The dictionary defines ‘asylum’ as “sanctuary, protection, especially [but not only] for those pursued by the law.” An asylum is “any of various kinds of institution offering shelter and support to distressed or destitute individuals, especially the mentally ill”.
Given the insights offered by Dorothy, in a soft voice that belies her obvious strength, it’s hardly surprising if poor mental health is one of the main issues arising from the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in the various detention centres on Christmas Island.
Dorothy insisted, “I don’t do very much...just sit with them and talk with them." She tells a string of stories about the people she has met and honoured, simply by listening to them.
“In our countries we are hunted, tortured and shot like animals, because we speak a different language or we have different skin or different religious values or for no reason. Will we be safe today? Many of our families and friends have been killed. If we go to market we may not make it home. If our children go to school, we are worried the school will be bombed.”
Vignettes like these explain why individuals, couples and families are willing to risk the terrible journey to places of supposed safety and sanctuary. Many see Australia as paradise, and are convinced that if they can just reach Australian shores, they will have a future.
One man told Dorothy, "Sister, I couldn't describe the boat journey - we were in hell. All I want is for my children to grow up in a free country, free from fear."
From another, “No matter what country we escape to, no one wants us. Why is it now that no one in Australia wants to accept us? Why are they so afraid? All we are asking is for freedom and to contribute to society.”
And another, “The soldiers came, they beat us and they killed some of us. They took her baby and threw it into the fire. This is why we took the dangerous journey to Australia. We are so grateful to be here.”
Despite news reports indicating otherwise, Dorothy was firm on the privations endured by asylum seekers on arrival at Christmas Island. Even those who in the past have reached the mainland remain at risk, in terms of mental health concerns, inability to find meaningful work and propensity to be taken advantage of, for example, by landlords.
The use of language to demonise asylum seekers adds another dimension to their plight. Terms like ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ are essentially meaningless but carry a great deal of emotional weight. One man who shared his story with Dorothy asked her, “How am I a queue jumper after 28 years?”
Some are criticised because they don’t carry a passport or other papers, but in some countries the process for gaining a passport through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can be capricious at best. “We know the boat trip's dangerous but where do we get a passport in Afghanistan, war torn Syria...we have tried, we cannot get a passport. So we take the risk. It is better to die with hope in the sea than to die without any hope in our country.”
Dorothy is a veteran of challenging ministries in difficult places, but Christmas Island is easily the hardest place she’s served, simply because, “I can't give them even hope.”
When asked what sustains her, she says, “My prayer life, and there’s a torture and trauma counsellor I have a cup of tea with sometimes.” Sometime’s she’s able to take a small group of detainees on a drive around the island, which she describes as “a beautiful, majestic place - if you're not an asylum seeker”.
Ironically, at a particular season of the year, they must take great care to avoid injuring or killing the distinctive red crabs that are emblematic of the area.
Dorothy concluded by showing the moving documentary Between the devil and the deep blue sea produced by Jessica Taylor and David Schmidt. It shows a young man who says, “I’m 24 years old. I’ve never had a country. I would give anything for a country.”
We have a country.
Article by Tracey Edstein. You may wish to visit www.sistersofcharity.org.au and deepblueseafilm.com