Undefeated Despair

In his book ‘Hold Everything Dear’ John Berger describes life in the occupied territories of Palestine, using the refrain “this is the stance of undefeated despair”. And this refrain travels with me, like my favourite words so often do, especially in those moments where I find my own words deserting me.

I’m going to have a separate blog of links to news resources, blogs, memes, songs, etc. Stuff from the interwebs of righteous outrage that I want to archive just here, so I never forget, how many of us were and are outraged and appalled by what is being done by our government.

In this post, I’m writing some of my recollections and impressions of what it is like to visit refugees in a suburban detention centre, and what it feels like to come face to face, and hand to hand with a situation that I still find utterly horrific.

While holidaying in Sydney I visited Villawood detention centre with my friend Safdar. We met at art school 16 years ago, and again at Sydney Uni 10 years ago. And now we are both casual academics, only his book is published, and he is a much better drawer than I could ever be.

Safdar’s work with the Refugee Art Project, inspired me to try a similar thing in Melbourne, and I wanted to go with him to Villawood – to watch and learn and see if what I’m doing is along the same lines as what he (and others) do in Sydney.

There are 4  types of detention centres with appropriately vile acronyms. Broadmeadows is a relatively low-security ‘Immigration Transit Accommodation’ facility with a single fence surrounding the accommodation,  while Villawood is a high security “Immigration Detention Centre”, with 4 to 5 layers of 9 metre fencing, security cameras everywhere, scary automated lockers, and a metal detector so sensitive that my Dimmies lurex leggings kept ringing alarm bells.

Safdar, knowing me as as the screaming, dreadlocked wild child of art school, was somewhat taken aback by my compliant countrygirl act as we faced off with the security denizens. After being tagged with orange wristbands and scrawled with UV texta, we passed through 2 more checkpoints in order to enter “the cage” – yet another fenced off courtyard, with a visitors room at one end, and a whole range of visitors and detainees wandering around. Lots of hugs and greetings and introductions. I met a fluently English speaking woman who had been there “too long”, and a range of guys named Assef, Assad, Ahmed, Youssef, Mahmoud, Momo, etc.

It was just before Iftar, and I’d bought Medjool dates and pistachios, and Safdar brought chicken and chips. The guys checked their watches and the window of sky above the wire streaked in vivid pinks and blues. they went off to pray at sunset, and returned to break their fast with us, sharing biryani and sweets and Afghan green tea.

We sat around drawing, talking, swapping tips on watercolours and coffee painting, and Safdar working with one guy to make cartoon drawings of some of his incredible experiences as a Hazara refugee. The layers of meaning and truth, recounting stories, anecdotes, impressions and jokes, over food and tea and paint….. and so many spaces where words can’t go, where our eyes can’t meet, because the sadness is just shittily big. So we smile, eyes not meeting, and hug, and hug again, because hands and arms and bodies connecting is important.

No photos are allowed anywhere within Villawood, or even in the carpark. People who’ve tried taking photos have had their camera phones removed, and their visit cancelled. I wish I had an idetic memory or much faster sketching skills to capture the insanity of so much metal and concrete. Refugee detention centres are possibly single-handedly supporting the Australian refined steel industry.

Back home, I took the trains out to an entirely different setting. I’d been placed on the list for the monthly harmony days that are held as part of the community engagement and welfare policies at MITA. When I was visiting in January, MITA just had a few hundred young men, while ‘stage 2’ was being constructed.  The young men were incredibly grateful to have women and children visit – since most of them were desperately missing their extended familial environments of home.

Now ‘stage 2’ is complete, and there is a separate high-fenced camp behind the carpark of the original. On my last visit I saw a woman, sitting, facing the fence and us, and I didn’t know what to think or say or do. The visitors centre is usually a large room, with a view over the courtyard, accessed via a small security screening office. Lockers have keys, and the staff are slow, but generally fairly cooperative. But sometimes not. Sometimes visitors are told to wait 20 minutes to enter the room, sometimes we are told we cannot bring in art supplies, or fresh fruit or food. Other times we can. However phones and cameras are not allowed either.

On harmony day, visitors are allowed to bring in games and music, and sporting equipment. And we are allowed to walk out into the courtyard and sporting fields. Iranian musicians came with enormous speakers and played electronic music. A woman brought hula hoops. the Harmony Day organisers laid out watercolour paints for the kids, and bowls of snacks and sweets.

Only now, MITA is much larger with women and kids having access to the visitors area. It’s good for the mental health of the guys, but it’s also quite chaotic and intense. this is also where we can see how  refugee trauma manifests itself. Women take away plates of food (even lollies) back to their residences, and when a delivery of fresh Turkish bread arrived for Iftar, it was seized on – with people taking loaves away to store and not eat. the panic buying/hoarding of food is a standard behaviour of newly arrived refugees – even those who aren’t incarcerated – food being a major area of control/anxiety issues being played out.

It wasn’t a night for trying any ‘serious’ art. I brought crayons and paper for the kids, and did some sketches of the dancing, and also tried dancing myself. Standing around, meeting other visitors, sharing my 3 words of Tamil and 1 word of Farsi, sharing hugs and thanks and food, and engaging in a space of hospitality and encounter.

This was the Australia I grew up with in the 1980s. It was part of the joys of moving to a city and being welcomed into the communities of Latin American refugees in the early 1990s. And in all of the work and recreation time spent where people escape unimaginable horror, and discover a new place, new people, new possibilities and new becomings, something incredibly touching and human occurs.

I made a facebook status update about the twin meanings of “terrible” as being both terribly bad (and detention of asylum seekers, of brave innocent men, and women and children, is terrible, hearing their stories of escape by boat is terrible, hearing the guilt of children who feel responsible for their parents fleeing for a better life, or of seeing children with disabilities unmanaged is really horrifying) and terribly good. The sheer miracle of anyone escaping the Taliban, or of Hazara refugees getting to Australia is a wonder, or Tamils escaping the horrors of “post-war” Sri Lanka, or Burmese escaping SLORC is incredibly brave and astonishing. And to meet such people, from completely differing cultures, and to swap jokes and stories, and poems, and dance steps and food, and talk about art and ideas – this is wonderful. and I feel incredibly privileged for being able to do this.

It feels like a cliche to write “identities shift and become unstuck” but this is what they do. I sense my gender realigning in these spaces, in ways more interesting than a “stealth queer” label can describe. This is the space where society is created. Where people practice hope, and keep meeting, and talking and sharing and writing and drawing and creating, and where our despair from the stupid nasty games of state politics; of the Taliban, the Ayatollah, the liberal/labor parties and their despicable xenophobic cynicism remains undefeated.

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