Visiting asylum seekers in detention: a discussion with three visitors

What’s your background? Sounds like the beginning of a joke: A librarian, a therapist and a textile designer walk into a detention centre… Our background is homo sapiens. To which detention centres have you been going and for how long? There are two centres in Melbourne, Maribyrnong and Broadmeadows. We have been visiting for two and a half years, two years and six months respectively – but many have gone way before us. Librarian: I began visiting Maribyrnong for work and continued as a citizen. Both centres are set in the midst of leafy suburban life, we pass them on the way to buy hummus or on school drives. Had you ever thought about asylum seekers before, and why did you start visiting regularly? Therapist: I have ongoing relationships with refugees settled in Australia from a volunteer project in which I was involved in 2009 (Palestinian Iraqi refugees from camps along Syrian Iraqi borders resettled in Australia). I started to visit regularly because I felt the need for it, on each visit when I was leaving my friends asked: “when are you coming back to see us?” Librarian: I hadn’t really considered the idea prior to working in the centre. Designer: I was a virtual online supporter for a long time (due to over work commitments), and only transitioned to physical visitor last year on Christmas day, which was a public holiday. What’s the detention centre like? Horrible! Librarian: A prison for honest people.Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre - Photo 2 Therapist: A horrible place, like a jail, with security based rules, procedures and process. There are moments of human interactions with some of the camp’s staff that soften the harshness of the experience. Designer: Surprisingly aesthetic in the public spaces, and mostly civil polite interactions with the security guards with heavy undertones of passive aggressive communication. It feels like visiting a zoo without being able to see the back rooms, the cruelty and dehumanization. Can you describe the visit? Therapist: Meeting the detainees has been an incredible, wonderful experience, filled with love and exchanges of positive energy. Sitting together sharing stories about life in other countries, eating together and learning about different cultures. It is grounding for us all. These connections remain with us wherever we go. This is a reminder that I am a free person. At the start I felt guilt, but now I feel grateful that I have freedom. Librarian: The visits and relationships have changed my life completely. Freedom is not just an idea. I appreciate mine and the privilege that comes with it, both good and bad. Meeting with the asylum seekers expands my knowledge, my idea of culture, and of different backgrounds. It also led to experimenting with a different kind of love, free from norms and convention. Love crosses boundaries of age, status, ethnicity, language, culture and gender. These bonds develop into vital ties, they become family. There can be family without blood connection, there can be love without sex and with people you’ve known for only a short time. Designer: Awkward at first, wasn’t sure who was inside and who is visiting (look for the bright wrist band). Not sure what to ask or say. It’s what I imagine speed dating to be like, randomly bumping into strangers and making small talk. With time it has morphed into deep interwoven links between people who share common interests, humour and chemistry. Leaving at the end of the visit is a sad ritual of deep sorrow and love. I feel elated in the build up to the visit, calm during the visit and tumultuously empty on the long drive home. What do they need? What can people do? Therapist: I would love to see the community’s care and support. Donating money helps directly – it has paid for clothes, shoes, and other needs. Also signing petitions and going to demonstrations helps. You can help with what you do best, for example, if you love to cook, cook for us (we bring food inside) and have conversations about the kind of country we want to live in. Librarian: Join the visits, campaign with locals, raise the debate and don’t think it’s in the too hard basket, its actually very simple. Designer: Visit the asylum seekers. It will change your life into one that you could never imagine. Looking deeply into the eyes of another shifts the most fundamental ideas you hold inside. Touching those who have been marginalised and locked up brings you back to life. It is powerful and so rewarding.
Write to us to find out how to join an upcoming visit to a detention centre. This piece appeared in Just Voices #9 – Freedom/Oppression
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