Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Go Back To Where You Came From [June 9]

About eight years ago I paid a visit to Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. It was an eye-opener. Tall barbed-wire fences, security gates, bored blank-eyed guards, and a community of alternately hopeful and hopeless detainees from all over the world, stuck in limbo. Statistics became living breathing people for me during the few hours i spent inside those fences.

I was reminded of that visit when i watched some previews this week of a new SBS television series called ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’, due to be screened on June 21 – 23, during Refugee Week. The producers have embraced our ‘reality hunger’ (as American writer David Shields calls it) and created a three-part documentary in which a group of six Australians literally go back to where many of our asylum-seekers have come from. Most of these Australians don’t approve of the re-settlement of asylum-seekers in our community and believe they should be sent straight back home.

The six Australians meet refugees in their new homes in Sydney and Wollongong, then board a leaky boat and travel to Malaysia where they meet some of the people waiting to come here. Then they fly to the countries in whose refugee camps these frightened asylum-seekers have spent time waiting to be offered a safe haven. They put faces to statistics, embrace real live weeping human beings, and have their preconceptions challenged in ways few us are willing to allow.

It is riveting television and my only regret is that it will be screened on SBS to an audience who are most likely already ‘converted’ to the cause of refugees. In an ideal world it would be screened on all the commercial TV channels in prime time, and reach an audience who may have little knowledge of the traumas suffered by people desperate to leave all that is familiar, board these leaky boats and seek safety.

You can listen an interview with the presenter of the new SBS series, Dr David Corlett, on [The Conversation Hour](http://www.abc.net.au/melbourne/conversations/) on 774 ABC Melbourne, which i co-hosted today with Jon Faine.

After my trip to Baxter i wrote a series of columns for The Age about some of the people I had met there. These stories inspired the most correspondence of any of the columns i wrote over three years. I have posted them below for your interest:

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‘Cream Cake’ said the label in big black letters. It looked fresh and delicious, but I hesitated for a moment at the cash register. Maybe cream cake was culturally inappropriate. Maybe they had already tried Australian cream cake and found it too sweet, or not sweet enough. Maybe there was something else that I should be taking with me. But what?

Distracted on my arrival by the two tall rows of barbed-wire fencing and the no-man’s-land of white pebbles in between them, I forgot about the cake. It wasn’t until after pressing the red button and waiting for the giant steel door to open, walking along a mesh-enclosed corridor to the next steel door, entering the reception area which was buzzing with flies, handing over my three different types of photo identification, filling out five separate forms, emptying my pockets of personal items, putting them in a locker and walking through a metal detector, that I remembered the gift.

So back I went for the cream cake, through the metal detector and the steel doors, and when I returned one of the guards held out his hands. “I’ll take that.” “Why?” “Because that’s the rule.” “Can’t I take it to the people I’m visiting?” “No.” “But what will you do with it?” “It has to go to Property.” “What will Property do with it?” “They might take it through tomorrow, if they have time.” “Why not today?” “Because that’s the rule.” “So my friends won’t be able to eat the cake today?” “No.” “So if they get the cake at all, it will be stale?” The guard just smiled at me. Stale, mate.

Inside the waiting room the Coke machine hummed loudly, and I wondered why Coke was okay but cake was forbidden. A door opened and a slight young woman was let into the room. She kissed me on both cheeks, holding my hands tightly, and thanked me for coming. She’d been here at Baxter for three weeks, after two years at Curtin, after many days at sea, after five months in Indonesia, after her husband had had ‘big problems’ in Iran and they had fled for their lives.

She was teaching herself English, but a dictionary couldn’t relieve the dead weight of boredom that hung over every long day. A cat called Rosie had adopted her, and kept her company when she lay awake in her compound in the small hours of the morning. I wondered about her husband, locked in a separate compound with no cat and no wife to keep him company. “I brought a cake, but they wouldn’t let me bring it in”, I explained. She smiled again and shrugged. She was used to people saying ‘no’ for no good reason.

Two more detainees were allowed in through the security door. One wore a white chef’s coat which smelt of fried chicken. He was working eight hours a day in the hot kitchen, earning one point an hour, one dollar a point, to buy phone cards. He was another recent arrival from Curtin, where there was nothing to eat from five pm until breakfast time, and the detainees were often hungry. Here at Baxter, where there was plenty of food, he had lost his appetite. Perhaps it was because he had exhausted every possible appeal option, and after three years behind barbed wire, he could soon be forced to return to Iran. When I mentioned the cake he simply held up his hands and shook his head sadly.

The other man carried a white stick and said little. Twenty-eight days on a hunger strike in Curtin had robbed him of his sight, and possibly of his mind. The others led him gently into the court-yard so he could sit with us in the afternoon sun. They talked and talked, as if they’d been starved of communication, until it was time for me to leave.

