What do you say to a man who witnessed the drowning of his wife and children on a capsized ship? What do you say to a young adult whose child died in the bombings of Damascus? What do you say to a kid who was almost beaten to death by police forces?
What do you say to a 7-year-old who has always been surrounded by barbed wire fences?
I spoke for about 7 hours today with asylum seekers at Villawood Detention Centre, situated just outside of Sydney. The detention centre is probably one of the most disheartening places I have ever seen in my life, where some of the most vulnerable people are locked up indefinitely whilst having done nothing wrong. It's a place where those in dire need are dumped in oblivion.
Whilst this post may seem to be sentimental, or naive, or both, I think it captures my thoughts and feelings pretty well. I want to share them, and express them, because after a day full of horrific stories told by beautiful people, there is only so much a person can bear and suppress.
Most asylum seekers were of my age or younger, with some of the boys being as young as 18 years old. They were generally friendly, clever and incredibly polite, and many of them had a rather good command of English. Some of them were medicine students, others were metal craftsmen, teachers, nurses, construction workers, technicians. Some were fathers, others were sons. They were talking with passion and joy about their professions in their home countries, setting aside the hopelessness of their situation for a moment. "At the very least we're still alive", is what one of the guys told me with a smile on his face. "That's more than what many people in my country can say."
Yes, asylum seekers are just like humans - except for the fact that they are not allowed to have a life. Everything they do is controlled, regulated, and supervised, this time not by a persecuting regime but by a government of the alleged liberal and free world. They are kept away from society, far outside the public eye of scrutiny, which goes to the core of the problem. Indeed, in this policy field, out of sight indeed seems to mean out of heart.
I strongly believe that the asylum debate would be shaped differently if people actually knew what was going on in detention centres. If they actually spoke to asylum seekers. If they witnessed their situations, their fears and their struggles. If you have never been to a detention centre, go and go now. Talk to the people, but most of all, listen to them. Hear them out before you take a stance.
Should we really be concerned and afraid of them? Or are they the afraid ones we should concern ourselves with?
Today's visit was another eye-opener, and I feel disgusted and embarrassed by the view I got.