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Forging friendships in adversity

By Shira Sebban - posted Wednesday, 31 August 2016


They are a disparate, albeit tight-knit group. Laughing and chatting, they take up an entire long table, crowded together, as they eat their chicken curry customarily with their hands, the delectable aroma wafting through the air of the low security reception area.

The chef sits among them, her long, green manicured nails gleaming. The loyal, indefatigable partner of one of the detainees, she visits him and their friends daily, bringing in the traditional Sri Lankan Tamil dishes, which she cooks at home so they can enjoy a communal meal … until she was banned from Villawood Immigration Detention Centre for a month. Her crime? Apparently, she was preparing such generous quantities that the men could not finish all the food. Reluctant to let it go to waste, they were trying to sneak the leftovers into their rooms, which is against centre rules.

"Never mind," she tells me when I commiserate with her, "I'll be able to get some rest now". Over the next month she continues to prepare the curries as usual, only now giving them to a friend to take in on her behalf.

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Once, arriving early, I enter the reception area to find myself surrounded by a sea of welcoming faces. I am accompanying their queen, after all, who is temporarily on crutches following surgery. This is her first visit after ten days convalescing alone at home, supported by nuns and church group volunteers: Having befriended her at the centre, they have been driving her to medical appointments and bringing her meals several times a week.

Apologising for not having responded to messages, she explains her phone was stolen, a thief having broken into her apartment. Still unable to cook, she has brought in three pizzas and a couple of small plastic bottles of coke for the detainees to enjoy, complying with centre requirements restricting the amount of liquid allowed.

A guard approaches. "Are all these people on your list?" she asks officiously. Detainees are only allowed into the reception area if their names are recorded on a visitors application form at least 24 hours ahead of time, with a limit of four detainees per visitor. "There are only two of you and there are far too many Indians in this room." She gestures to the crowd of men waiting patiently behind the glass door behind us. "They'll have to wait until someone else arrives."

A few minutes later, she returns with the identity card of a Middle Eastern man whom I recognise. "Is he on your list too?" she asks. An affirmative response makes no difference – he still has to wait until the next visitor arrives before being allowed to join us.

One of the Tamil detainees has grown a heavy beard since my last visit. Normally impeccably neat, I originally did not feel comfortable asking this slender, soft-spoken man why he is no longer shaving, only to discover that this is his way of protesting: Try as he might, he has been unable to obtain security clearance to visit a lonely Sri Lankan friend, confined to a psychiatric hospital. The following week, the beard has vanished: a fellow detainee has told him his appearance is not appropriate in polite company, although permission to visit his friend has still not been granted.

Visitors and detainees alike, hailing from across the third world, gather to sing happy birthday to the queen's partner. The church volunteers have baked a cake - cream sponge covered in hundreds and thousands - multiculturalism is alive and well in the detention centre too.

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The young couple joins in the celebrations. They have been separated by the Immigration Department for over 18 months since he was detained, his temporary bridging visa cancelled for having ostensibly breached the Code of Behaviour.

Depicted as a promise to respect Australian laws and values, the Code, which "all adult illegal maritime arrivals" must sign, was first introduced in late 2013 to alleviate concerns that asylum seekers on bridging visas were allegedly committing criminal offences. It describes how they are expected to behave, expressly stipulating, for example, that asylum seekers not "engage in any anti-social or disruptive activities that are inconsiderate, disrespectful or threaten the peaceful enjoyment of other members of the community".

In other words, unlike Australian citizens, an asylum seeker can be detained for anything from a traffic infringement to spitting in public or hosting a noisy party.

Once detained, it can take a long time for a case to go through the courts. Even if an asylum seeker is ultimately found to be innocent, they still need to apply for a new visa, involving an interview, more paperwork and indefinite waiting.

One day, hopefully life will resume once more – with one difference: the couple plans to take in at least one of the other men they have befriended in detention. As 19th century English Reverend Charles Caleb Colton said: "The firmest friendships have been formed in mutual adversity, as iron is most strongly united by the fiercest flame."

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About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children's school.

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