- How it all began
- Going home
- Saying goodbye
- Being released
- A new Uniting Church congregation
- What do you want for Christmas?
- The welcome book
- Pilbara Music Festival
- A letter from the other side
- Can you come?
- Residents' Committee
- Rural Australians for Refugees
- What about the children?
- Why did God make us?
- A Good Friday story
- An Easter story
The Catholic priest rang me one Sunday afternoon. For many years he had been going in to Port Hedland Detention Centre every Sunday for services. I had only recently arrived in Port Hedland and had had little contact with the Centre as yet. The priest told me that after he had completed his service that morning, a newcomer to the Centre had approached him and said “I am actually not a Catholic. I am a Methodist. Is there a Methodist minister in town?” “You are the closest thing to a Methodist minister that I know.” said the priest. “Can you go and visit him?”
So later that week I went to the Centre to meet the Methodist detainee. He turned out to an Iranian who had spent 5 years living and working in Korea. While he was there he had been converted and baptised in a Korean Methodist church. He strongly identified himself as a Methodist, and asked if I would visit him. I encouraged him to continue attending the Catholic service, but promised to visit him each Sunday afternoon for prayer and Bible study.
For the next 6 months I visited him each Sunday. At first communication was difficult because he spoke Farsi and Korean but little English. Each Sunday we shared together about the lectionary readings, prayed and talked. The local Uniting Church congregation accepted him as one of members and prayed for him regularly.
He shared his story with me – how, after 5 years in Korea, he had returned to his homeland and was caught at the airport with a Bible in his luggage, and was arrested. Conversion from Islam to Christianity carries a death penalty in Iran, so he was very afraid. His family rescued him by bribing the soldiers who were guarding him. He immediately went into hiding and fled the country 3 months later. He had come to Australia because he believed we were a Christian country and would give him asylum.
At first his story was not believed by the authorities. He went through many anxious months wondering if he would be accepted into Australia as a refugee. But finally he got the good news - he had been accepted. Usually, when people are released from the Centre, they are sent immediately to a major city. He asked if he could stay for a week in Port Hedland to meet the members of his church who had supported him and prayed for him.
A member of the congregation took a week off work to host him. He came to church on Sunday and sang a Farsi hymn for us, and led the prayers of praise in Farsi. One day I took him to visit his Iranian friends in the Centre. “He has been so lucky to have someone visit him. Will you visit us now?” they said. So I began visiting them.
He settled in Sydney and I met him there in January 2002. He had been out of detention for 3 years. Although at first it had been very hard for him, he was now well settled. He was looking fit, healthy and happy. He had a good job and had just been promoted to foreman. He had become an Australian citizen and had got married. He was driving a nice car and had just been approved by the bank for a mortgage to buy his first home. And he was attending a Uniting Church congregation. He is going to do well in Australia.
Ali was looking very sad. He sat across the table from me in the visit yard with head hanging and saying nothing. I had noticed that he had been missing from the worship service I conduct in the Centre for the last few weeks. So I had arranged to visit him to see what the matter was.
“I have decided to go back home,” he finally said. Ali is a quiet young man, often in the background. Over the two years he had been in detention, I had watched him become more sad and withdrawn. He did not cope well with the violence he observed in the Centre. He was becoming more and more traumatised.
“I just can’t cope any more,” he said. “It is just taking too long. I don’t understand why the Australian government does not believe my story.” He had fled his homeland because he was being targeted by the government because of his political views.
“I know my life is in danger if I return, but I just can’t stay in this place any longer”, he said, with a tone of desperation in this voice.
I so much wanted to say, “Just hold out a bit longer; don’t give up just yet,” but I couldn’t. I could see that he was at the end of his tether and I had to respect his decision. We talked about what he could do when he returned to try to protect himself. He began to make plans to preserve his safety.
“One good thing has happened.” he said. “Before I made the decision to return, I decided I had to tell my mother that I had become a Christian. I was so worried that she would reject me. But she didn’t. She said that when she was a girl that she had had some Christian friends whom she greatly respected. She said I was still her son and she would always love me.” He smiled - the first smile I had seen in some time.
I encouraged him to come back to worship again. He told me that he had stopped coming because he thought I would not approve of his decision to return. I told him he would need all the courage and strength that his faith could give him when he returned home. The next few Sundays he was at church. Then one Sunday he was not there. “He went home on Tuesday” the others said. I did not get to say goodbye to him.
I woke with a heavy heart. This was the day I had been dreading - the day when the three Somalis would go home.
