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Astrid's Story: Reintegration After Release & Deportation

Today we're bringing you the remarkable first chapter of Astrid's story, written six years into her reintegration process in Germany:

Getting released from Fraser Valley Institution for Women almost six years ago felt like kind of being reborn.

Being on the inside, I never felt I had been held captive in darkness and now was going to see and be blinded by the light, not at all. I had just simply gotten used to this artificial security. After 12 years, inside became a safe place. I had found solace in knowing the ropes.

This truth was revealed one morning, in my ninth year, when my superficial greeting of "How are you?" to another woman got a sarcastic, "Oh couldn’t be better, I am living my

dream!" in response.

Sure, no one finding themselves inside the barbwire is living their dream, but to me, at that moment in time, it felt I was.

How could that be? I had found what I couldn't in this big wide world outside of the fence; a place I felt secure, a place that did feel like home. Inside, away from the luring haste of life, I came to moments of being home in this temple, my body, in which God lives.

Meeting the parole board in September 2015, I had the chance of release—and with release, a ticket to freedom to a country I had not lived in almost 20 years, where I would not be supervised by any governmental body.

I was not anticipating this day with joy and excitement, but rather with fear. Fear of giving up my safe place. Life on the inside for the past 12 years had come easy to me, ever since the first serious advice from the Institutional Parole Officer: "You are not here to make friends!"

As a woman in her mid-thirties with a past of broken and troubled relationships, not knowing what a healthy relationship was or could feel like, I was only relieved not to have to engage in any of it anymore. This was the first big relief. Keeping to myself made flying under the radar in jail easy and not having to be with others left time for me to be with me.

Prior to committing murder, I led a highly functional lifestyle. I was drug and alcohol-free, but unaware of having been caught up in the addiction of codependency and busyness to avoid being human.

Being far away from God and myself led me to go astray not only spiritually, but also emotionally and mentally. I ended up spiralling in a vicious cycle of taking flight in suicidal thoughts that ended in committing murder. A truth so hurtful and so shameful.

WHY?! This one word, this one question was the only word left to mutter in my heart and my head. Why did I rebel against God? Did I want to prove to God that I was unlovable??

There was no reprieve, nor answers in psychology reports. The “whys” and “how coulds” just echoed inside my head, mingling with labels and confusion.

"Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)

That first hour inside a dark holding cell, stillness spoke love to me in a whisper so gentle and soothing that I felt held, not by walls I could not see, but by a divine strength. Years later I found out that is the meaning of the name given to me by my parents, Astrid, "divine strength."

Twelve years later, having been held by God’s grace like a fledgling in a nest, it was too scary to face freedom in a country I had not lived in for twenty years and meet my family who I had hurt. But God made clear it was time to fly and fly towards home.

Facing my family was hard, and after so many years I felt so divided. The longing to belong was greater than ever, but with the pain I had inflicted, I felt our distance had grown and acceptance was unreachable. I knew and felt that they could not be there for me and that I had become a burden. This was nothing new to me. I had felt and known this before. Once again, I had to look out for myself, or so I believed.

As a baby I had been received by a midwife. Now at age 47 I was praying to God for a mid-sister. Grace stepped in a wondrous way into this role—unexpected! Just like God

does it—creatively and with perfect timing.

I met Grace in the summer, three months before my parole board hearing. She

stepped in as chaplain because our chaplain had gone on vacation. Grace led the worship

service for us women inside and she approached me after conducting the

service. She recognized my accent, as her husband is German. So, we

connected and whenever she came in, we chatted about our experiences living

in Germany. She shared her joy in raising three children, then teenagers, in two

cultures, while I shared my concerns in returning to a culture I felt detached

from and a family past I did not know how to engage in, yet nevertheless needed

to mend.

Not only did God provide Grace for me to go home to my home country with (strange coincidence or God’s plan, but we both arrived back in Germany around the same time), but God revealed himself in the welcoming hugs and the gift of home. A dear friend from school and her husband picked me up from the airport and received me back into this society that I feared. They delivered me to the town of Celle, a town I had never lived in; a town of civil servants, home to three courts and one jail for men, but also a town where the Christian restorative ministry of the Schwarze Kreuz ("Black Cross") had its office.

