Out of sight, out of mind?

25 Jun

My confusion has not been untangled and neatly filed away.

I can’t move on yet.

These people live and breathe in my land.

On the road to nowhere

For most the volunteer experience is both temporary and short. The volunteer pays for X weeks of cultural immersion and participation in a meaningful project. At the end of it they may travel further, continue on to other projects, but eventually they all return home. The friendships they make are real and important, but are also somewhat contractual – lives diverge and the memories live on. It’s easier that way.

One year ago today I arrived at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in WA. For two weeks I was literally thrown in the deep end. A team of 6 Uni students, we were plonked in the desert to establish ‘entertaining and educational’ programs at the newly re-opened detention facility. Our ‘clients’ were 300 Afghan male asylum seekers ranging from 18 to 80. Most of us had never met anyone from Afghanistan. During that fortnight I delighted in teaching yoga and Aussie slang to the somewhat bemused men and in return learning how to cook, speak and dance like a Hazara. Three days after returning to Sydney I contacted my manager begging to go back in the September Uni break. The thought of never seeing them again was actually distressing. By the time I returned, the camp had swollen to 750 men.

For the past year I have been in almost daily contact with people from Curtin. I have seen a handful of men receive their visas – their golden tickets to freedom – and start their new lives in Australia. I have also seen a great deal more languish in that hidden place. As one friend said to me “Our camp is growing but our hearts are shrinking”. The camp now houses over 1400 men from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran. The prominence of asylum seeker slander in mainstream media makes it awfully hard to feel any kind of hope for them. Having volunteered in India and Vietnam it is so easy to cast blame for basic human rights violations on corrupt governments and the cycle of poverty. But I cannot, and will never, understand the blatant and intentional punishment of such vulnerable and innocent people in Australia. The hypocrisy of it saddens me beyond belief.

The only comfort I can find is in the strength and resilience of those men. Upon reading this they would most likely tell me to stop being so weak! I just hope that they have enough energy to last them through until the end, until they get their freedom, until the real challenge begins…

If you haven’t already watched it, I can highly recommend the SBS show “Go Back to Where You Came From”. Truly riveting stuff.

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