And as I walked out through the steel doors, savouring my freedom, I knew that even though the cream cake would be stale by the morning, our conversation would be fresh in their minds for days to come.

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Tried ringing M’s lawyer again last week. No one there. Left another message. Wonder if M has been able to get out of bed today. Wonder if she knows that yesterday was World Refugee Day. Wonder if she’d think it was some kind of sick joke.

Most days M doesn’t get out of bed until lunch time. Some days she goes back to bed around mid afternoon. Sometimes I ring late in the afternoon, and after I’ve scrabbled around, trying to find the scrap of paper on which I’ve written her detainee number and have been put through to the right compound, I wait on the end of the line for a long time until the loudspeakers have woken her up and she’s stumbled out of bed to the public phone. M’s always glad to hear from me, and always sounds surprised that I’ve bothered to ring again. She rarely complains, but I can tell she’s struggling.

Three years in limbo would take its toll. Three years of trying to hang onto hope, while those around you are sinking deeper and deeper into hopelessness. Escaping from her home country probably saved her life, but it has already cost M her marriage. How do you keep a relationship together when you have nothing to do all day, nothing new to talk about, no children to care for, no home to renovate, no garden to tend, and neither of you know what your future will be? You’re both fenced inside the same small enclosure, but the emotional gap between you grows wider and wider, until eventually it is unbreachable.

Most of the time M stays in bed because she’s run out of reasons to get up in the morning. Recently, though, illness kept her there. She had shooting pains in her guts, and was worried that it might be her appendix. M’s mother and both her brothers had to have theirs removed, so perhaps it runs in the family. She tried to explain this to the detention centre guards, but she’s not sure whether they understood her, because M’s English still falls apart when she’s under stress. After about a week of severe pain, a nurse came to see her and gave her a couple of Panadol. She hasn’t seen a doctor yet, and doesn’t expect they’ll organise one for her. I’m outraged, but she’s used to it.

A few months ago, M rang me herself. It was early in the morning, so I knew something good must have happened to get her out of bed. She’d just found out that she was to be given a temporary protection visa. Soon she would be free, at least for a while. She sounded so happy, it was as if I was speaking with a different person. I sent her some postcards of Melbourne landmarks, and promised to show them to her when she was released from detention.

Even though she had been granted a visa, she’d been told there would still be a wait of ‘a couple of weeks’ while the Australian Federal Police ran a ‘character check’ on her. I could tell them a few things about her character, I thought to myself. I could tell them about the first I met M, in a sterile waiting room in a remote detention centre, where she offered me a cup of tea and half a precious chocolate bar which she had saved for her visitor. I could tell them about how even the stony-faced guards smiled when M spoke to them. I could them about how she’d given the cake that I’d brought for her to another woman in the same compound, because it was her birthday. I could tell them about M’s love of Hollywood romances, which has had me scouring my local video stores for films with guaranteed happy endings to mail to her. But I don’t suppose the police would be interested in that kind of information.

It’s been almost three months since that early morning phone call, and M is still in detention. I rang her case officer from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs about six weeks ago, but he didn’t know when M would be released. I rang again a couple of weeks ago, and he suggested I try calling M’s lawyer to check that the original request for a character check had actually gone through to the Federal Police. I rang the lawyer’s number but there was only an answering machine, and no one returned my call. So I rang again last week; still no response. The case officer reckons M will have to send in another request to the police, but he doesn’t know how long she’ll have to wait after that.

Tried to ring M yesterday afternoon but she was asleep and even the loudspeakers didn’t wake her. Happy World Refugee Day, my friend.

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When the mobile phone rings I recognise the interstate number on the little screen, and hesitate before answering. Please let this be a good day. A day marked by the kindness of a stranger or the promise of work. A day with dignity.

I take the call and it seems that, today at least, things are okay. Hello, M sings into my ear. How are you, my friend? How is your family? We talk about the events of the past week, and she can even laugh about the afternoon she got completely lost in the big city, caught the wrong train and ended up way out west with no idea how to find her way home. It all took several hours, by which time she’d missed her weekly English lesson.

I can tell M feels ambivalent about this. She is trying hard to learn our unwieldy language, and her spoken English is getting better by the day, but the classes are frustrating. They are full of refugees just like her, people from every corner of the globe, but most of the time she can’t understand what they are saying because their accents are even stronger than hers. She persists, though, because she still finds herself falling through the gaps in her English several times a day. I speak carefully to her over the phone, slow enough to be clear but hopefully not so slow that I sound patronising. I know how it feels to be spoken to as if you are deaf, or stupid, rather than just foreign.