I had known these three men since they arrived in the Centre three years ago. They arrived in Australia with a group of Somalis fleeing the violent war going on in their homeland. It had been a long hard journey to freedom. When their plane landed in Australia, their hearts jumped with joy. At last they were free. At last they could begin a new life without fear of violent death. They turned themselves in to the Immigration officials at the airport and asked for asylum.
But they did not find freedom in Australia. Instead, they were locked up in the Port Hedland Detention Centre. The Australian government refused to accept most of them as refugees. Most of the group, including women and children, had been deported about 2 years previously, but these three had hung on, trying every appeal possible.
They knew that their lives were in danger if they returned. Several of their family members had already been killed. Death threats had been made against them. They tried time and again, but their stories were not believed.
During their time in the Detention Centre, they became leaders of the community. One became a spokesperson for the detainees, often negotiating with management to improve conditions. He was a real peace maker, often defusing tensions between ethnic groups and between detainees and management. He was highly respected by both staff and detainees. I had worked closely with him in attempts to improve conditions in the Centre.
Finally they wrote to the Minister for Immigration. They asked to be sent home. They said in their letter that they knew that they were going home to die, but that this was preferable to living in any longer in an Australian detention centre. They said that they were suffering mentally, physically and spiritually and that they would rather be dead.
Despite pleas to the Australian government from Amnesty and from church groups who realized the danger they faced on return to Somalia, the deportation went ahead. As they left the Detention Centre on the way to the airport, several Detention Centre staff cried.
When I farewelled them at the Port Hedland Airport, I did not know what to say to them. They had told me that Mogadishu Airport was in the control of clans opposed to them and they expected that as soon as they arrived they would be taken outside and shot. What do you say to men that are going home to die? They did not teach me that in pastoral care training. They thanked me for my support and friendship. They said for me not to worry about them - they would try to escape before they got to Mogadishu. But if this was not possible, they were ready to die.
After the plane left I went back home and cried. Cried for them and for what we had done to them.
Soon after I met Fatimah I realized she was one of the most traumatised people I had ever known. She always looked worried, was constantly fearful, and was often in tears. She had no English so I had to communicate with her through one of the other detainees who interpreted for her.
Her story was horrific. As a teenager, she had attended a Christian school in her Muslim nation, and had decided to convert. She believed in Christ in her heart, but because she came from a strict Muslim family, she did not dare tell any family members of her conversion. She prayed quietly in her room and met secretly with her Christian friends. Her brother, however, did suspect she had converted, because she stopped attending prayers at the mosque. Many times he verbally abused her and beat her.
Even after she had grown up, got married and had a child, her brother continued his abuse of her. Over 20 years he came to her house at unexpected times and beat her. Finally her husband, realising that the beatings were getting worse and that he was no longer able to protect her, paid a people smuggler to get her out of the country. She fled in the middle of the night, leaving behind her mother, husband and son, whom she dearly loved.
The first thing she did when she reached Turkey was to find a Christian church and be baptised. Then she phoned home and told her family what she had done. There was no way she could go back home.
The journey to Australia was frightening. Being in detention, surrounded by strangers, was even more frightening. Each Sunday she came to church, the only woman in the congregation. One of the members of Port Hedland Uniting Church visited her during the week, to offer her care and support.
Finally the good news came. She had been accepted as a refugee. Realising that she was a very vulnerable and traumatised person, I spoke to the Immigration Department and requested that she be released in Perth. Once they had agreed, I talked with church contacts in Perth to arrange support for her - somewhere for her to live, English classes, counselling. I asked the Immigration Department to inform me when she was being released so I could arrange someone to meet her at the airport.
When I arrived at worship the next Sunday afternoon, she was not in the congregation. “Where is Fatimah?” I asked. “She was released on Thursday,” they said. “Where did she go?” I asked. “We don’t know,” they said.
On Monday morning the phone rang. A man from a Refugee Support Agency said “We have a woman in our office here who is in tears and does not speak English. She has given us your phone number. Do you know who she is?” Fatimah was in Melbourne. She had been flown there on Thursday and given three nights accommodation at a back-packers’, a frightening experience for her. She was alone in Australia, spoke no English, and was totally traumatised.
I began the task of sorting out support for her in Melbourne. I made a lot of phone calls that day, grateful for church contacts I had there. By the end of the day a family had agreed to take her in for a week. In that time we were able to make longer term plans. She is now living with a group of Catholic sisters where she feels safe and supported. A woman from the local church is teaching her English. She is getting trauma counselling and earning some money by cleaning houses. She is very lonely and misses her family very much.
