When Paradise Becomes A Nightmare: Poker Player Speaks About Being Incarcerated At A Refugee Camp In The Bahamas

poker tournament bahamas pca
I couldn’t make out exactly what it was but I saw barbed wire fences
and lots of dirt… it clearly wasn’t Atlantis.
Just as we were pulling in, luckily I went with my gut and
decided to fire off a single text to my mom,
probably the scariest one she has ever received.
I can’t remember exactly what I wrote but it was something like…
“Mom, I have an emergency, we had problems at the border and can’t leave, I’ll explain later but I’m going to [address], contact the embassy”.
I tried to simultaneously express how serious the **** was that we had gotten into, while trying not to give her a full-on heart attack.

Earlier this week a user named PCA_Refugee posted an astonishing account of a poker trip he made to the coveted PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament in the Bahamas and his subsequent incarceration in a real-life Refugee Camp.

We were eager to hear more about this incredible story so we caught up with PCA_Refugee too see what else we could find out.

SpinAndGoStrategy: Hi PCA_Refugee, thanks so much for agreeing to share some of your crazy story with us! Before we start, I just want to let you explain why you’ve chosen to speak about your experiences anonymously.

PCA_Refugee: The main reason for the anonymity is that there was someone else involved. It’s not just my story/experience. My friend who went through it with me opted to deal with it differently for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure that they ever even told their family, whereas I told everyone. If I said who I was, people would make the connection fairly quickly and it would go back to my friend who I think would rather leave it in the past. That’s pretty much it. Not only was it a bad experience, but it also involves us having legal issues, and I think it’s understandable that not everyone wants to put it out there that they’ve been arrested. And besides, legitimate people in the poker community have vouched for the validity of my story, so that should be proof enough that I’m not just a random who decided to make up a story.

(editor’s note: PCA_Refugee’s identity as a former high-stakes online poker player has been confirmed by a number of well-respected members of the poker community.)

SGS: So let’s start right at the beginning; for those who may be hearing about this for the first time, when did this all take place and what were the circumstances that led you to being stopped by Customs agents in the Bahamas?

PR: Well I really recommend that people read what I wrote on Twoplustwo to get the full picture, but in short, I naively thought I didn’t have to declare money I had won in a side event at the PCA because it was under $20k and I was travelling with 1 other person so we could each carry less than $10k and not be breaking the law, thus not having to declare. This decision came as a recommendation from a few of my friends who played a lot more live poker than I did at the time, and had a lot of experience travelling with large amounts of money for poker tournaments. They thought it was ok, I took their word for it, because I had 0 experience. I was an inexperienced traveller in general as this was only my 2nd time leaving my country. My friend went through customs fine, but when I went up they asked specifically how much money I was carrying (not “are you carrying over $10k?”). The amount I was carrying wasn’t much under $10k, $8000-9000 if I recall, so they sent me back to secondary customs. They ended up getting my friend at the gate and sending them back too, then proceeded to interrogate us, strip search us, and turn us over to the Bahamian authorities to arrest us. We managed to dodge going to jail because one of my friends was still in the Bahamas and had enough cash on hand to come and bail us out. We went to court the next day, the judge gave us a “warning” and a fine. The fine was 100% of the money I didn’t declare. As we were leaving the courthouse an immigration officer tapped me on the shoulder and said they just wanted to check that we didn’t need to fill out any more paperwork or anything. That triggered an unfortunate series of events that landed us in a Bahamian refugee camp, being detained arbitrarily (again, read the thread if you want all of the details).

SGS: You described some of the dangerous health conditions in the camp such as the sewage problems in the bathrooms, lack of food and medical assistance, overpopulation, rodent infestation etc. Were you surprised at just how bad everything was? What was the contrast like of going from a luxurious 5-star resort right into a real-life Refugee Camp?

PR: Yea, it was like being in some sort of horror movie. I didn’t even know places this bad existed in the world. I didn’t know what the place was or where I was, or who the people were there really, I had to piece things together as it went. Everything happened so fast, especially between the courthouse to the refugee camp. It went from “phew, we’re finally going home” to “…are we ever going home?” in a matter of a couple hours. It’s definitely a shock finding yourself suddenly in a situation where you don’t even have most of the basic rights/freedoms that you’ve had at every single other point in your life up until then. But here you had a ton of innocent people, none of whom had any outstanding charges (otherwise they would be in jail), being treated far worse than anyone even in a first world country jail. It was disgusting.