This ministry had vouched for me in the reintegration process. Making an exception, they offered me their little guest room, the size of the prison cell, helped me with bureaucratic processes, in meeting volunteers, in settling, and they gave me time to make independent steps towards finding my own place and work.

After six months, I found work in the field I had been trained in 25 years earlier. After nine months, I found an apartment in a timbered framed house from the 1600s in the middle of the dainty and ancient town center. Nine months after starting work as a furniture maker in a shop, I felt relieved in getting laid-off. My mental state had deteriorated under ongoing fear and anxiety, making concentrated working impossible. The employment counsellor was kind and patient, realizing I was putting too much pressure on myself with unrealistic expectations.

I was held back from applying for jobs, but he offered me a work program called a "1 Euro Job.” Literally, for each hour of work, I earned one Euro. Since I had not picked up on the negative stigma that this program held, I went for it like a relieved greenhorn and I got sent to the church just around the corner from where I lived. I sought out the sexton of that church and was put to work 20 hours a week in assisting the sexton in cleaning and maintenance work. For two years I was on social assistance working at a 1 Euro Job

while growing in Christ and building relationships.

During the years inside, I had not missed much from this free world, but I had missed hearing live music in real life time and space. While hanging out in front of the radio listening to CBC Radio Two, I repeatedly prayed “God, please let me hear music again, real music in the moment of time where it is been created.”

This longing was fulfilled on the second day of my 1 Euro Job. It was early morning prior to the church opening. I was cleaning the empty sanctuary when the music director came in

and rehearsed at the large organ hovering above the balcony. There I stood, in awe, with the vacuum cleaner in my hands and tears in my eyes, muttering, “thank you, God, thank you."

Over the years, people have asked me, “What was the hardest after getting released?” It has been these moments of joyful surprises revealing God has heard me, sees me, and wants me to know he is with me at all times and in all ways. This realization is still hard for me to wrap my heart and soul around.

Another realization that hit me hard was the meaning of counting—being counted. In jail, the "headcount" held the highest meaning for staff and women, thus we all had to abide by its reoccurring importance. For everyone—the counter, as well as the one counted—this was a challenge to accept. I fought it in the strangest internal ways, repeatedly, until this one day when I learned of the saying, "count your blessings.” It has transformed the meaning of the ‘head-count’ for me to that of a blessing. It became a divine act. God himself was counting us worthy. I was counted worthy by God to belong to him.

On my first train ride—common transportation in Germany, both reliable and affordable—I had seated myself in an area for a group of four passengers. To my surprise, a four-year-old boy plopped himself in front of me, looked at me and counted proudly in German, eins, zwei, drei... when into the second digit his mother and older brother joined him and me. There I was, part of a family, joining the child in front of me in counting. He counted out loud to me vigorously, only to interrupt to let me know he could count till one hundred, preparing me for what was to come.

I gave him all my attention, feeling blessed by being counted to and not counted as a number. Those blessed moments made me tear up, and they were the moments I had to process and learn to receive as worthy of.

On the first Sunday after release, I went to the church nearest to my new home, the Schwarze Kreuz. It was Thanksgiving Sunday, and after the pastor released us with a blessing, he invited the congregation to a soup afterwards at a sister church within walking distance. I did ask one woman outside where the lunch would take place, but she was unsure and could only give me the rough direction.

I was not just hungry for food; I was hungrier to find a parish. So, I cycled in the direction the woman had pointed out, trusting I would and could find what I was looking for. Churches in Germany usually come with belfries, so I kept looking for one while cycling. Becoming unsure, I gave up looking and turned away from that direction to find my way back home.

As I cycled by an old, run-down building, I saw people gathered through the windows. Could this be a congregation? I went to the entrance and walked shyly into a slimming crowd. Asking at the counter if I could still drink tea, I was invited to help myself. At an empty table I sat down, and a woman greeted me with warmth and asked if she could sit with me. We chatted and she confirmed the church worshipped together every Sunday at eleven.

This became my church and today this congregation is my spiritual base. Every summer my church goes on a retreat, and at the second retreat I was able to attend, I got baptized.

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