Iniquity shall abound

Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. April 22, 2011. CC

This is a story from 2002, to be published as part of a collection titled ‘Tales without borders’.

The title is from Matthew 24:12 “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold”.

It reflects on refugee children in Australian detention centres. In this instance the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. This is still a problem in 2018. Now the children are held in off shore centres, out of sight and largely out of the minds of many Australians.

The full story is available as an audio file

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Iniquity shall abound – Part 1

Introspection was a common state of mind after an encounter with the Bali Bombings of 2002. In such mental spaces, old connections like John were a great comfort. He was an insightful friend. Completing his trade as a boilermaker he went on to graduate with a degree in Psychology. Sharing similar working-class origins and working together for a time at Lithgow High School, we often spoke.

“I feel as if the world’s teetering on the brink of the apocalypse,” I said, confident he understood my metaphor.

“Are you okay though? Do you feel as if you might be swept into it?”

“No, I’m just grieved by the direction things are taking.”

“How are you dealing with the PTSD,” he asked sympathetically.

“I had a couple of sessions with a psychologist. She produced a pen and asked me to look at its tip visualising my most unpleasant images. She told me to keep watching as she moved it rapidly and try to focus on it until the pain subsided. It worked, but I’m still not in great shape.”

“What do you mean Russ?”

“Well I’m still having full-colour waking re-runs of the morgue at Sanglah hospital, I’m not bursting into tears as much and I’m not having bad dreams. My other problem is I’m feeling angry, very angry.”

“This’ll pass mate it’s just a stage. There’s always anger. People have tried to map out stages. It sounds as though you’re making progress to me. I’ll email you a link to an outline of the stages.”

“A map eh? Yeah, well . . . I guess that’d be useful.”

“You don’t need to stick it on the wall,” he said, with a humorous tilt at my passion for maps. “Just refer to it sometimes.”

Always non-judgemental, I could be frank with him about anything. Our similar backgrounds helped. Like me, he was the first in his family with a university degree.

Eleven days after the Bali Bombings the Australian Senate report A Certain Maritime Incident was delivered. There were slabs of it in the Sydney Morning Herald. The tragedy had little impact on Australians at large overwhelmed as they were by the Bali Bombings. Rather cynically I felt it was because the SIVE X deaths weren’t European deaths let alone Australian but perhaps the report was just dwarfed by the stage-managed events that followed the bombings. Suggestions of possible Australian Federal Police involvement in the harassment of asylum seekers deepened my grief particularly since I’d seen the extraordinary work they did following the bombings.

Despite my scepticism towards the Howard Doctrine self-doubts remained. Maybe partisan feelings had swamped my sense of political reality. I wasn’t sure but any doubts I had were dispelled about five weeks after the bombings by the innocent comments of a seven-year-old girl called Aasera. She’ll never know just what an impact her words had on me. Meeting her was a result of an unexpected turn of events.

Without going into the full story of just how we met, I should begin by saying that reading the daily newspapers of the time I could see that placing the children of asylum seekers in detention was a dreadful thing. I knew enough to realise that the long-term effects of detention were serious, particularly when so many of these kids were already facing their own post-traumatic demons.

By November of 2002, there was a growing awareness in government of the need to begin offering respite to children in detention. I became part of a trial respite program in concert with the Edmund Rice Centre for Social Justice, organised for a group of children from the Villawood Detention Centre. I was recruited to help evaluate its impact. The venue was the Christian Brothers retreat and conference centre called Mulgoa.

Six children were involved, Aasera and her brothers Adam and Nasim, from an Iraqi Muslim family, along with three Sabian Mandaean children Daniel, Ram, and Tamara whose family had escaped possible extinction in Iraq. We were supported by a team of youth workers from the Edmund Rice organisation, and two staff from the detention centre.

Aasera’s family were secular Iraqi Muslims. Her parents had pooled funds with others in Indonesia for passage to Australia. Later they were charged for their part in ‘riots’ at another detention centre and along with 20 other detainees spent time in gaol. For a period, the children were in detention without parents.

I didn’t know much about the Sabian Mandaean faith, but some Internet research and recent reading have revealed much of its history and basic tenets. Fundamental to the faith is devotion to the God of Adam, baptism, prayer, and fasting. Prayers are said while facing north, the direction of paradise, a place of light where souls go to be with God after death. Originally from the marshlands of southern Iraq, they acknowledge John the Baptist as a central figure in their beliefs. They numbered just 70,000 globally with a mere 5,000 remaining in Iraq.

Mulgoa’s grounds are extensive and after a quick briefing on the facilities, the children were offered a light snack and refreshments.

All of a sudden, a brother driving a tractor arrived sweeping up alongside the dining room.

“All aboard,” he called playfully. “We’re going on a tour. All aboard. Hurry, hurry, the tour will be leaving in a few moments.”

I liked his energy and the fantasy he was trying to weave for the children. It worked they were excited with the prospect of a rare taste of freedom.

“Off we go now,” he said gunning the motor.

I scrambled after the children piling into the trailer hitched behind and we set off on a bumpy ride to the far end of the complex. Here a remnant of woodland surrounded a small hermitage, a place for prayer and meditation.

Wandering freely amongst the trees, their trunks studded with discarded cicada shells I began collecting shells and attaching the spiky leg casings to my shirt.

“Look at this,” I said to the children. “I used to do this when I went walking in the bush as a child.”

“Can we touch them?” one asked.

“Sure, the little animal has gone. It was a grub like a short fat worm before it became a cicada. It lived under the ground for seven years as its body changed then it escaped leaving this shell behind.” I hoped the children might see this as a metaphor for their own lives imprisoned then breaking free, transformed and reaching out to the new.

Sounds of delight broke out. Fascinated the children gathered cicada shells and soon we all walked festooned, slipping effortlessly into a timelessness play space, feeling a knowing oneness, free in the present.

The Brother began a short commentary on the Hermitage.

“We’ve installed this solar panel for lights and the water all comes from this new rainwater tank. It’s self-sufficient.”

I wondered whether the children understood the term ‘self-sufficient’

“Now come around to the other side of the building,” he said beckoning. Opening the door, he led us inside.

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, hanging above the fireplace, caught my attention. I hadn’t expected this from the Christian Brothers. Approaching the icon, I stood before it. In an Orthodox church, I’d have venerated the icon. What’s the situation here, I wondered.

Noticing my interest, the Brother was drawn out of tour guide mode wryly observing, “It’s not an original”.

“No Brother that would be something very special,” I laughed.

It was the most he’d said to me. I felt an immediate bond between us, a sense of spiritual strength and authenticity merging with the playful feelings I’d drawn with me into the room. An upwelling of harmony, the Balinese might call it Dharma, or as we might say, the Holy Spirit. In this space, we seemed to transcend the pain we had all so recently experienced.