The contrast between just normal life and the Refugee camp is more extreme that I could have ever imagined, let alone going from Atlantis where I was swimming with dolphins, riding water slides, going to the ocean every day, etc. Up until that point, it was actually probably the best trip of my life. So that made the whole situation seem even more nightmarish because I went from such a high to such a low.

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From Paradise To Hell. Atlastis Resort in the Bahamas, home of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.

SGS: The thing that really got to me was when you wrote about the refugees who were trying to get back in when all you wanted to do was get out, what was that experience like? Do you feel it’s affected your outlook on the world?

PR: Well, there were *some* refugees trying to get back in, very specifically people from Haiti because they were dealing with a natural disaster and many of them didn’t even have food or roof anymore, which at least the Refugee camp did. But I don’t want to understate how terrible it was there… nearly every other person there wanted out, even those who were actual refugees trying to escape whatever terrible situation they were coming from. I was told by some of the refugees about a hunger strike that ended not long before I got there, and you know that if people only getting ~700-800 calories of food per day are going on hunger strike, it’s probably not for anything short of matters of life or death. I think that really drilled home how bad this place really was. People who were so desperate to leave their home country for a better life that they left behind their family, friends, belongings, and built a home-made boat to leave and got caught in Bahamian waters, were still not desperate enough to want to stay in that place.

It changed my outlook in more ways than I can probably explain. You get a better idea of what it is actually like for people in these countries, and a better appreciation for how good we really have it. I don’t think I ever really consciously “appreciated” the rights and freedoms we have in first world countries. You always have them, and you know it’s good, but it’s normal. You don’t know how awesome it is to have an endless supply of clean drinking water until you’re rationing 1 gallon of clean water for 5 days for drinking, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, and other basic necessities of life. We have a distinction between rights and privileges in our countries, but there are plenty of places in the world where rights ARE privileges.

SGS: You mentioned a couple of times in your original post that the officials in charge in the Bahamas seemed to lack any sort of structure or protocol, what was that experience like?

PR: It was really scary and makes you feel helpless. There’s a certain security in a developed country knowing that even if you do something wrong, there’s a system for punishing you and you know roughly what to expect. Even if it’s going to suck, it’s nice to know exactly how much it’s going to suck so you can prepare yourself mentally. You don’t really have that luxury in a place like the Bahamas. You’re subject to the whim of the authorities who control your fate. There’s a certain amount of variance as to how bad your punishment is going to be. It’s frightening to hear people discussing and debating what to do with you because they legitimately aren’t sure. Not knowing your fate is by far the worst feeling.

SGS: Did you involve PokerStars in this at any point and, if so, what was their response?
What about Human Rights groups such as the UN or even local media in the Bahamas? Did you reach out to them and how did they respond?

PR: I contacted them to tell them what happened, not because I was seeking their help really, but just to be like “hey, something really bad happened, you guys should know because maybe it can be avoided, maybe you guys want to take some sort of action on this”. They wrote back seemingly very concerned and asked if they could call me on the phone. I’d never talked to Pokerstars support on the phone before so I was like whoa maybe they’re going to actually do something, this is pretty cool that they care. But the phone call felt sort of like they were just trying to take my temperature on whether I was going to make a big deal publicly about it, or get lawyers involved or whatever. So I was kind of annoyed that I just had the worst thing happened to me in my life and they made a business call to me. It just seemed a bit tasteless.
I contacted a ton of human rights groups, refugee rights groups, embassies, the UN, and more, on behalf of myself and some of the refugees I met in there. This was a bit of a disheartening experience because there was a lot of deferring me to other organizations and giving me a run around. A few were very unhelpful but still tried to solicit donations from me. There were 3 organizations who were all supposed to be somewhat responsible for the condition of the refugee camp and they all kept saying “Sorry that’s not our business, you need to call X” and all 3 sent me to each other. I guess I had hoped that the people working at these places took their jobs more seriously, or cared more, than people might while working at a regular minimum wage job or something, but it seemed like that wasn’t the case.

The refugee rights groups and the UN were the most helpful. I remember having sort of low expectations for the UN because they’re such a big organization and also they get a bit of flack for not being effective in certain areas, but they called and e-mailed me a few times over the course of a few months and talked for hours, asking a lot of specific questions. The fact that they followed up weeks later on a few occasions made it seem like they were at least trying to do something. In the end, I wasn’t able to do much except provide information and give a lot of detail that they didn’t have about the place I was in, because I don’t think very many people that go there have the luxury of returning home and being able to go on the internet and find numbers of relevant people and organizations to call. I got the impression that I was one of the only solid first hand accounts they had of the situation in there.

