Whether they’re in detention, or living in the community waiting to hear if they’re to be allowed to stay in Australia, freedom remains an elusive dream for many refugees.
A list of nine family names together with their addresses was in my bag. Once the plane landed in Sri Lanka the adventure began. A mix up at the airport took me in the wrong direction. I hoped it wasn’t an indicator pointing to a troublesome time. Next day things slipped into gear and we were on our way to Jaffna, a city in the north of the country.
I had got the names of the families on my list from the Tamil men who were in a detention centre in Melbourne. They were boat arrivals, landing first at Christmas Island and after a time moved to other centres in Australia, finally arriving at this detention place in Melbourne. Some had been long detained, but they all had a negative security assessment upon them. This means there were doubts about the risk they might pose to the Australian community.
Over time I asked questions about their families; especially about the length of their separation, and how were they coping while held in a detention that was indefinite. Money was forwarded, but, knowing little about the conditions of life, it was hard to offer support.
Until one day an invitation came to go to Sri Lanka. For a couple of weeks we visited the families whose names we had and others we were told about.
There were two questions that troubled the families: When would their family member be freed? Will they (their families) ever see them again?
There were tears as well, and, always, hospitality. The saddest time came from a stranger. It was in the city of Trincomellee (Trinco). It was a Sunday morning. He had heard that visitors from Australia were in the city. He showed a passport size photo of his son and asked if I had seen him in Australia.
On a night in 2012 he had received a phone call from his son telling him that he and his wife were on board a boat which was leaving for Australia. He had heard nothing since. It was now three years later. The father was living with the hope that somewhere, sometime, someone might have news of his son and daughter-in-law.
In Batticolo, the city from which a number of the detainees came, there were four families to meet. Raj’s mother and one of his brothers were among them. She was supportive of her son leaving Sri Lanka and had hoped he would find his way to London. Things didn’t work out like that. He was in Melbourne, indefinitely detained.
She had promised that if he was ever released she would undertake a 17-day pilgrimage, and so when he was finally set free she began her journey. She walked barefoot, shredding her feet as though they had gone through a blender. Her family tried to stop her continuing, but she wouldn’t. She had promised. Her son was out of detention and it was time to fulfil the promise. But the question remained: Would she ever see him again?
Three years after my visit to Sri Lanka, all the men of the families we visited are free to live in the Australian community. Not that they are free in the true sense of the word. Raj has little idea of how secure his living here is. His is a bridging visa. He has to wait until he is informed by the Department before he can apply for a Temporary Protection Visa. Once that is granted, he waits again for a number of years before he can apply for Australian Citizenship.
Raj married the woman who visited him in the centre. She came because the church she belonged to encouraged its members to visit the stranger and the unwelcome. She and Raj became friends and soon the friendship would grow deeper.
They married shortly after he was released into the community. Together they manage a small business. They have put off children until they are secure about their future here. The distress has got to him and he is attending a centre for torture and trauma counselling. His wife went to the family home in Sri Lanka for a wedding. He is a refugee, and without Australian citizenship he could not go.
On his wedding day, he began his speech at the reception with the words: ‘I wish my parents were here.’ That was all he said, for he burst into tears and sobbed. It was the cry of the heart. Every other refugee felt for him because they knew where his heartache came from.
The first question about freedom from detention has been answered for all the men whose families we called upon. The second is still unresolved. There is so much heart pain, especially for the men who are fathers. Doctors write letters explaining their mental anguish. But the uncertainty and separation continues.
Christmas after Christmas comes and goes. The men gather in someone’s place and shed their tears at what appears the hopelessness of having left all. For it was, in hope, that they had left all. It was with the dream that they could offer their children a new home. Theirs was also the dream of seeing their families.
Perhaps, it is a matter of finding home. Freedom and home are bound together.
Fr Peter Carrucan provides pastoral care to refugees in Melbourne.