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A Zen priest turns her attention to immigrants in distress

Myozen Joan Amaral, a Zen priest based in Beverly, has helped to support immigrants in detention centers and, in some cases, freed them from prison.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

She is slightly built and has a fragile look. But Myozen Joan Amaral’s strength and determination has helped to support immigrants in detention centers and, in some cases, freed them from prison.

Based in Beverly, the ordained Zen priest and founder of Zen Center North Shore is using her platform to support immigrants, particularly in Latino communities. Until recently, the silver-haired 53-year-old visited and regularly meditated with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees at the Suffolk County House of Correction known as South Bay, which has now ended its agreement to house such immigrants.

Amaral juggled her main role as a teacher of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism with her work at the ICE center. On Fridays, she sat with one or more mostly Latin American and mostly Christian men. “I speak to them and conduct guided meditation in Spanish, and a lot of them ask me ‘Is this going to help?’ ”

Despite their doubt, they said the words with her: May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering. May I be safe.


“I feel the room change after that,” Amaral said. It helps that her Spanish is fluent and soothing, that her voice is light, and her demeanor open and unjudging.

Other times, she pursued more active ways of helping the detainees. “I haven’t always said, ‘Let’s meditate.’ It’s more like, ‘Let me take notes on your legal situation and then see what I can do.’ ” Sometimes she connected detainees with their families who had no idea where to look. Often, she went a step further to contact lawyers and organizations that could work on individual cases.

Amaral joined Zen practice in 1998, although she had become an activist years earlier. As a dancer and a student of both Spanish and French, she worked actively in Latin America. She was part of a cultural exchange delegation to El Salvador in 1991, during that country’s civil war, and worked with displaced communities in San Salvador and Chalatenango to relay stories of the war in the United States. She created a 50-page report on her return, giving presentations to raise awareness of the human cost of the war.


Amaral says she has always been wary of perpetuating the “white savior” trope. She doesn’t want to “help” people, she says, she wants to “work in solidarity with them.” In 2017, she received a call from the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), a multifaith network fighting for migrant rights. They needed clergy to support migrants in detention.

Amaral has worked with about 75 South Bay detainees since then and connected several of them with family members who had lost track of them.

Many of the detainees have recently been transferred to other ICE facilities in New England. Amaral plans to find them. “It will take some time to track them down. I am working with their families to locate them and see what kind of support I can offer them,” she says.

“For us, the immigrant community, it is very meaningful to have Joan go inside those centers because of the impact she’s causing,” says Isabel Lopez, immigrant organizer at ECCO. “Some have been there for 18 months and have no idea how to connect with a family member. She connects them with their families, with us, with resources. Even a phone call to find where the families are [helps].”


Her visits have facilitated the freedom of at least two detainees. Last year, she got involved with Hector, a father of two who was fleeing gang violence in Venezuela. Hector, an engineer back home, was arrested at Logan Airport and detained by ICE. “I brought that to the attention of [Congressman] Seth Moulton’s office. His office called ICE and after that phone call, they released him.” Hector is now working to win asylum in the US.

“[Amaral] brings humanity that in this society right now is lost,” Lopez adds. “I hear her sometimes when she says ‘They just want to be heard.’ ”

Despite her efforts, though, many of the men she worked with were deported or remain in detention. There was a general feeling of despair and depression, Amaral says. In October, a Cuban immigrant died by suicide in a Lousiana detention center.The treatment of asylum seekers could be better, she says. “They are human beings, not just asylum seekers and they have the same challenges, the same sufferings as everybody else.”

Amaral also works with the African community with her friend, Esther Ngotho, an immigrant from Kenya and former candidate for city councilor in Beverly. Last year, they helped connect Essau Chagoha, a Tanzanian man who was detained for more than a year, with lawyers who got him out of jail.

“When I was in the detention center and [Amaral] was coming to see me, I felt better,” Chagoha says. He was skeptical of joining Amaral’s guided meditation sessions, at first. “She used to talk to me and tried to freshen my mind and I was like ‘Okay, let’s see how it’s going to be.’ ” But after every session, he did feel calmer, he says.


Chagoha, 45, is still in limbo after his release, and cannot find a job without completing the asylum process. He reports periodically to the ICE center in Burlington. Amaral and ECCO continue to support him. “If I need a ride to get to immigration, they’ll find one for me,” he says.

As Amaral works to track the transferred South Bay detainees, she is also focusing on supporting asylees facing deportations. One of them is Blanca, a 42-year-old who fled violence in Honduras but who may now be sent back. ICE denied her final asylum appeal in October, but Blanca still needs to make appearances at the ICE center in Burlington. There, Amaral and ECCO members stand with her in solidarity.

For Amaral, supporting immigrants and refugees means many things. It could take the form of a solidarity visit to ICE centers, or it could be organizing a simple Thanksgiving dinner for the immigrant community in Beverly.

Amaral is mostly an upbeat person, but her work sometimes takes its toll. To cope, she likes to take walks on the beach near her home, pick apples, and visit the Goodwill store to shop for warm sweaters.

The US immigration system is getting more chaotic by the day and everyone working to support immigrants needs to take care not to be overwhelmed, she says. “Eat well and drink water,” she advises, because “we can’t afford to be overwhelmed. We have to pull back and reassess so that we can stay in the effort. Don’t give up.”


Shola Lawal is the 2019 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies. She can be reached at shola.lawal-fellow@globe.com.