Recently there has been some discussion in Uniting Church publications about whether we still believe in conversion. “Are there any new converts in the Uniting Church?” is a question sometimes asked.
Yes, there are! I have a congregation which must be the most unusual congregation in the Uniting Church. Why? How many congregations do you know where all the congregational members are male, all are under 40, and all are new converts to Christianity?
This is my congregation in Port Hedland Detention Centre. In October 2000, a group of detainees approached me and asked if I would hold Protestant services in the Detention Centre. The first service was held on November 5th 2000. Services have been held every Sunday afternoon since then. At times, 25 of us have crammed into the classroom available for our services. The services are bilingual, conducted in English and Farsi.
Everyone who attends this service comments on the singing. The men have learnt a number of hymns in their own language from tapes and sing these with great passion and volume. These men sing from their hearts, praising the God who loves them and has given them new life.
Most of the men are from Iran. When I ask them why they have decided to become a Christian, their stories are similar. All of them say that they became disillusioned with Islam some time ago, mainly because the only form of Islam they knew was repressive and violent. Many of them say that they had Christian friends (there is an Armenian and Assyrian Christian minority in Iran), and were impressed by their honesty, kindness and goodness. Some had been given Christian literature and tapes by their Christian friends. All of them thought about converting while in Iran, but conversion from Islam to Christianity carries a death penalty, so they had to be careful. Some had got into trouble with the authorities because of their religious beliefs.
Ironically, it was not until they arrived in Port Hedland Detention Centre that they found freedom of religion. Each Sunday new arrivals come to the service I conduct and ask about Christianity. I encourage them to attend worship regularly, to enrol them in a Bible correspondence course in their own language, and put them through a preparation for baptism course, which lasts 3 months. After this time I have a long conversation with them about their faith and desire for baptism.
Iranians have a low success rate in their refugee applications, so many of these men will be sent back to Iran. They all know that being baptised will not help their refugee applications. So I discuss with them the implications of being baptised and then returning home. They could very well die for their faith. I have been constantly amazed and encouraged by the faith and courage of these new converts. One said to me, “I have chosen life and even if they kill me, they cannot take that from me.”
Each service of baptism is a joyous celebration. On these days the singing is especially joyful, and sometimes flowers decorate the room. The Uniting Church service of baptism has been translated into Farsi so they can declare their faith in their own language. After the baptism we usually have a party - they love my home baked cakes!
After many months of protracted negotiations with Centre management, this group of Christians is about to get a prayer room. There are two mosques in the Centre, one for Sunni and one for Shia Muslims, but there has been nowhere for the Christians to use for prayer and meditation. The group is now re-painting the room and we will decorate it with Christian posters. This will provide a venue for our worship services, but will also be available for them during the week if they need a quiet place to pray, read their Bibles or just get away for a while from the stress of living in the Centre.
Over the time I have seen many come and go from this congregation. Some have come for a while and then drifted away. Others have clung strongly to their faith in the midst of adversity. Some have been deported, others have been transferred to other Centres and a few have been released into the Australian community. I am still in contact with many of them and their faith continues to inspire me.
Please pray for these new Christians. They need our love, support and concern.
Christmas was coming and the Activities Officer at the Detention Centre asked me what the Christians on the Centre would like for Christmas. She suggested that perhaps they would like a special Christmas dinner. I said I would ask them
The next Sunday I asked the congregation what they would like for Christmas. They all looked at me blankly. Being new converts to Christianity, they had no idea what Christians did to celebrate Christmas. So I told them that on Christmas Day, Christians usually had special food and a party, and asked if they would like the same.
They had a conversation among themselves in their own language. In the end they said, “No, we do not want food. What we want more than anything else is to be allowed to worship with other Christians in your church on Christmas Day.”
I was taken aback. We talked about it. Most of them are from a country where the Christian churches were watched and anyone from a non-Christian background who tried to attend was arrested. So they had never had the opportunity to worship in a Christian church there. Many of them knew that they were unlikely to get a visa to enter Australia and would be sent back home again. They said to me, “What we want is to have the opportunity, just once in our life, to worship in a Christian church with other Christians.”
I knew what they had asked for was going to be very difficult to achieve. Whilst detainees do get outings at times, taking a large group like this on an outing would problematic for management. I knew that staff would have to be paid double time on Christmas Day, so management would be counting the cost.