SGS: What do you think can be done to protect other poker players and Bahamas visitors in general from this sort of injustice?

PR: I think that spreading the word amongst the community and talking about it is a good start. I already feel like people are a bit more conscious of it than when it happened to me, but judging by what happened to the other 3 players this year (and probably more, I think people don’t go public with it for a lot of reasons), there’s still work to do. I think some sort of information at the event would be really good. Maybe just a little flyer or pamphlet explaining the rules for declaration as concisely as possible. Yes, they have the information at the airport, but I think most people make the decision on how they’re transporting the money before they get there so it’s important to have that information while they’re in the process of figuring out what to do. I think just emphasizing some of the things that commonly get people into trouble would do a world of good. Make sure people know you still have to declare over $10k even if someone else is holding some of your money. Make sure people know to be extra diligent with how much they’re carrying and don’t ballpark it, because the charges are just as serious whether they’re $1 over or $100k over. Make sure people know that declaring DOESN’T get you in trouble, it keeps you out of trouble. There might be some other stuff, but I think these are common misconceptions worth re-iterating to people at the event.

SGS: Have you been in touch with or received updates about anyone from the camp? Do you have any idea what the situation is like there right now?

PR: Yes, I got a few phone numbers for the families of some of them before leaving because a few asked me for help. I followed up with as many as I could, and found a couple on social media. I talked to a few after they got out, and at least verified that the ones I knew had all gotten out, eventually. I have no idea what the situation is like there right now since everyone I met there was released a while ago. I really hope the situation has improved but I don’t really know how you’d verify it. When I got back I looked for as much media coverage about it as I could, and the little that I could find was basically propaganda saying it is regularly inspected and in good condition. So even if I read that everything was good there, I’m not sure I would believe it. I would need pictures, videos, or to see it for myself. (Update: As I’m writing this I looked into it, as of 2015 it doesn’t look very good. There are 2 human rights groups putting in requests for the government to resolve problems there. So ****ing terrible… but at least there are organizations still working to improve the situation there.)

Update: PCA_Refugee was able to locate these pictures from the camp that appear to show no significant positive changes had been made. More shockingly, the images show toddlers being held in the camp as well.

poker tournament bahamas pca

Toddlers being held in a Refugee Camp near the location of the PokerStars PCA.

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SGS: You mentioned that the first few months after leaving the Camp were pretty rough for you – your hair beginning to fall out, for example – can you tell us a little more about your time after you got home and how you’ve dealt with the experience since then?

PR: Yea a lot of my facial hair began to fall out in patches about an inch wide. At first it was extra scary because I thought it might have been caused by something I contracted while in there… the threat of disease was very real, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Luckily it was just stress-triggered Alopecia, and although it last almost 2 years eventually it went away with a bit of medication. It’s crazy how emotional stress can have a direct physical impact on your body like that. Upon returning home I dealt with it pretty proactively, I even dropped out of university for that semester both to focus on trying to help, and to recover emotionally/psychologically because it was a bit traumatic. I talked about it openly to pretty much everyone I knew in person, and I tried to do everything in my power to help the situation and maybe get some justice. Unfortunately I didn’t get any justice, but I at least helped some people in small ways, and maybe my story will somehow contribute to a bigger impact. But, after a couple months I sort of had to move on with my life. I went through a phase where it was all I could think about or talk about, but it was really affecting my life, and I couldn’t let 5 terrible days shape everything I did. So I got back into the groove of regular life, and everything has been good. I didn’t suffer any long-term effects like PTSD or anything thankfully. I think I was lucky it was just 5 days, and *only* as bad as it was and not any worse, or maybe that wouldn’t be the case. There still probably hasn’t been a month go by that I haven’t told someone about it, which probably contributes to why I still remember so many details off the top of my head. Usually anyone who I’ve known for a decent amount of time will end up hearing it at some point. I get a lot of requests to tell the story to people too, because it blows people’s minds.

There are a lot of things that happened that I can’t talk about too though, even anonymously. I’ve only told relevant human rights organizations. If the refugee camp was ever shut down I would talk about all of it, but until then I have to keep some things to myself because it’s way bigger than just myself.

SGS: What was the scariest part of the whole ordeal? Were there any times you felt like you were starting to lose it? Did the experience seem surreal at all or was your mindset relatively strong throughout?

