This is the second post we are privileged to share with you by guest writer, Widyan Al-Ubudy, for National Refugee Week. In this post, Widyan recounts her personal experiences as a volunteer at Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre and the deep and moving impact it has had on her. To find out more about Widyan, see her earlier post here.
Walking through the metal detector past the security doors and through the gated barbed wire fences, I clutched at my security wrist band. I was number 35. Going in, I knew I was about to experience something emotional but never had I anticipated that my outlook on life and freedom as I knew it would be forever changed. “I’ve been here for almost two years now. I am so numb to the world that I even forget my daughter’s name sometimes. I wonder whether saving my life is worth this wait.”
This is just one of the heart wrenching statements from asylum seekers that have been unravelled to me during the past three months of my visits to Villawood Detention Centre.
I began visiting Villawood as part of a community organised volunteer group who advocate for refugees in Sydney. Since I come from a background where I know all too well what it feels like to be a displaced person, I felt somehow compelled to assist these people in need in any way possible.
Upon my arrival I started approaching and talking to whoever I can, but it was one man who was standing in a corner with his eyes fixed on the floor who caught my attention and heart. I cautiously approached him and asked where he is from, “Iraq,” he replied. After I told him I too was Iraqi his brown eyes lit up as if he was seeing for the first time. He ushered me to the nearest seat and began sharing his story.
The man began to tell me about his escape from Iraq with his brother after the government violently targeted his home and family. “They left a note on the door of my house saying ‘The blood of the owner of this house is needed!’ When you read something like that you have no other choice but to pack your bags and escape. I had to take my family to safety and save myself”, he said.
The man continued talking, his voice quivering as he told me about the pain he felt leaving behind his wife, children and mother, how he rescued a man from the water when their boat tipped over on the way to Christmas Island and the happiness he felt when his brother was given refugee status. But his weary smile quickly faded when he told me of his contemplation of suicide. “I’m still here,” he sighed.
After hearing his story questions were racing through my mind: Why has this man been here for so long? What’s going to happen to him? Will he be sent back to Iraq? I looked him in the eye, lost for words, “I feel like crying,” I said, he replied, “Don’t waste your tears on me. I have cried enough for the world.” He spoke with such passion and anger, angry with the lies he is being fed by the Australian government, angry with his home country and angry at the world. When I asked him if he wanted me to bring anything the following week he replied, “Just visit me again because I want someone to listen to me.” With a shaky voice I promised him that I would come again the following week, and I did.
From then on stories of struggle, defeat, false hope, companionship and faith filled my visits. Many of the detainees I spoke with have been in detention for over 20 months. Some are in limbo waiting on a verdict, while many were already given a rejection from ASIO under the pretence that they are a security risk but with no sufficient evidence to prove it. The detainees told me of how they sleep the day away with the aid of sleeping pills, the condition of the food they are fed and the physiological and physical impact that being in detention has bought about.
It’s clear that the frustration of waiting is taking its toll on the detainees. “I don’t understand I have completed all the paper work, I have a lawyer and case manager and they keep saying next week and here I am 25 months later still with no idea of my status,” said one of the detainees. These sentiments are shared amongst the men, all of whom continue to wait for a response.
A recent report handed down after an Immigration Detention inquiry, found that detention must be limited to 90 days so that the mental health of asylum seekers does not deteriorate, but take one visit to Villawood and you don’t need a report to tell you that 90 days of detention is enough to mentally impact a person.
I asked the Iraqi detainee why he chose to come to Australia, he smiled as he shook his head, “someone once told me this country is free, just and fair. I’m starting to think that person was crazy.”
Although it is understandable that there are rules, laws and regulations that need to be followed before one can gain refugees status, especially for those who arrive illegally, it is still unjustifiable and inhumane to lock up a person for two years without a valid reason for their rejection. This country that prides itself and is famous for giving people an equal opportunity at life has let down these global citizens who are in dire need of the government’s help. What’s worse is that authorities and the government continue to breach Human Rights laws with no one to hold them accountable.
During my visits I heard one heart break story after the next, but what was most striking about these men was that although their belief in the Australian justice legal system was understandably shattered, their hope and faith in God appeared impenetrable. As I walked out of the detention centre, crossing through the security doors, passing the barbed wire fence, for the first time in my life I truly understood and wholeheartedly felt what it means to walk as a free and liberated human being…something that the men I was leaving behind me have never experienced.