I spoke to the management of the Detention Centre and the answer was, as I expected - no. When I told the men they were very disappointed. I suggested that instead of going out to church, maybe we could have a Christmas party in the Centre. I asked them what food they would like and they said “Kebabs, pita bread, salad and yoghurt”.
I passed the message on to the Activities Officer and she got the food organized. On Christmas Day when I came in for the service they had decorated the classroom where we hold our service with balloons and streamers. After the service we had our party. They played Middle Eastern music on my CD player, danced to the music, and took turns in singing songs in their native languages.
Christmas passed but I did not forget their request. I was determined that they would get their wish to worship in a Christian church. I kept on talking to the management of the Centre, trying to persuade them to grant this request. Finally, after several weeks they agreed.
The Sunday of the church visit finally came. The men in the Centre were woken early and told to get ready to go to church. They were very excited and dressed in their best clothes. The Uniting Church congregation was there to welcome them when they arrived. Several Detention Centre staff came with them as escorts. After the service, we had a shared lunch. They particularly loved the feta cheese and dolmas. One member of the local congregation brought a joey she is hand raising to church, and they were all excited to see a kangaroo. They had their photos taken in church and with the kangaroo. It was all smiles when they finally climbed back in the bus to go back to the Centre. The Centre Manager said “That was great. We must do it again. And next time I will do a Bible reading.”
So they got what they wanted for Christmas, even if it was a bit late.
A group of people living in northern NSW decided to put together a Welcome Book for asylum seekers in detention. Each page had a photo of an Australian family and a message of welcome from that family. They said that they welcomed the asylum seekers to Australia, that they were sorry that they were being locked up, and that they hoped that soon they would be able to welcome them in person into Australia. All the pages were collected and bound into a thick book.
They sent the book to me and asked me to pass it on to the detainees in the Port Hedland Centre. I read it and was deeply moved. I knew it would boost the spirits of the detainees to know that there were Australian people who cared about them.
I decided the best way to pass on the book was to give it to the Residents Committee. The detainees are known in the Centre as “residents” and the Residents Committee is an elected group of 9 people, including 2 women, who represent all the ethnic groups in the Centre. They are the elected leaders of the detainees.
But first I had to get permission from the Immigration Department and from ACM to present the book. I explained the situation to them and they said they had no objection as long as they could inspect the book first. I took it in for them to look at and they gave their approval.
The next week at the Residents’ Committee, I presented the Welcome Book. As I explained who the book had come from and that it was a message of welcome from Australian people, one of the women began to cry. The President of the Committee thanked me for the book and promised to pass it on so that other detainees could see it.
One of the women said that recently her young son had received a letter from a 53 year old woman, welcoming him to this country, and that he had written back to her. She said that he would treasure this letter all his life. Then she said, “We do not want to make trouble for your country. All we want is freedom for our children”
As the meeting broke up all the men shook my hand and the women embraced me. Later I heard that the Welcome Book had been passed from hand to hand around the Centre and had been read by all. Even weeks later, they are still talking about it.
A highlight of the year in Port Hedland is the Pilbara Music Festival. The Festival lasts for 5 days and provides opportunity for local musicians to show their talents in singing and playing a wide variety of musical instruments. In 2001, the Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Because the men in the Protestant congregation in the Detention Centre are such great singers, I wondered about entering them in the Music Festival in the choir section. I knew this would not be easy.
In mid 2001 there had been a number of violent disturbances at the Centre and feelings in the local community were running high. Local residents were fearful of detainees and wanted the Centre moved out of town. Nevertheless I approached the Music Festival Committee and asked them if they would allow the men to participate. There was a lengthy discussion at the meeting. Some members were fearful, both of the detainees and of a negative reaction from the town if they participated. But others were prepared to take the risk and finally they agreed to accept their entry.
Then I had to negotiate with the Immigration Department for permission for them to enter. Detainees had never been allowed to participate in a cultural festival anywhere in Australia, so this was a first. The local Manager was supportive but she had to persuade Canberra. After a few weeks, Canberra agreed, even though they had reservations and said they may change their mind later.
Then ACM, the company which runs the Centre had to be approached. They were concerned about security issues, but agreed to support the proposal.
Finally I talked to the men. I had not spoken to them earlier because I did not want to get their hopes up and then have them disappointed. I wanted to make sure that all parties agreed before they were told. They were enthusiastic about the possibility of participating.
They met to choose their songs. They had to submit written music with their entry, so I had to search the Net to find it. They chose three of their favourite Farsi hymns and began to practice. They met for choir practice three nights a week for 2 months. This was not easy - there are few places for them to meet in the Centre, and staff are not always co-operative. They had to decide on a name for their choir and they finally agreed to call themselves the New Christians Choir.