M is happy today because she has finally met the lawyer who argued her case for a Temporary Protection Visa, and ended her long years in limbo. She shared a meal with him and his wife, and they invited her to visit them in Melbourne. That makes two more people in this country who know she exists. Which probably makes it easier for her to believe she exists, when she’s having a really bad day.

I wanted her to come to Melbourne when they let her out of the remote detention centre. But M had made a friend in there, so she went to the town which her friend had moved to after his visa came through. On the first day they spent together outside the high wire fences, he had taken M for a long bushwalk. After three years in confinement, the sudden sense of space made her feel dizzy. They walked for hours until her legs couldn’t go any further. She had expected that, once she was free, the constant tiredness which had been afflicting her in the detention centre would lift. But freedom was tiring, too.

It was tiring, dealing with something new every second of the day. New language, new customs, new rules. Street signs, road maps, train schedules, government bureaucracies, they were all bewildering. A woman had stared at her for a long time at a bus stop. Finally the woman approached and said she wanted to take a photo of M’s beautiful face and put it in a magazine. The woman gave her a phone number, but M isn’t sure if she should ring. Is it a nice magazine or something sleazy for men? Will she be able to tell the readers of this magazine why she had to leave her home and family and spend three years behind bars, and how it feels to know that she might be sent back again when her three year visa is up – or will they want her to take her clothes off?

The next day she rings me again. It’s not a good day. The man at Centrelink has just told her that they are stopping her unemployment benefits. They’re the rules, he says. She has no work and no income, and the generous stranger with whom she has been living for the past three months needs her spare room back. The church is trying to find M somewhere else to live, but they’ve had no luck so far.

I am helpless. We both are. M wants to come and visit me soon, but until she knows how she will get through tomorrow, she can’t plan any further ahead than today.

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Missing out on the end of a story can be intensely frustrating. Like hearing a couple on a tram discussing whether they’re about to break up, and then watching them get off the tram before the question is resolved. Like watching a couple of enticing episodes of ‘Carnivale’ on ABC television and then missing the rest because you’re out every Sunday night for a month. Or like reading several ‘This Life’ columns about an Iranian refugee in a remote detention centre, and not finding out what happened to her once she’d been released.

I’ve been contributing regularly to The Age for three years now. Of the one hundred and fifty columns I’ve written during that time, the stories I’ve told about my friend M and her slow journey through the Australian immigration system have elicited the biggest response of all. ‘Whatever happened to that woman’, people ask me, ‘the one in the detention centre? Is she okay?’ So in the interests of ‘narrative closure’, as the film buffs call it, and to satisfy those readers who wrote to me expressing their concern about this anonymous young woman, here are the facts.

M spent three long years in detention, waiting for her status as a genuine asylum-seeker to be formally recognised. I first met her one hot afternoon in a sterile visitor’s room at Baxter, where she held my hands tightly and talked about the two young brothers who she hadn’t seen for years, and about the cat that she had adopted in the detention centre and how it was helping to keep her sane. We stayed in touch and I sent M postcards of Melbourne’s green parks, promising to show them to her when she was released.

M was finally granted a Temporary Protection Visa in 2003, and made her way to Sydney with her adopted cat. M’s partner had been living there since he was released from detention, a year before M’s visa came through. Freedom was hard for M. She had been ground down by years of boredom, uncertainty and anxiety. She found it difficult to commit to anything, like her regular English lessons or the waitressing job she finally found after months of searching for work. She missed her family back in Iran and worried about their safety. M loved Sydney’s big air-conditioned shopping centres, but her partner couldn’t persuade her to go to Bondi Beach with him. All that bare flesh was too much for a modest Iranian girl.

But M stuck with her studies and focussed on the idea of becoming a nurse. She liked caring for people, and had heard that there was a shortage of nurses in her new country. M’s English gradually improved, and early in the New Year she was interviewed for a place in a nursing course. M was so nervous before the interview, she thought she was going to be sick. But she passed the language test and was accepted into university.

Two weeks ago M phoned me. She was in Melbourne for a brief holiday before her studies began, so we arranged to meet for a picnic. I gathered together some friends, and we met M and her partner in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens on a Sunday evening. She looked a little different to when I had last seen her in Sydney. There were blonde streaks in her dark hair, and her smile came more easily. We sat on a rug eating cold chicken and toasting her new nursing career with glasses of bubbly. After dinner we all played boules on the soft, summer grass and the young Iranian couple won every game. They apologised but I could tell they were delighted with their beginner’s luck. When the sun disappeared we packed up the picnic and said our goodbyes. She’s going to be okay, I thought to myself.

I’m sorry, readers. You’ve been misled. I’m afraid I can’t finish this story. When M’s Temporary Protection Visa runs out, it’ll be up to the Federal Government to decide whether she stays in Australia or is forcibly returned to Iran. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed.