My Journey Toward Afghanistan from a Detention Center

by - 5:30 PM

You’ll never find out what people are truly like just by reading about them on the news – you find out by going to them, and simply being with them. In 2013, when I first began seeing the news and debate about the heated issue of asylum seekers and refugees coming to Australia by boat, I figured, I won’t know the full story until I see these people in person. The answer to this dilemma was simple, I will find them and say hello for myself. So I Googled up ‘detention centers in Melbourne’ and found that the only one I was allowed to visit was the MITA detention center, which housed children, women and families in transit, waiting for their bridging visa or asylum-seeker status to be approved. Even though you couldn’t just turn up and try to visit people you didn’t know, by God’s grace, I managed to do just that.

I found a page on Facebook made of people who were visiting detention centers and starting up various initiatives to assist new arrivals. I posted my interest, asking for advice on how to go about a visit. It ‘so happened’ that a friend of mine was on that page. As you can see from my life, these instances of things ‘so happening’ tend to occur quite often… Maybe it is in direct correlation to the prayers I ‘so happen’ to pray. With this Facebook friend who happened to be on the page, truth was that I didn’t even know her very well since we met only once at a camp for Sudanese refugee youth. Still, she had kindly responded to my inquiry and said I could come with her for my first visit. Since she already knew some people in the detention center, I could pretend that I was also one of their visitor friends. Once I made the first entry, I would be able to meet other refugees in the visitor room and on future visits, list them as the friends I wanted to visit. So, that’s exactly what happened!

I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit. It was quite formal, and not at all unpleasant as some people might think. I had to introduce myself to the detention center security at the front desk, fill my details in a form and name the people I was there to visit. They asked me to store my phone and bag in a locker so I took nothing in with me. When I walked into the visitors’ lounge room, I found myself in a large room with air-conditioning, ambient warm lights, sofas, some coffee tables, and a tea counter for visitors to make a cup of tea or coffee. It was nicer than I expected.

That day seemed to be a busy evening filled with visitors coming in and out over the two-hour visiting period. There were children playing around, mothers talking in a stream of their own languages – Dari, Urdu, Singhalese. There were also single men huddled together in a corner, chattering quietly, largely keeping to themselves. My friend introduced me to a few people she knew. But soon enough, I was making my own friends and trying to hear their stories with the simplest English questions I could use.

Over about 3 months, I frequently took the long one-and-a-half-hour train and bus ride to Broadmeadows – one of the most multi-ethnic and culturally diverse suburbs in Melbourne – where the detention center was. One of my first friends was a single Iranian young woman who was seeking asylum in Melbourne, still in the process of interviews, and waiting for her bridging visa to be issued. She was sitting quietly amongst a boisterous young Afghan family – they had no father with them, just a mom and her 5 children. They came by boat. I later also befriended a few Persian families and young Afghan asylum seekers, some who were living in Iran, Pakistan or Indonesia before coming here.

A cool thing that happened on one of the visits was an encounter I had with a detention center translator and officer, an Afghan man who turned out to be a musician who wrote his own songs and played the harmonium. We exchanged contacts since I told him I was a musician too, and later in the year, I was invited to his large Afghan engagement party where I met his family and his beautiful fiancée. They invited me to perform and sing. I remember standing on the stage with the keyboard in front of me, singing one of my songs – There’s A Freedom – to a bewildered crowd of Afghans, men seated in the front of the auditorium, and a sea of women wearing white headscarves in the other half of the hall. I felt like I’d walked into a different world – a microcosm of Afghanistan in Melbourne. Yes, these places exist. You simply have to find these wonderful folks and be invited into their space – if they feel you are their friend, and not just some do-gooder trying to ‘help’ them or make a story out of them!

Around the same time that I visited the detention center, through my own Google research, I found out about an English camp specially for immigrant and refugee youth. I decided to volunteer for it and that was where I met some exceptional Afghan young people who had already been living in Melbourne for a few months or years. In that wonderful camp context, we were able to connect more, unlike at the detention center, where communication was limited to the visitors’ lounge room. (And truth was, most of the people stuck in that transit center were hesitant to share the extent of their journeys or life stories because it could negatively affect their application for asylum or refugee status.)

One of the young women I met at the English camp – Setara, meaning ‘star’ in Dari – has become one of my dearest Afghan friends in Melbourne. I knew from the moment I said hi that we could be like sisters. Even though she was only 17, I felt she had lived a whole lifetime and had a story to tell. I didn’t hear about it all at once, it simply trickled out through our conversations and our friendship over many months. Almost ten years ago, things were really bad in her home country and her father had to escape the Taliban. When he alone made it to Australia as an asylum seeker, it took another 6 years until he was able to bring his wife and children over on reunification grounds. Setara would tell me how difficult those 6 years were, where her mother had to take care of all of them, plus some other cousins. They all slept in their small house with mud floors, cramped into rows altogether. She barely got a chance to go to school then. But now she is safe, in Australia, and she’s still trying to get a hold of the English language. When she first arrived, she couldn’t speak or write a single alphabet! Now her big family – with two other sisters and four brothers, two of whom were married with kids– are living altogether in the same suburban house, and doing very well. In recent years, after graduating from highschool, she chose to study her Bachelor of Early Childhood Education. We’ve often met up at a café or her home to go through her assignments and I’d help expand her thinking by initiating discussion about educational ideas and concepts that were challenging in terms of her grasp of the language. She improved over time. I helped her with editing as well, since I was also in the line of education and completing my Master of Music Teaching at Monash University.

