A Visit To Villawood Part 2
"If you want to learn something about absolutely anything, go to the primary sources first."
Words by Ian Malcom, header photo via.
Read part 1 HERE.
Author's Note: Pseudonyms have been used and certain personal details omitted in this article to protect the identities of those involved.
Somewhere between Parramatta and Liverpool lies the suburb of Villawood. Amongst a plethora of factories, depots and warehouses, a brightly lit compound stands out from the crowd. As you'd probably be aware if you read Part 1 of this series, I honestly had no idea what to expect from the Villawood Detention Centre. Would it be a dilapidated old complex of buildings? Would there be tonnes of police? Would they somehow figure out my intentions and arrest me on sight?
Serco, a UK-based multinational outsourcing company that operates across the globe, manages the facility. The tall, sleek walls delineate the borders of the Centre, accompanied by a dull and uninspiring colour scheme. The kangaroo and emu of Australia’s Coat of Arms keep watch, sitting neatly on a wall adjacent to the visitor’s entrance.
In order to gain access to the visitor's area of Villawood, you must submit an application form at least 24 hours prior stating who you intend to visit, provide identification details and sign a ‘Condition of Entry’ form. On arrival, the security rigmarole is not unlike the experience at any airport. After I passed through a series of security doors, I stepped out into a landscaped garden that left much to be desired. On top of small mounds of half dead grass, the few plants that are tasked with livening up the area looked like they’d had the life sapped out of them. I still felt like I was in an international airport terminal, somewhere in the world.
My friend and I passed through the second security checkpoint as the guards checked our clearance wristbands. "I guess the party must be over for today, it's quieter than usual," my friend remarked. Thursday is a big day at Villawood. It’s the day that members of the community take it upon themselves to spend some time with detainees – to share food, laughs and frustrations. Come 6pm, paper plates, plastic cutlery and half drunk cups of bland white tea were the only remaining evidence of the occasion.
Being in the visitor's area of an Australian Immigration detention centre is challenging for a lot of reasons, but some are more surprising than others. It actually really tests your social skills. Very rarely would I actively approach someone in a normal social situation, but here I feel like I need to encourage myself to do so. Most of the detainees seemed happy enough to talk to a stranger like me. Maybe it’s a welcome change from the monotony of daily life that comes with being incarcerated? Or maybe I’m just really personable? (ha! Doubt it)
During my first (slightly apprehensive) visit, I talked about many things with many different people – from the reasons why people had left their homeland to the fact the Blaxland High Security Compound within Villawood was known by many inside as ‘Hell’s Land’. There were two key things I drew from that first experience; firstly, actively listening for hours at a time is really, really exhausting. And, secondly, the experience itself left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Where was all the drama I was expecting?
A week later I stepped off onto the train platform in the red afternoon light. Everything that seemed so new and engaging only a week earlier now seemed familiar and uninteresting. As I swung the heavy glass door open and heard the click of the lock I was already scanning the room for familiar faces from the week before. As fate would have it, Aasiya’s face was not yet one of the familiar ones.
Aasiya is young and her smile seems to radiate throughout the whole room. Her English is faultless. Two years ago she could count the amount of words she knew in English on one hand – today she speaks with a fluency that many Australians would envy. The fact that her learning occurred while detained I find both amazing and admirable. Having done it myself in easier circumstances I can relate well to experiences of the difficulties of achieving fluency in a foreign language.
As conversation progressed, there was a juxtaposition evident between the content of Aasiya’s stories and her body language and facial expressions. Aasiya’s smile and heart-warming laugh ensured conversation flowed freely, regardless of the confronting details she shared with me.
After the death of her father, she was held hostage for a total of six months. On escape from her home country endless months followed in transit via the Middle East until she finally arrived in Jakarta. Aasyia is somewhat unsure about exactly how long this journey took. She told me her perception of time was greatly warped by the uncertainty about her destination – but estimated that a year had passed from her departure from home to her arrival in Indonesia. Aasiya was so ill she didn’t remember the first few days of the treacherous boat journey to the Northern coast of Australia. She does, however, remember the cold nights outside without blankets on an Australian naval vessel after her illness had subsided. Her arrival in the territorial waters of the ‘lucky country’ meant spending 14 months on Nauru and seven months (so far) in Villawood.
Resilience is a word that took me many years to grasp. I probably still don’t fully understand its power. I think the first time I started to recognise its true meaning was after travelling to Vietnam as a teenager, and meeting people who had finally emerged from over 900 years of occupation. Resilience can take many forms and mean different things for different people. For me personally, Aasiya embodies what it is to be resilient. It appears to me that true resilience only appears when a person is subject to genuine adversity and as a result this resilience earns you some form of invincibility. On that Thursday, as I stared at the reflection of the fluorescent lights in the window, I realised that there is infinite beauty in acts of resilience.