Just before the Festival, there were a number of escapes from Villawood. The government responded by cancelling all outings for detainees all over Australia. My heart sank. I had an hour long meeting with the DIMA and ACM managers at the Centre, to discuss the situation. Despite misgivings, they decided that they would take the risk. The outing was to go ahead.
The night before they were due to sing, I met with them for their final choir practice. The violinist who was to accompany them had a practice with them. I said to them “You know that people in this town think you are all criminals and terrorists.” “They are wrong,” was the quick reply. “Tomorrow, I want you to go out there and prove to them that they are wrong,” I said.
They arrived at the Cultural Centre a few minutes before the afternoon session was due to begin. They sat in the front rows and listened to other performers - they loved the pianist, and the little girl who sang. Finally it was their turn. A hush fell over the auditorium as they took their place on the stage. By this time, everyone there had realised they were from the Detention Centre. It felt like everyone was holding their breath, wondering what would happen next.
Their singing was magnificent. They were well practised, but more importantly, they sang from the heart. The audience loved them and cheered loudly. The adjudicator loved them and gave them two Outstanding Certificates.
But the biggest surprise came the next day when they discovered that they had won the trophy for being the best Church Choir in the Music Festival. Two of the men came back the next day to receive their award and took it back to the Centre in triumph. You couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces for days!
This event was a major turning point in the town. It gave local residents a different perspective on detainees. They began to see them as human beings. After this time community attitudes began to change. More outings for detainees were organised and townspeople and detainees began to mix. Now a year later, local residents say to me, “I hope the men from the Centre will be singing in the Music Festival this year.”
I picked up the phone and heard the screech which indicates a FAX is coming through. I pressed the button and waited for the message. It was a letter from Ahmad.
Ahmad was a member of the Christian congregation in the Detention Centre who had been deported two months before.
The letter was headed: “In the name of Jesus Cross”. He told me that when he arrived back home, his older brother, fearing that Ahmad would be thrown into prison, had bribed officials at the airport to get him released. He had immediately gone into hiding, living in a tiny room above a friend’s factory. He had not even been to see any members of his family.
“I am afraid the security will arrest me because I have changed my religion,” he wrote. He told me how one Sunday he had left his hiding place and tried to go to church, but had been turned away at the door. The door keepers at the church had said, “We can not let you enter the church because the government has said this is banned.” In his country all Christians must be registered and if any church allows new converts to attend, the church is closed down.
He also told me how he had been witnessing to the friend who was sheltering him. “I have one friend here who likes to know about Jesus. I am speaking with him, and I learn him some things about Jesus - Good Friday, Bible, disciples, Christmas, Peter etc.” Then he asked me if I would fax him some Bible study notes in his language to give to his friend.
He finished by saying that he would always remember me because I was the one who had taught him about Jesus and baptised him.
I faxed him the Bible study notes he had asked for. We exchanged faxes several times of the next few weeks. Then I did not hear from him for a long time. I wondered if he had been arrested.
Finally he contacted me again. He had escaped for a second time from his homeland. He had been accepted as a refugee in Germany and was now living there. Ahmad is now an active member of a church in Germany.
There was a loud banging on my front door. When I opened it I found a senior manager from the Detention Centre standing on the doorstep, looking very worried.
“Can you come down to the Centre? Ibrahim has climbed a light pole and is threatening to throw himself off. He won’t listen to us, but he trusts you. Can you come and talk to him?”
We rushed around to the Centre in his car. I was escorted into the main compound to where Ibrahim was indeed clinging to the top of a light pole, several metres above the ground. Staff and detainees stood around watching, all looking very anxious.
I had known Ibrahim for about a year. He had been very nervous when he had appeared before the Refugee Review Tribunal and had asked me if I would sit beside him at the hearing to give him support. Detainees often ask me to do this.
He had received the finding from that hearing some time ago. It was good news - his story had been believed and he had been accepted as refugee. But six months had passed and he had not been released. In that time he had seen other people leave within two or three weeks of being accepted as a refugee. He did not know why he was still there.
He had asked the Immigration Department to explain why he had not been released, but got no answer. He asked again and again but never seemed to get a satisfactory explanation. He was getting more desperate. He just did not know what was happening. He wondered if his file had been lost. He feared that he would never get out.
