatia.

Hernandez said he was ecstatic to see the final tally.

“We were only expecting $500, which was our goal, a realistic goal for ourselves,” he said.

The students visited some of the detainees and heard their stories. Herrera described the tale of a man coming to the United States in search of work who was picked up at the border.

“He began to say how it was very depressing. It felt to him like they took away his basic rights, his basic freedoms. He felt like he was caged up, I guess you could say, and he just wanted out,” he said.

Most surprising, though, was some of the detainees — like the one Villa spoke to from Honduras — were around the same age as the UNG students.

“You’re talking about a man who’s 20 years old, someone my age … and to imagine someone our age had to go through that is just heartbreaking,” she said.

After visiting the detainees, Villa said the plan is to write letters back to those in the Stewart Detention Center.

“In this political climate, I think that we need to expose these things more and more everyday,” she said.

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