In 2016, when Setara was going to visit her homeland, she asked if I wanted to join her family. I got really excited about the prospect. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, due to university. I remember checking the flights and really considering it. But it wasn’t yet time. Nevertheless, I felt certain in my heart that very soon, Afghanistan would be in my sights.

As I now trace the winding road of my unexpected journey towards Afghanistan and its beautiful people – the way it started with a small desire to ‘find out more’ by hearing their stories and sitting with them over tea in a detention center; how it became a reality through my willingness to travel the long distance to the opposite side of the city to enter an unknown space and a more dangerous neighborhood; how those first steps progressed into friendships with families who received their bridging visas and started to make a new life in Australian suburbs; how it led me to make the prayer that one day I would go to Afghanistan and see with my own eyes the land that these friends of mine have harrowingly escaped – my heart fills with thankfulness that truly, people are really not that unreachable or unknowable if we stop seeing them that way. The first step begins with you crossing the chasm – walking over that initial barrier of uncertainty, of cultural difference, of perceived danger.

Upon reflection, I see that I began my journey towards Afghanistan not this year, but many years back when I was 17 and began reading Afghan biographies, then a few years ago at 20 when I ventured to the detention center on my own, and earlier this year at 24 when I chose to bring myself and my music to the very land itself. Now here I am. It didn’t just magically happen. Instead, as one would expect, it miraculously unfolded over a period of winding years, preparing me to know and love a people who hold a vastly different orientation of cultural traditions and societal rules. The journey is always long, but you never quite feel it because you’re meeting people and going through challenges along the way that take up space in your heart.

Concerning the whole refugee crisis (and debate), I want to voice a small thing. I feel like people make a huge deal about them – specially emphasizing and calling them refugees, giving them that pitiable label as if that’s all they’d ever done with their lives. But really, I feel like we should just go about the humble business of reaching out and helping them, recognizing their histories and their skills and talents. We should also get on with this work without spending too much time blaming everything on our flawed governments. I believe we need a balanced view of things, and one that includes action on our part, however small or simple. The wonderful people I met at the detention center were often frustrated that their visa process were taking so long, and it’s true, some people fall through the cracks. They have been languishing for far too long without progress – but at the same time, there were many families and individual asylum seekers who received the immense and timely assistance they deserved as well, and they settled into a new life with a lot of social help – both officially and also informally through various charity groups and kind Australians. Some people focus on demonizing the detention center and the policies that keep people stuck in it, and that may be an important area of focus for them, but for me, I’d like to see both sides of the coin. I’ve met ‘refugees’ who had the money to pay their way and get smuggled by boat to Australia. As harrowing as the journey was, they did have the money and the means to escape their countries in that way. There were and remain many others who have no money and no means; those who are still languishing somewhere in an IDP camp or a UNHCR camp in Indonesia or Turkey or elsewhere. How do we help them? I realize that I’m just speaking in generalities, even now – and that this is such a complex situation. But then, it is all the more important that we investigate thoroughly and listen to people on all sides to acquire a balanced view.

Even as we acknowledge that our governments are flawed in their policies, we must also see that there are some who are trying to do something. That something may not always be the best course of action or solution, but does anyone have the better way out of this mess? My take is, rather than blame another group – let’s find out, together. It’s difficult – to balance the developing combination of research, policy and on-the-ground action, and to foster dialogue between different groups and governments. Maybe that is where we are failing perennially. But I believe that in the ‘finding out’, we enter into this mess with an attitude of humility – and it goes without saying that the process must involve the very people we are trying to help. Often it seems like people in high places are making all these big decisions in their costly conferences and meetings and debates about the people who need our help, but sadly, the very people in low places are left out of the conversation. That is the missing link in all our wonderful and important ‘initiatives’ and projects these days. That’s why I love the example of Jesus – he always walked among the people, talked with them, ate with them, touched the untouchables.

Ultimately, I think my ‘active’ philosophy is to simply get into the thick of it – the dirt, the grime, the pain, the poverty – and in that place of unknowable uncertainties, find that all other lies, accusations, discomforts, pains, histories, differences, eventually fade (or come into proper focus) in the face of the truth carried by the real person or people.

 [Cover Art: Koerdisch Nieuws, Netherlands Refugee Art]

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