So he climbed the light pole. I sat at the bottom of the pole and talked to him. I guessed what the problem was, because he had spoken to me about his concerns many times before. I tried to calm him down. I told him that throwing himself off the light pole would only add to his problems. I encouraged him to not give up hope.
I explained to the staff what his concerns were. They phoned Canberra to see if they could find out why he had not been released. Within a few minutes we had an answer.
All refugees must get a police clearance from each of the countries they have visited in recent years to ensure that they have no criminal record. They are not released until all these police clearances are obtained. The problem was that Ibrahim had been a seaman and had visited many ports. The Australian government was getting police clearances from every country he had visited in the last 3 years and this was taking time.
But there was good news. The process was almost complete. They were waiting on only one more police clearance and this should be through in a couple of weeks. I told this to Ibrahim and he agreed to come down from the pole. He was lifted down by a cherry picker and taken to be checked out by medical staff. Within two weeks he had been released.
Today I attend my monthly meeting of the Residents’ Committee. The detainees within the Port Hedland Detention Centre are always referred to by staff as “residents” of the Centre. The Residents Committee is elected by the detainees to represent each of the ethnic groups within the Centre. They meet regularly with management to discuss the running of the Centre and raise detainee concerns.
Once a month, community representatives are invited to meet with the Residents Committee. Soon after I arrived in Port Hedland I was invited to attend this meeting as a community representative. For three years I was the only community representative who met regularly with the Committee. For the last year, the meeting has also been attended each month by Red Cross workers from Perth.
Today the detainees raise a concern about health services. They believe that they are being neglected because it takes six weeks to get an appointment to see a specialist doctor. I inform them that, because we are in a remote area, this is the situation for everyone in town. I explain that they are not being discriminated against, and this relieves the tension.
The detainees have read some very negative comments about them in the local paper. They are incensed that the local community believes them to be dangerous people. I explain that whenever there is a violent protest in the centre, this raises anxiety in the local community. I suggest that peaceful protests may be more effective in gaining community support.
Perhaps my most important role on this committee is that of a community watchdog. I listen to the concerns raised by the detainees, ascertain if they are valid, and if so, work to ensure that they are dealt with. At times this means harassing management of the Centre, or lobbying outside agencies to take action.
The major concerns raised by detainees at these meetings are to do with their children. They are concerned about the lack of educational and recreational opportunities for their children, and the lack of appropriate food for younger children. Above all they are worried about the impact on their children of long term detention. As some children have been in detention for two years or more, this is a valid concern.
Other regular concerns are the phones (only two are available for incoming calls and they often break down), the quality of the food provided, the quality of the medical service, and general living conditions, e.g. showers that are cold, kettles that do not work, lack of clothing, etc. Equity in access to work is also an issue. Detainees are keen to work in the Centre because they are paid one point (valued at $1) an hour for their work and these points can be used to buy phone cards, cigarettes, and other personal items. But there is not enough work for all detainees, so the work must be shared around equitably.
At times I have been disturbed by the time it takes for relatively simple detainee requests to be dealt with. Concerns are raised month after month, with very little action seeming to be taken to address the situation. At one time it took 18 months for mirrors, needed by the men for shaving, to be provided! I am pleased to report that in the last year, detainee concerns have been dealt with more quickly than this!
I once asked two detainees why they kept on coming to these meetings and presenting their concerns as no one seemed to be listening to them. They said “The only reason we come is because you are there. And we know that at least one person on the outside knows what is happening to us.”
Tonight is the meeting of the Hedland branch of Rural Australians for Refugees. About 12 men and women gather around a kitchen table. Children play in the background. The group was formed in October 2001 and has been meeting regularly ever since. I have been an active member of this group since its inception.
Tonight we have several items on our agenda. Two members of the group run a craft class for women in the Centre. I report to the group that I have received several parcels of material, cotton, lace, patterns, and other sewing materials from Uniting Church members in western Victoria. This is good news as supplies were running low. The women really enjoy making clothes for themselves and their children, and some are very talented in craft work.
Next it is reported that two group members have started music lessons for the men on Saturday morning, teaching guitar, keyboard, flute, drums and singing. St Vincent de Paul in Sydney has donated musical instruments, and so far 20 men have enrolled in these classes. Another group member reports that she has started English language classes for the men each afternoon.
As well as running activities in the Centre, our group also organises outings for detainees. Tonight we hear about the group of children who were taken to see a live production of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and the young woman who was taken out to a local hotel for lunch for her 21st birthday. Plans are underway for a picnic for women and children at the beach and sporting outings for the men.