Aasiya and I talked about many things. About case managers and lawyers and immigration policies. Her effortless humour shone through as she recounted her response to a question from an Australian Immigration officer. Upon their request as to her reason for attempting to arrive "illegally" in Australia, she apparently responded: "I didn't come here for a holiday!"
I asked what the best thing about Villawood is, in a feeble attempt at finding some sort of silver lining. Aasiya responded instantly: "I am grateful to be safe". Apart from the monotony and loneliness that life in a detention centre ensures, the thing she missed most about her home country is simple: "I miss my brothers." Aasiya has a number of brothers, all her juniors. They were the reason she fled. The decision to leave her home was not taken lightly, but once the options were weighed up she decided that the safety of her own family far outweighed her desire to stay put. “I didn’t have a choice; they would have been killed”. The worst part about Villawood? Again, her answer is remarkably simple: “I am not free”.
Our conversation drifted, inevitably, to Nauru where Aasiya was previously detained. For Aasiya, the stifling 45-degree heat made concentrating in class nearly impossible. I stop her for a second.
“Wait, you had school classes on Nauru?”
“Yes, but a lot of kids would not go to class.”
While Aasiya keenly attended classes, she told me that many young people refused to attend. She suggests it may have been an act of defiance. She tells me that frequent attempts by guards to encourage the kids to attend class resulted in swearing matches between the two groups.
Aasiya tells me many children preferred a different type of hobby – waving to planes that flew overhead. She recounts how they used to sit all day and wait, and at the sight of a plane would jump around and wave frantically. I explained that as a kid I used to do the same thing, as I used to get a kick out of it. She tells me that she thinks the waving wasn’t for thrills, as far as she’s concerned these were signs of desperation.
On Nauru apparently everyone is given a number. Aasiya explains that more often than not people are referred to by their number. Apparently detainees – using this resilience I talked about earlier – often refuse to respond to numbers. Aasiya tells me that sometimes she still introduces herself by her number, the result of a 14-month habit of doing so. She tells me it can be a little embarrassing.
Aasiya considers herself safe, for now. But the impending threat of relocation is ever-present. One detainee told me that a fellow detainee (and friend) had recently married someone "on the outside". Two weeks later, his friend was moved to Christmas Island with less than 24 hours notice. I ask Aasiya about relocation and she confirms this as a common practice. She explains that people she knew personally were removed from this very visitor's area and relocated offshore without being given access to their personal belongings prior to departure. Stories of the wellbeing of friends and acquaintances travel orally, but also through the internet and social media.
Again, I am left emotionally and mentally drained after hours of intense conversation. As I trudge out past the security guard, who cuts off my access wristband, my mind seems blank. So much of the time I’ve spent in the visitor’s area seems so removed from any kind of reality of my own.
Fast forward to a week later and a world away from Villawood, I find myself counting lentils and rice as part of the Marina Abramovic exhibition Private Archaeology at MONA in Hobart. For those who haven't been, entry requires that all forms of technology (including timepieces) are left behind. I open my locker to find a lab coat and earmuffs. I take my assigned seat at a long white table as the museum assistant scatters the granules in front me. As the guide suggests I may count the rice and lentils for as long as I wish, but there is no form of compulsion. I steal a look around, admiring the meticulous efforts of people close to me. Some have produced works of art while others have mastered their own form of efficient rice counting methods. All efforts, however, appear to be in vain as the rice and lentils are eventually returned to their rightful place in the pile that runs the length of the white table.
I begin somewhat clumsily, eventually finding my rhythm and examining how efficient I’m able to be with the counting. I’m quite content for over an hour but suddenly out of nowhere an unnerving irritability overcomes me. Everything has become so monotonous. What was I working towards? What goals did I have? Where was my end point? My anxiety eventually morphs into frustration. It’s only then in the subterranean depths of MONA that I realise that I can use this as some sort of reference point when I try to imagine what Aasiya is going through. Of course, my experiences in now allow me to inhabit the gravity of her situation, but it at least helps in my attempts to be empathetic.
Basically, Aasiya (and many others like her) is just waiting. Waiting for the moment when she can be certain of her future. And it's the very nature of this uncertainty that seems to be the most frustrating part of it all. I know that I can leave this room and stop counting rice and lentils whenever I want, but Aasiya can’t walk out of Villawood.
Eventually, after further attempts to stick it out, I stand up. I glance back at my my efforts – a neatly arranged group of lentils I have left behind in the form of one word: “Freedom?” I turn around and walk out.
If you wish to read further accounts of what it's like to be in detention, Behind The Wire is a project set up with the objective of presenting real stories written by refugees themselves from behind closed doors.