PR: The scariest part by far is just the lack of control over your own fate. It feels like you’re just there for this terrible ride, and all you can do is *hope* that something good eventually happens. It seemed like at every turn something else came up that I couldn’t control, and I wasn’t sure about. Being unsure of when I was going to get out was awful, because some people there had been there for up to 19 months and I kept being told by refugees that the staff often “forgot” to bring people to the airport for their flights resulting in people staying longer than they had to. When they didn’t bring us to the airport on the 3rd day after saying we were going home, it added some doubt that they were going to bring us to the airport on the 5th day like they said they were going to (which thankfully they did). It seemed very real at the time that I could be there for months and months, and that was frightening. The fact that I had a friend there made it worse too, they were dealing with it worse than me so I had to try and have some strength when I was already pretty much broken. I think being there alone would have made it a fair bit easier because afterall it was my money and I felt in part responsible for putting them through all of this. Lastly, being exposed to so many health risks in a small confined area made my mind wander a lot. I was extremely worried about getting sick from either rats, human waste, or one of the diseases that was evidently making rounds in there. Having some sort of long-term health problems as a result would have been an entire other level of horrible.

As for my mindset, I think given the circumstances I handled the stress extremely well in the moment. I was basically trying to problem solve the entire time, figuring out how I could speed up the process of me and my friend getting out. Obviously there wasn’t much I could do, but I was talking to guards and immigration officers trying to remind them of our situation as much as possible without getting too annoying, so I was trying to spread out who I talked to and how frequently. I was figuring out how to tell my mom (who called the refugee camp and got them to let me talk to her, read the thread on 2p2 for that part) everything she should know and what the embassy should know and who she should contact while having staff in the room listening to the conversation. I never had to use it but I had a contingency plan if we didn’t get out on the 5th day where if they let me talk to my mom again, I was going to give my mom the login/password of my social media to give to my sister (only because my mom wouldn’t know how to use it) and use my pretty good following on social media to explain the dire situation I was in to attempt to reach as many people as possible in hopes that someone knew someone who knew someone who had the power to help us get out. I have NO idea if that would have worked at all, but I figured my best shot would be to spread the word to the largest amount of people I could and get as much attention as I could.

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SGS: Something else that stood out to me was the way you seemed to find some beauty in the midst of so much chaos – the guidance you received from the refugees and the clothes-pin poker game, for example. Is that something you were able to appreciate in the moment, or is it something that didn’t set in until later?

PR: Honestly I definitely couldn’t appreciate the clothespin poker at the time. My stomach was basically in knots the entire time there and I was kind of on edge. I only played because they asked me and I thought it would be rude to say no/I didn’t want to create any enemies. It was actually probably the only semblance of fun I had in there and I think I did legitimately smile for probably the only time in there while playing, but I was still beyond miserable. I did appreciate the guidance I got more than I could ever explain. The only thing I regret is that I’ll never be able to repay the ones who helped me for what they did, so I can only hope to pay it forward.

SGS: How do you feel about the experience now that you’ve been speaking about it publicly for the first time?

PR: I feel a lot better after the response I got on Twoplustwo. Even though there were some troll-y type comments there was a lot of positive stuff and I feel like it resonated with people, so I’m really thankful for that. I half expected a few “TL;DR” a “Cool story bro” and then the thread drifting off to the next page. I’ve went back and forth between posting about it and not posting about it many times over the last few years, but once one of my friends pointed me to thread with a somewhat similar story and encouraged me to say something, I decided it was about time. I’ve spoken about it a lot to people in person, so quite a few people who know me know the story, but I’ve never posted it in a public capacity like on a forum or social media. It has been somewhat cathartic too… I think I wrote the OP as much for myself and my own documentation as I did for everyone else, which is why I went into so much detail. As I began writing I decided I might as well write as much as I can, because I hadn’t really thought about everything in depth and completely chronologically like that in a long time. Usually I just tell people about the refugee camp. I made a bunch of point forms notes as I went along and had to go back and put the memories where they belonged. For the camp I kept it mostly point form because I realized how much the 5 days blurred together compared to the events leading up to it, but the exact order is secondary to the actual things that happened.

SGS: It’s a crazy story and the worst part is that this sort of injustice continues throughout the world day in and day out. Thank you so much for sharing some of your story with us, I have no doubt it’s going to save at least a couple of people out there from having similarly horrifying experiences!

However, we’re extremely happy to hear you’re doing well these days and wish you the best of luck in all that you do from here on out. Take good care and please keep us posted of any new developments!

PR: Thanks guys, thanks for having me.

 

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