8 years ago I started visiting the MITA detention centre. It was the scariest and weirdest thing I have every done in my entire life.
(including dressing up as a giant poo and rolling around the ground in Footscray, and many other silly and strange things….)
I was given the name of a young guy who had been a tattooist in Iran and was looking for someone to draw with or have lessons from. So I went every couple of weeks. Sometimes he would come out and we would sit quietly copying images from old art history books that I brought with me. We would hardly talk, and I imagined him in his hoodies would be more at home driving cars along the ring road than copying Rembrandt paintings with someone the same age as his mother.
Other times he would be too depressed to leave his room, so I would say another generic name at the front desk (Raja for Tamil guys, or Reza for Iranian guys) and be allowed into the visiting room, where I would have tea made for me, and I would converse in broken English with Tamil, Iranian or Iraqi guys, sharing the mangoes I had brought and sometimes do some drawing.
8 years ago this experienced changed me completely; helped me find a home in a new city, which, isolated within an gaystream marraige to an introvert I hadn’t found. Paradoxically it was the second time that stateless refugees had helped me find a place, my place in the strange heterotopias that we constantly brush up against in urban worlds.
Confinement, excision, connection, release, loss, movement, stasis are pulses that I learnt to sense in this city; where a few thousand Aboriginal people, a few hundred jailed asylum seekers, 25000 asylum seekers on temporary visas, and half a million tourists or students, and another million permanent migrants live, move, create families, and co-exist without seeing each other or the ghosts of the elders whispering along the waterlines coursing and secret songlines meandering throughout this Naarrm… bushy land around the bay.
8 years ago I joined a protest outside MITA, screaming crying into the dark as our new friends were on a hunger strike.
8 years ago I learnt this word “cutantiram” meant Freedom in Tamil. And the sobs that caught in my throat and rage that filled me snapped through my fingers; made me claw at yarn and I started crocheting words constantly compulsively; marking space and time on 3 hour commutes across the city; West Footscray to Bundoora, Bundoora to Broadmeadows, Broadmeadows to West Footscray. Freedom, freedom! I crocheted in Tamil, in Farsi, in Arabic, swooping swirling lines, looking at the brown skin, eyes and black hair of my fellow commuters in the suburban rings of Melbourne’s north west; wondering if they were refugees, or children of refugees; wondering how they were finding their way through this city.
I could tell you more stories about the friends I met when they were in jail 8 years ago. I am tempted to tie up the ends of the yarns I spin, weave some words around them – but they are writing, speaking, exhibiting, making their lives as much as is possible in the worlds of precarity and anxiety and trauma that govern the lives of people in exile.
So let me tell you what I am doing 8 years later.
Same same but different.
On Christmas day I visited Mum in her nursing home – (with a friend who I met in MITA)…. and enjoyed hanging out, and having a post-Xmas nap in her room. The simple banal comfort of sleeping in the same room as my mother can’t be replicated over zoom – and was a precious delight.
Afterwards – I took a tram to the vigil outside the hotel in Carlton where 60 medevac refugees have been held – ever since they were transferred from another motel in Preston where they had been held since mid 2019. I was surprised by the warmth of people there, moved by the intensely weird connection between the street and waving lights in the shadowed windows. I sobbed under my sunglasses while singing off key, unfurling the crochet banners I started in the first Manus Island vigil “STOP THE CRUELTY”. 5 metres long of crochet rage.
8 years ago – most of them were on Christmas Island or about to get on boats to Christmas Island.
They missed the last boats that allowed transfer to mainland detention centres like MITA – and they were incarcerated in Manus Island or Nauru.
I don’t have words for the extent of evil that has governed their lives…. A deliberate policy of malice by a government blinded by their sadism and greed.
In 2019 there was a slight window in the Federal Parliament and enough politicians who weren’t filled with a Ramsay Bolton like hatred for refugees allowed a bill to pass so that people with serious medical complaints could be evacuated to Australia for medical treatment.
But then the numbers game shifted after the May 2019 election. Labor lost, and people lost hope and the legislation was repealed.
And so the medical evacuees have been held in limbo in hotel rooms for more than 18 months. More confined than in the tent-shack fenced off camps. Only comforted by mobile phone connection to the outside world. And this was only retained through a hair width of kindness.
I started this year in Carlton, on Swanston street, at an overnight vigil waving to new friends in thew window… Chalking the same words on the ground that I wrought into yarn 8 years earlier: Freedom, Azadi, Al Hariyah, Cutantiram: Hope, Omid, Al’Amal, Nambikaii…..
Melbourne rain washes the words away, so I return and write them again, increasingly harassed by police threatening to arrest me for crouching in an empty bike lane or a road lane for 2 minutes. 15 years ago I saw riot cops on horseback charge a crowd of people holding balloons printed with “azadi” or Freedom. Riot cops bursting balloons FFS. In the desert. I have no illusions about the absurdity of the arbitrary cruelty of police. They exist to embody the absurd cruelty of the nation state itself.
My friends on the street respond with laughter, waving, singing, choreography. Our friends in the window remind me of scenes written about by Behrouz Boochani: the defiant dancing in detention that they did on Manus. The remind me of the scenes I witnessed visiting MITA; the defiant dancing that I saw at the first birthday party for a baby born in detention.
In the first week of January I did a callout and lots of people donated shoes, so we could do an installation of 60 pairs of shoes outside the prison motel where 60 men were detained. Friends helped me make a film here: The following week the majority were released, but still 12 men are locked inside a hotel in Carlton arbitrarily – for no reason except cruelty.
How long will we have to keep protesting this shit?