Outside Looking In
by Lizza Gebilagin
Published in Rolling Stone
Issue 600, May 2002

Refugees talk about their experiences from both sides of the detention centre fence.

Last December, the busty woman in the Cougar ad, Brendalee Doel, was deported from Australia. The Canadian model was apprehended by immigration officials and taken to Villawood detention centre after she forgot to renew her visa. She was told to leave the country immediately. As it was going to be at least three years before she’d be allowed back to shoot another bourbon commercial in a tight T-shirt, the media waited at Sydney Airport to interview her one last time.

Doel, in tears, told reporters of her three-day ordeal in the Villawood centre. She said, “I’m used to rubbing shoulders with celebrities at A-list parties. Suddenly, overnight, I was being treated like an Afghan refugee, vilified, belittled and forced to share filthy accommodation with other women who could hardly speak English. It was a living nightmare.”

Three days may have seemed like a nightmare for Doel, but many less fortunate people have spent far longer stints in Australian detention centres.

Masqood Alshams spent 15 months in the Villawood centre. Just like Doel, Alshams overstayed his visa, but for him it wasn’t a simple case of shipping him back to where he came from.

The 36-year-old former journalist was forced to leave Bangladesh after several threats were made on his life. He is an outspoken journalist and in his home country there is no room for people who publicly condemn the government. He says, “I’m a strong critic of every wrongdoing. I even criticised the wrongdoings of my own party officials. As a result, I faced a few serious threats to my life, such as [people] throwing bombs at my home. I was shot at a number of times, but luckily I managed to escape from those attacks.”

In mid-1995 it was clear that it was no longer safe for him in Bangladesh, so he left the country to work in a Singaporean media outlet. Once there his employer found him a job in their Sydney office and Alshams came to Australia with a temporary business visa. But the company soon went under and he lost his job. He went to Denmark to study and ended up in Australia after finding himself “an internally displaced person with nowhere to go”. After 90 days he failed to renew his visa as he was ill informed of the changes to immigration laws. He was apprehended and taken to the detention centre at Villawood. He couldn’t return to Bangladesh, so instead he was detained In Villawood for 15 months while his refugee status was being determined.

“I had no fear because I had not committed any crime, I was just in breach of an administrative decision – for that I can’t be imprisoned or brutally punished,” Alshams says. “When I ended up in the detention centre I found that it was not a prison, not a jail, it was something greater than that. The behaviour of the officials of the Australasian Correctional Management – those who manage the detention centre – was really unacceptable for any civilised human being.
“An official from the Department of Immigration came to interview me and I found that his method of interviewing was kind of intimidating, harassing, as well as a bit cunning and tricky. He treated me like a criminal. The only message they want to convey to the people is, ‘You are not welcome here, just leave this country’. I was not a strong believer in my life, but when I ended up in the detention centre, I have to say that God saved me.” (Alshams is now living and working in Sydney.)

East Timorese woman Dollyva de Oliveria also spent time in Villawood. As she sees it, “Refugees come [to Australia] not because they want to come here. It’s because of something that has forced them to leave their country. If they felt fine there, if they felt safe and secure, they wouldn’t go.”

In 1999, Oliveria’s family had to flee their home town of Balide, Dili, in East Timor, when the conflict between the Indonesians and the Timorese escalated. “That time we were so scared because the military and the militia were passing in the streets, screaming, ‘Get out of your house or we’re going to burn you in your house! We’re going to kill you! We were scared that they would kill my dad because he is a revolutionary. That’s why we thought it would be better to leave and go somewhere else for safety.”

The only place where they believed the militia could not touch them was the United Nations compound. Oliveria’s family turned up with other members of their community. She says, “When we got there the Indonesian troops were waiting. They were standing there as if they were there to defend you, but actually they were the ones who would kill you by the time the militia come.”

They pleaded with the UN to let them into the compound before the militia arrived. But, as Oliveria remembers, “The UN didn’t want to listen to us. They thought that we were just playing around. That’s why the men took their wives and their children and threw them over the fences. They just threw us. The fence was about as high as a bookshelf and there was barbed wire at the top.”

