After I visited Villawood Detention Centre for the first time, I couldn’t sleep for two nights.
It took me days to come to terms with the fact that I was living in a world filled with cages. The detainees are surrounded by dust, machinery and rings of barbed wire, surveilled by (practically) antagonistic security personnel. I was expecting to leave filled with a sense of fulfilment, perhaps indignation. To console detainees curled up, cold and alone. What I actually saw was very different.
Journalists are actively prevented by the government from entering detention centres, so refugees with histories and personalities become mere statistics. The image we’re often presented is a caricature: whether they’re cast as vicious people smugglers or withering prisoners. These pictures invite benign, paternalistic attitudes from some sections of society and from others, resentment. Asylum seekers are relegated to the peripheries of discourse. It becomes all about us.
The last time I went to Villawood, it was Ramadan. Many of the detainees were hungry. I was nervous because, this time, I wanted to talk to people about their pasts and most painful memories. Our conversations had hitherto been about Indian movies and the guards they disliked most. I asked a man named Ali* what he thought of media representations of asylum seekers:
“The Australian media image is not correct,” he said.
I urged him to continue.
“We are not like that!”
Ali is 22: just a year older than me. He’s spry, youthful and very charismatic. If we had met outside Villawood he’d slip seamlessly into my group of friends. Born in Afghanistan, his family uprooted itself for the first time in 2000 to escape into Quetta, a small town in Pakistan. Hazaras in Quetta are regularly gunned down on the streets so after two years they shifted again to Iran. He left them there, travelling alone in and under lorries to the UK where he learnt to speak English. In the UK, he learnt kickboxing, went camping, studied I.T. and worked. Then he told me that one day there was a knock on his door. He’d been denied refugee status.
The British government assured Ali that Afghanistan had become safe. They promised him some money upon arrival. On both accounts, they lied. Ali escaped Kabul immediately and he’s been in Villawood for 8 months. Another friend deported from the UK with him was killed earlier this year.
I ask him what he thought of the perceived “burden” that refugees had on Australian society. His response begins as a calm, measured explanation why this cannot be the case but soon escalates into an impassioned soapbox and everyone around begins to listen
“We don’t want free food. We don’t want free accommodation. We want freedom!” I held a finger up, hoping that he’d pause while I scribbled down his words. Despite his agitation, he complied. By stripping their right to work, Ali told me, we have imposed the burden on ourselves.
Another man I spoke to, Hussain, had led a similarly harrowing life. I had previously tried talking to him on Facebook while he was in community detention but it was rarely fruitful.
“I’m just in a bigger cage,” he once told me despondently.
Today, his outlook is much brighter. Hussain has been allowed to work for the last few weeks. He secured a job almost immediately. As he tells me with glee about the praise his boss lavishes on him, Hussain glows. As he talks, he continually offers me juice, fruit, and chocolate which other visitors have brought detainees to break their fast. “Why aren’t you eating? You should look healthy, not like a dried twig.” I decline, having eaten before I left home. “Ok, ok,” he concedes, “Have some juice”.
Hussain is joined by a friend, Mehdi who interjects from time to time: “If we wanted to make money, we would have stayed in Afghanistan. It is a haven for money. But we must answer to God.” They’re referring to the opium trafficking. I’m offered some biscuits.
“’Totally lawless,” he said, “We could not remain neutral and the choice was killing or being killed. We took a third way and left.”
It strikes me, in light of the physically and emotionally arduous journeys that these men and women have made, how ridiculous is the assumption that they will collapse into an easy chair when they reach our shores, extending an arm every fortnight to collect welfare cheques. Mehdi, who is considerably wound up, reads my mind. “We want dignity!” he shouts. “We are fighters!”
“Going to the embassy and asking for a visa is like asking for the stick to come and hit you.” Ali says, ruefully, “Come, come! Take me!” He mimes the act. By now, the men have worked each other up and pushed me aside while exchanging horror stories. I scrawl furiously for the next 20 mintues, trying to get down every word. They’re speaking in very fast Urdu and I can’t keep up with translation. Mehdi and Hussain explain in detail the very thorny process of getting through the “right” channels. I am told of cases where sympathetic employees at the embassy have actually told asylum seekers to “help themselves” and just get on a boat, after decades of patience and disappointment. The detainees confirm what I had always suspected: our insistence on the queue belies the most basic reality of administrative processes in that part of the world. They depend heavily on bribes or the bureaucrat’s mood. In the off-chance that works out, it is still very far from a smooth process. As a person of Indian origin, I can understand where they’re coming from.
As the evening progresses I find myself struggling to process the worlds they have offered me a glimpse into. A line from one of my favourite childhood novels, A Little Princess swims to the fore of my mind: “It’s just an accident that I am not you, and you are not me”. Hussain advises me not for the first time to get married, echoing my affectionate and slightly overbearing aunts. Within the same few minutes, he described anguish of lifting friends’ corpses from the street. It is too easy to strip asylum seekers of their complex lives and cast them as Other to us. Doing so either facilitates apathy or, at worst, justifies our demonization.
Asylum seekers are men and women of dignity. I find myself at times questioning if they were better off in extreme danger than wasting away in detention where they literally had no purpose but to sleep and wait, for years on end. Then I am conflicted about what right I have to feel so miserable, just listening to their stories. As I wave them goodbye through the rings of barbed wire, I realise how much I want to curl up in a corner myself.
Mere dil mein jo arman tha, na jane ek sapna tha,
Main jis gulshan ka piyasa tha, woh sehra se badtar tha.
The hope in my heart, unbeknown was just a dream,
I thirsted by that garden which was worse than any desert!
Ahmad Ali Jafari 
A detainee at Villawood who passed 20/06/2013
All artwork sourced from The Refugee Art Project
Names have been changed.