The practice of hope


I have submitted a piece of writing done by a friend I have met, visiting the Melbourne detention centre this year. He is a couple of years younger than me, and was a journalist in Sri Lanka before he fled for his life and arrived here by boat in 2009.

It encapsulates a lot of the coal face of the new ‘Peril’ hysteria; where refugees who have been incarcerated by xenophobic government policies, meet Australian visitors who oppose this xenophobia and who want to challenge it through a direct personal connection. Actually many of the visitors are ex-detainees, on bridging visas or community detention, who make weekly or daily treks to visit friends in detention, so the definition of ‘Australian’ here becomes something broader than legal definition; it’s anyone who is able to leave the centre and travel around, without a security guard.

The visitors centre in the detention centre (which because it is ‘low security’ has a euphemism of transit accommodation) is an incredible space where an extraordinary variety of people gather; not only refugees from Sri Lanka, Iran, Somalia, Burma, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, Nigeria, but the incredible variety of visitors; Imams, nuns, priests, Buddhist monks, lay-Christians and Muslims, plus family groups, queers, artists, students, teachers, musicians…..

I first started visiting artists in detention, having been given a couple of names from friends of friends who visit Villawood in Sydney. It has profoundly changed my life. The hugs, emails, drawings, shared food, laughter and tears have gotten under my skin and I am currently working with a group running art classes for adults inside the detention centre. Drawing is a great way to overcome the gaps between languages, as well as where language fails because feelings get too big. It also facilitates a safe, playful space where conversations start and stories are shared.

I wanted to share ‘G’s writings in Peril, not only to share the feelings, intelligence and creativity of people in detention. I’m wary of the way in which the words of refugees who are silenced by legal barriers, by bars and by language are extruded into other formats within contexts that benefit the non-refugee readers more than the writers themselves. Visiting detention centres is often part of a penitential practice of Christianity, and poems and drawings often feature in church newsletters or in Christmas cards. It is a daily battle for non-Christians (particularly those of us from Christian cultures) to not fall into the similar psychological traps of Christian charity, which embeds a disturbing power difference where one person is seen as the actor, and giver, and one person is seen as a passive recipient of the actions or gifts.

I love G’s words because he embeds new forms of relationality in all of his stories. He writes about the pain of detention, and of exile. Moments of poetry flicker through his anecdotes, evoking imaginary spaces and possibilities beyond the present hell. He writes about friendship, and the effect of the connections created between visitors and detained refugees like himself and others. In a culture of monstrous cruelty small acts of kindness don’t just act as a bandaid over a gaping wound of pain; the act like drops of liquid allowing new life to emerge, even in imaginary form.

This may sound hopelessly idealistic, but I don’t know what else to offer to people in a hopeless situation than the regular practice of hope as a micropolitics of solidarity. The ‘bare life’ conditions to which detainees are reduced (they are fed, and housed and clothed, but isolated and excluded from social participation) means that the most banal acts create a form of connection and sociality that is profoundly powerful. On one level it may stop someone from attempting suicide for another day. On another level it may facilitate a productive form of relationship and social exchange that defies the brutality of state sanctioned exclusion. This is the kind of Asian-Australianness that I am invested in creating; where borderlands are productive and political and powerful.

The bigger picture of what is happening to people seeking asylum in Australia is horrifying. In addition to the cruelties of mandatory detention, the isolation of people on bridging visas, being barred from working or study, and being trapped in subsistence allowances while enmeshed in forms of legal surveillance makes any project of reparation or amelioration a sisyphean task of pushing against an avalance of state sanctioned cruelty. This political crisis, impels us to create a form of critical thinking that is open and creative, and flexible and responsive to anyone and everyone who opposes the psychological and social destruction embedded in current government policies. I wish I knew what to do to change how refugees are being treated, but I don’t. I have friends who have been marching, rallying, visiting and writing for thirteen years. We may have to be doing this for another thirty years. Owning racial privilege means owning the responsibility for addressing the systems that create that privilege and creating connections with people that defy the barriers of race and nationality.

As much as I wrangle with my own politics and disdain towards particular faiths or cultures of charity, ultimately everyone who promotes compassion and hope is my ally. While I chuckle at with friends about the socially awkward Christian visitor proffering Krispy Kremes to everyone in the visitors centre during Ramadan (there are many non-Muslims in detention, but mostly visitors don’t share food until Iftar), her presence and actions may provide hope to someone in despair. Visiting detention has allowed me to cultivate a new form of alliance politics, with detained refugees and with the communities of visitors. All visitors are deeply concerned with our friends that we visit. It’s almost like a homing device that pulls us back to Camp Road, whether by car or public transport. Anyone who provides any form of care or kindness to the people we care about; anyone whose kindness or words or gift stops someone I know from harming themselves or attempting suicide is my ally and my friend. Meeting people in detention means that this is a personal investment more than an abstract political principle.

I’m not even sure if I want people to read these words. I don’t want my words act as a divisive frame between G’s words and you, the reader. I didn’t write them or translate them. All I have done is type them up and email them. In return, I give him drawings based on his words, because his words are so powerful, and in fact I don’t know how to begin reciprocity when someone gives so much of themselves, except to share it in differing contexts where they become part of bigger dialogues on the Asian-Australia we want to create.

Also see G’s writings on Peril :
I see the moon and the moon sees me
Reflective thoughts from a Sri Lankan refugee… now a prisoner…but free!
I am not the owner of this feeling

Margaret Mejhju

Author: Margaret Mejhju

Margaret Mayhew is an artist and academic living on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people. All of her ancestors were boat people from Ireland, England and China. She has volunteered in creative collaborations with refugee communities in Sydney and Melbourne since 1991 and does project coordination and research for Diversity Arts Australia.

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