Wives and children cried and desperately begged the UN staff to let the others in. The men were eventually let into the compound and they were crammed into a hall with another hundred people. It was where they ate, slept and waited for five days. After heated negotiations they were taken to the airport, unaware of their destination.

“When we got there the militia were already waiting for us. I was like, ‘Oh my God! Are we going to die now?’ We walked past the militia, who pointed to my dad and said, ‘That’s him! That’s him! We need to kill him.’ But fortunately my dad was with the UN staff. We got into the airport and waited there. It was totally nothing because they had already destroyed it. We couldn’t even go to the toilet because there was blood and dead people in there. We just sat there for 24 hours and suddenly they said, ‘Now you can go. We’re going to take all of you to Darwin’.”

Two years have passed. Oliveria, now 19, feels safe in Australia. “You don’t have to worry about anything and can just forget about things that have happened,” she says. It’s a great opportunity to stay here.” She’s plagued with the usual teen dilemmas: the HSC, boys and schoolyard bitchiness. And even though Australia has given her family a safe haven, she feels it’s nearly time to go back. She says, “I miss my friends, my house and my culture. Hopefully we can go back to East Timor next year where I can study psychology. I think I have the ability to be a psychologist. I just have it in me.”

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Muslims around the world were victims of people’s anger. In Australia it only added to the resentment already being stirred up by PM Howard after he refused the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa entry into our waters. The mostly Afghan refugees on the ship were first looked at as illegal immigrants, queue jumpers finding an easy was into Australia. After September 11 they were being linked to terrorists and terrorism.

Abeda Iqbal came to Australia as an Afghan refugee 16 years ago. Long before the Taliban were in power, the Russians occupied Afghanistan. Iqbal’s father’s political and religious beliefs were in conflict with the Russians and he was facing persecution, so they left their home. She says, “Basically, we left in the middle of the night in complete darkness. It was unfortunate because we were not able to say goodbye to our family friends. We feared that if the government got wind of it, they would stop us from leaving.”

She arrived in Australia with her family when she was seven. To add to her difficulties, Iqbal was faced with an added task. “I think with us kids we were trying to fit into two worlds. I remember in high school the arguments I used to have with my dad because he wouldn’t let me out, while my friends could. But as the years went past I was able to get a good balance between the two cultures.” When asked whether she has plans to go back to Afghanistan to live, she replies, “I’m not sure because I consider Australia my home. I’ve been brought up here. This is all I know.”

She has found it violating that in the place she considers her home, people have turned on her friends. They’ve torn off their head covering (the hijab) in the streets and on train stations. Her clients at the Auburn Resource Centre are also finding it difficult to get housing because of their refugee status. In comparison, Iqbal has been lucky. She says, “I think it’s because of the environment that I work in and also going to university where people are educated and open-minded. They can make the distinction between the individual and between their culture and their religion. For example, the perpetrators of these atrocities that took place in America - my friends at uni realise that not all Muslims, not all Afghans are like that.”

Ahmad Safi*, a recent graduate at Macquarie University, is another Afghan refugee. His family left in 1988 when, at 15, he was being forced to join the Russian army – who were in power at the time – to fight against fellow Afghans. They escaped and eventually arrived in Australia two years later. The only thing that he misses from Afghanistan is his father’s bookshelf that introduced him to a broad range of literature. He says, “As a child of war I think you don’t actually remember the good things because you always remember the bad things: the devastation, the misery, the war.”

Coming to Australia was a way for Safi to reclaim the youth that he lost in Afghanistan. “It wasn’t a typical way to grow up as a teenager [in Afghanistan]. It was authoritarian … a terrible situation. I’m glad I live in Australia. I can breathe. I can breathe in peace and that’s the important thing.”

But, like many others, Safi is wary about the future within the current political climate. “The problem is not the ordinary people,” he says, “it’s the government who are trying to exploit the darkest fears of the community about Asians, Muslim asylum seekers and Middle Eastern people. Australian people aren’t racist. People aren’t born racist, they are made racist. Do we have a vision for this nation? During the Olympics we showcased all of the sections of multicultural society. That was 2000. Fast forward to 2001 and we are using the navy to turn away asylum seekers. Yeah, that’s life.”

*Name changed to protect his identity.

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(c) 2006-2007 Lizza Gebilagin. All rights reserved.