As well as providing welcome relief for detainees, such outings also provide opportunity for positive interaction between community members and detainees. This helps to break down fear and apprehension in town towards detainees. We try to defuse tensions in town by providing accurate information to counter rumours, and sharing our positive experiences of detainees with others.
All members of our group visit detainees in the Centre. One woman and her children visit an unaccompanied minor, a 15 year old Afghan boy who has lost all his family. He has become part of their family, providing him with much needed emotional support. The men in our group visit male detainees who are long-termers - some have been in detention for nearly four years. They chat together, play backgammon and cards and usually take some food to share. We discuss a family one of our members is visiting. There are three disabled children in this family and we are concerned about the lack of appropriate services and education for them.
Visiting detainees can be an emotionally draining experience. Their problems are so immense and whilst we can provide friendship and a listening ear, in the end we often feel inadequate, unable to provide the help they need. A lot of our meeting time is spent in listening to each other’s experiences and providing emotional support to one another.
Our group is in communication with other refugee support groups. Amnesty has arranged for Mothers Day cards to be sent to women in detention centres. I am the local contact who arranges for their delivery into the Centre. Tonight I report that 625 cards were given to the women on Mothers Day.
Many of the detainees now have Australian pen pals. Some of them have been in contact with us asking how they can help or for more information about conditions. Some have even made the trip to Port Hedland to visit their friends in detention. We offer them advice on how to organise visits.
The meeting closes at about 9. The children are getting restless - it is bed time. We share a cuppa and go home. We will meet again in a fortnight.
Today is the day for the monthly school assembly. The 120 children in the Centre march in class groups into the mess, chattering with excitement. There are four classes - kindy, younger primary, older primary and high school. Their parents gather in the background watching the children proudly.
Each of the classes presents an item - a song, a dance, a report on their month’s work. The younger primary children sing an alphabet song. The high school group do a rap song and dance. Everyone claps. Then prizes are presented to each of the classes - one for the best student in each class and one for the best improver in each class. Parents glow with pride as their children go forward to receive their prizes.
I am at the school assembly to present five boxes of children’s books donated by Torquay Uniting Church in Victoria. A few months before I had discovered that there were practically no children’s books in the Centre. These books will form the basis of a new children’s library. It has taken three months of negotiation with the Centre to get this library established. One of the teenage boys is to be librarian. I tell the children and their parents that this library is a gift of friendship from Australian people to them.
A few weeks later I am invited to attend the Christmas concert. A stage is set up and various ethnic groups have prepared items for the concert. The children all sit in the middle of the quadrangle, surrounded by high fences topped with razor wire. They are dressed in their best clothes - girls in frilly dresses with bows in their hair, and boys in long pants and ironed shirts. They are very excited because tonight Christmas presents, donated by Mission Australia, are to be presented. The time finally arrives to give out the presents, and the children are called forward to get their presents by number. My heart cries out at this de-humanising of children.
Soon after, Sally, a young woman from the local community, who is a talented musician and artist, volunteers to work with the children in the Centre. It takes several weeks for me to negotiate with Centre management to get the programme established. Now on one morning a week, Sally goes into the Centre and does an Art, Drama and Music workshop with the children. St Vincent de Paul has donated musical instruments, and I have supplied art materials, using donations from church people.
As well as being a fun activity and helping the children with their English language skills, this provides opportunity for them to express their feelings. All children in detention are deeply traumatised. They have fled with their families for fear of their lives from their homeland and then have experienced the terror of the journey to Australia. Upon arrival they find themselves locked up in an environment where self harm and violence can be a daily occurrence. At times, especially when there have been disturbances in the Centre, the children need the opportunity to express their feelings. Beating on drums or blowing a trumpet enables them to do this.
Detention Centres are not appropriate places for children. But some unfortunately spend long periods there. One family spent 5 years in Port Hedland Centre - their youngest child was born in detention and was three by the time he was released. The long term psychological effect of detention on children is not yet known.
“What I don’t understand is why did God make us? It seems to me that God is complete in himself. So why did God need to create human beings? What was in it for God? What could God gain from creating us?”
The question came from a young Muslim man I had been visiting for six months. A deeply spiritual person, he first asked me to visit him because, since he had been in detention, he found it hard to experience the presence of God in his life. This worried him and he wanted me to give him spiritual guidance.
I visited him weekly for many months until he was transferred to another centre. Each week we discussed the meaning of life and faith, and we prayed together.
