Mariam, and children like her, remind us how to focus positive intentions and perspective towards our common humanity.
It was almost Christmas in 2014 and I was sitting in the visiting area of an Australian onshore immigration detention centre with a ten-year-old girl from Iran. Mariam* had been in Australia for a year and a half. Her family came by boat from Malaysia. Their first contact with Australia was with the Navy who intercepted their boat and brought them to the Christmas Island detention centre.
Mariam told me about life on Christmas Island, where she had been the year before. She told me about the large group of other children she had befriended and how they would all look forward to the occasional visits to the local swimming pool. She spoke of how the humidity kept her up at night, how some children would cry and talk about self harm, how her friends felt the anxiety and depression of their parents and other detainees, how she used to practise her maths homework a lot, how she aspired to become a teacher. She spoke of all these experiences with equal candour.
A Paper Crane Wish
One day she was overcome with excitement remembering a favourite story she wanted to share. “Do you know paper cranes?” she asked me. “Yes,” I nodded warmly.
She continued enthusiastically:
You know, last year I was on Christmas Island and the guards there were really nice. They taught my friends and I how to make these cranes out of paper. Did you know if you make 1,000 of them your wish comes true? But you have to write your wish inside the crane when you make it. So, we wrote that we wished we didn’t live behind a fence anymore.
Her excited innocence set against the bleakness of her reality brought tears to my eyes. I swiftly looked out the window to the detained Sri Lankan Tamil men playing volleyball outside. I forced a smile and looked back to her.
And then, you know. The wish came true because one of my friends went to Adelaide and another one went to Brisbane and I came to Melbourne. So it works!
Living Behind A Fence
As Mariam continued to share her story, she revealed that her group of friends all got sent to onshore detention centres, so they still lived behind fences scattered across Australia. In other Western nations such as the United Kingdom, mandatory detention of children is limited to 72 hours and is in specially designated accommodation. It can be extended to one week under exceptional circumstances. In Sweden, the same 72-hour limit remains and can be extended as required but usually does not exceed a week, whereas Australia has children who have been living in immigration detention facilities for an average of 441 days. Not only this, but 23% of these young people have been detained for more than 2 years. It’s also an incredibly expensive operation costing approximately $450,000 per person, per year for people to remain detained for seeking asylum. A basic human right they are entitled to under the UN Refugee Convention.
No child should have to live behind a fence for seeking asylum.
Keeping Hope Alive
Despite the setting of her story, Mariam’s hope and miraculous outlook still shone through. She chose to see each part of her journey as a step to freedom and it was comforting for her. She chose to see magic and granted wishes with childlike innocence. She showed me that perspective really is relative and that we do have the capacity to create meaning around everything that happens to us.
We sat in the sterile visiting area. This space had become her shared living room with the other people seeking to call Australia home, from an Italian family who had overstayed their visas after death threats from the mafia, to an Iranian family whose relatives had been killed for being Christian and fled after receiving threats for the same fate. Surprisingly for me, the visiting room still had an air of hope as detained children, with strong Australian accents, sat in the corner chatting and making loom band bracelets. Residents were filled with gratitude for their visitors and always showed great hospitality, offering tea and water to those who came to see them.
A Sri Lankan girl told us how her face had been cut out of the school photos because of her detainee status and how she felt left out because she didn’t have money for the canteen like the other kids. Stories like these are plentiful within the Australian immigration sphere. I sat with Mariam in her local state school uniform, looking out to the yard as the group of young Sri Lankan men continued to play.
Outside The Fence
A few weeks later, I was in Japan at the Hiroshima monument. Three different groups of Japanese school children approached me, handed me a paper crane and asked me to write a message for world peace in their workbooks. I then watched these young children gather together and lead themselves in meditation, sitting serenely under the children’s peace monument. I thought of Mariam, of the children back in Australia – free during the day to go to school and sent back to “the camp” at night to sleep behind a fence. The fence she thought she’d wished herself out of.
Whilst the trauma of her experience and its impacts may linger on, I am inspired by the way in which her curiosity, zest for life, resilience and optimism always seemed to be found, regardless of which side of the fence she was sitting.
Mariam and her family did not get deported or sent offshore again, unlike some other families they had befriended. Her family settled in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, and with support from various community groups, have created a new life. The last time I saw her was at a public event where we played on the jumping castle together.
With Australia having more than 8,000 children living in immigration detention centres in the last decade and a world with more displaced people than ever, there remain about 12 children still in detention and 128 children in the Nauru community who have not been granted visas in Australia. There are various community organisations, groups and individuals, who despite the challenging dynamics of government actions have shown immense generosity and humanity to people in detention and within the community. Mariam and children like her, remind us how to focus positive intentions and perspective towards our common humanity. And that a paper crane wish can come true.
* Name changed for privacy reasons.