Although a Muslim he was interested in Christianity. He asked for a Bible and read it avidly- each week he would have questions for me arising from his Scripture readings. And what questions he had! I have been a minister for 26 years now and in that time I have never had such in depth theological conversations with anyone! I was stretched theologically and spiritually. Each week, I looked forward to our conversations.
Because of his experiences of Islam, he was totally opposed to any sort of fundamentalism. He had seen how a certainty that you are right can easily lead to violent actions with destroy others. We often discussed how to preserve a faith which is not oppressive of others.
Because he was a caring, compassionate person, he often expressed concerns about his fellow detainees and conditions in the Centre. He was keen to make a difference, to work to improve conditions in the Centre. He saw this concern as an expression of his faith.
Our time of prayer together became very important to him. He said it gave him a sense of peace in his life. I gave him prayer resources and encouraged him to develop his own prayer life. Gradually he regained a sense of the presence of God with him.
He has now been released into the Australian community, after three years in detention. He is still a Muslim and I am still a Christian, but we are good friends.
Babak took a long time to make up his mind to become a Christian. “Changing your religion is a very serious thing, not something to be done lightly,” he said. “But if I do decide to become a Christian, I will never go back on that decision.”
He had been attending the services for several months and we had had several conversations about Christian faith. But he was not yet sure. Then one night he rang me: “I am ready,” he said. “I have made up my mind. I want to be a Christian. When can I be baptised?”
The service of baptism was a celebration. I knew how important it was to him. Soon after his baptism, he got word that he had been accepted as a refugee and would be released soon. He was very pleased but apprehensive, unsure of what lay ahead of him in his new life in Australia.
Babak asked to be sent to Brisbane as he had friends there. Instead he was sent to Darwin. He arrived there on the Wednesday before Easter. A group of refugee supporters met the bus. Babak explained that he wanted to go to Brisbane, and he was booked on a bus to leave Darwin on Easter Saturday. In the meantime Mick, from St Vincent de Paul, offered to provide a bed for him.
Babak told Mick that he was a Christian and Mick invited him to come to church with him on Good Friday. “No,” said Babak, “I am a Protestant. I want to go to a Protestant church”. So Mick contacted one of his friends, Ian O’Reilly, who attended a Uniting Church.
On Good Friday, Ian picked up Babak from Mick’s place. He took him to Nightcliff Uniting Church, where he was made very welcome. Babak was asked to carry the cross into the church as part of the procession at the start of the service. This was the first time he had ever worshipped in a Christian church.
Babak phoned me that night to tell me what had happened. He was very excited about carrying the cross. This was very special to him.
On Easter Saturday, he left for Brisbane. Soon after arrival he reported to the Romero Centre, a Uniting Church sponsored agency which supports refugees. He began English classes and soon discovered that his teacher was a retired Uniting Church minister. The next Sunday he took Babak to church with him.
Babak is now an active member of a Uniting Church congregation in Brisbane.
There are two Christian congregations in the Port Hedland Detention Centre - a Catholic congregation and the Protestant congregation that I lead. Both groups worship separately, and I was concerned that there had been little interaction between them.
Easter was coming and I seized this opportunity to organise some joint celebration of this important Christian festival. I suggested that we have a joint Easter party on Sunday afternoon. The Catholic priest readily agreed. We decided to have it at four in the afternoon to avoid the heat of the day and Centre management agreed to provide food.
On Easter Sunday, I baptised six new converts. It was a joyous celebration. Then we adjourned to the visit yard where the Catholic congregation, together with the priest and some Catholic sisters, were waiting.
At first things were a bit tense, with little interaction between the two groups. Cakes, chips and cool drinks were distributed and this loosened things up a bit. But it was the music which made the difference!
At some point, one of the Africans produced bongo drums and began playing on them. Soon everyone’s feet were tapping to the beat. Jean-Claude from the Congo decided to teach us some African Christian songs. He spoke in French, Louis from Sierra Leone translated into English, Ali translated into Farsi and Saed translated in Arabic. Soon we were all singing along - African music is so infectious.
Suddenly, Ehsan, the Kurd, began to dance. And what a dancer he was! There is nothing like the beat of an African song to get everyone moving. Soon several men were on their feet dancing.
Then one of the Iranians produced a guitar and began to play some folk songs with everyone joining in. We discovered that one of the Iranians was as good on the bongos as the Africans.
Suggestions for Christian songs and choruses we could sing came thick and fast. In no time at all we were all singing, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Too soon it was time to finish. There were smiles and handshakes all around. The barriers that had separated the two groups had been broken down.