Neda, an Iranian refugee, shares her story of immigration detention on Christmas Island. She now lives in Melbourne, and is studying for a PhD in health sciences.
I was working for my father, who was in the building industry. At first I wasn’t very active politically. My father was supporting me to be equal with men but he used to tell me, “Don’t get involved too much with political issues in this country.” He was very afraid I would get in trouble.My brothers did not agree with these discriminatory laws and injustices that were practiced in my country. My youngest brother, we were very close together and we knew everything about each other. Once, he called me to his room and he said he believed what was going on in this country was just completely wrong, in regards to human rights and women’s rights, and he said, ‘We’re going to do something about it.’ I said, ‘We are normal people. We’ve got no power. We can’t do anything.’ He said, ‘If we believe that we can do it, we will do it together.
I decided that we should not be quiet, we should stand against this government’s injustices.
There was a protest march a couple of days after they released the 2009 election results. I was filming the protest.
Before I realised it, I was at the head of the march with a camera in hand, and I quickly realised that the situation was fast becoming incredibly treacherous.
A group of police came from every direction. So we had to escape. They were beating everyone in front of them, they were shooting people. They didn’t care who was in front of them—women, teenagers, girls, anybody. Some of the people who were in that protest, I never heard from again.
I think after the protest I became a completely different person. I got involved with the other protests that came after the elections.
One time when I was filming I was taken to a government facility for questioning by the secret police. After a period of time I was released from that facility but my older brother got in touch with me to say that the government agents and secret police came to my father, to my family home, and they were looking for me. I was just trying not to be home, staying with my aunties, staying with my friends.
But then I lost my youngest brother.
After the protest he had injuries, brain injuries. He used to take a lot of medication. One day, in the morning I went for a walk along the river. I was really worried about him because he was really sick and he was depressed about our situation.
When I went back home, I thought he was sleeping but it was eleven o’clock. Then I realised he was not. He had passed away.
Then I was summoned to the station, to the court. I immediately knew what would be the outcome if I handed myself to the authorities. I knew that I had to leave.
It was the single most difficult decision in my life, to leave my beloved mother and father and all my loved ones behind. It was a very difficult decision, but there were no options available.
The situation was like a prison for me. Maybe the prison’s bars [were] invisible to everybody, but it has exactly the same conditions as jail.
I couldn’t go to sleep at night. It was a very hard situation. You don’t know where are you going, there is not any tangible plan on the table. You just put your clothes in a bag.
It was six o’clock in the morning. I went to my brother’s apartment. I told him to quietly come down the stairs and I would be waiting in the car. He got into the car and I just told him, ‘I’m in big trouble and it’s something that I can’t take a chance on—if I stay here, I might be in the prison by this afternoon.’
I went to say goodbye to my brother who had passed away. When I went to the cemetery, to his grave, I just promised him that if I survived on the ocean, if I could get myself to a safe country, I would do everything that I could for those like him.
When we saw Christmas Island from the distance it was a beautiful, green island. It was a very good feeling to stand on firm ground. When you are on a boat for two weeks, every day you are moving, side to side. I was very happy that I wasn’t on the water anymore because I was seasick all the time. I was very happy that I could survive that ocean.The first thing they did was an interview and health check and after that they put us in different rooms and blocks. They gave us food and clothes and after that they said, ‘You have to wait for your interview.’
There is not much to do while you are in the detention centre. The guards won’t tell you anything about what is going to happen. They just try to keep the environment calm and provide you with food or your requirements but nothing more. It’s still like, you’re locked up, you know? It’s funny that afterwards it doesn’t seem to be much to other people, but it seems a lot to you when you’re in the detention centre. Every day is very long because you are all the time thinking of when you are going to get out. It becomes kind of psychological.
At least when you are in the prison, you know, for example, when the date is that you have to stay there until. The difference between a prison and the detention centre was its uncertainty. It’s not knowing anything about your future—the stress, anxiety. You don’t know what will happen.
We had some happy times in detention centre, for example, when we were celebrating people’s birthdays. We had very limited ingredients, such as bread, butter and jam. And actually, these were the simple moments when we could be very happy. Just for short periods of time, we could forget about our conditions.
I was keeping myself busy a lot by learning English, because my English was limited to just introducing myself. We didn’t have a teacher. Everything that I could find in the facility, I would just get it. I had a small dictionary with me so I just tried to read it. For example, I would read one page and it would take me maybe two days!
One thing about Christmas Island is that you are very fortunate if you don’t get sick. Because if you get sick, the medical care is not very effective.
One night I had a lot of pain in my body, so I went to the medical centre and asked the nurse to help me because I was suffering a lot. He gave me an injection. I experienced a severe reaction to that medication and I truly thought that I was dying. I couldn’t catch my breath. I can only remember that a group of medical staff gathered around me, talking feverishly.
After that, when I opened my eyes, everything was different, completely different. A different room, a different environment. I truly thought that I had died and that I had passed into the next world.
There was a beautiful woman who came to me and spoke to me in Farsi, my native language. When she told me that her name was Rouha, I thought that I had definitely died because her name in Farsi meant ‘an angel’!
She explained to me that I had been airlifted to Perth to be in the hands of medical staff and a good medical facility. I was very, very anxious and after a while I had a panic attack again. I started to get panic attacks very often.
I was taken to the family detention centre in Perth, which was far nicer than the previous place I had been staying. It was a family detention centre and people with medical issues, health conditions were also taken to that centre. There was another woman who had miscarried on Christmas Island. There was a woman who had had her arms broken. It was a small centre close to the airport.
In Perth, the staff were very friendly and very welcoming, so that made a lot of difference. They used to take us for excursions, so we could see people in real life around us. On Christmas Island the only thing that you can see is bars—bars and officers. Nothing else is going on.
In Perth, they used to take us to the park to see children playig. I watched the kids playing and the people going about their lives. I lived for the day where I too might walk freely like those people I watched.
The first day when I walked out of the detention centre, it was just the best day in my life. It was beautiful. I just remember I was smelling the flowers and touching the trees. It was a wonderful feeling. It will always remain with me, for the duration of my life.
It was good, the first couple of days—I was just going out
and I wanted to feel the freedom. But the thing was, I was really sick and I hadn’t realise it much before, because I had been so worried to just do my process and to get everything right. I think about two months later I got my permanent residency.
It was that time that I realised how the journey had affected me. All these new anxieties added to the anxiety that I had experienced in my country. I used to have flashbacks a lot. I realised that I was shaking all the time, I couldn’t catch my breath. I had anxiety all the time, all the time.
I’ve been very fortunate since I came to Australia. I’ve met very nice people here who have been supportive, who love me so much, so I always appreciate that.
But I think nobody wants to leave their country. Nobody wants to leave their culture, their family. When I came to Australia I almost lost everything. I lost my family, I lost my language, I lost my culture. I lost the land where I was born.
I think having people from your culture makes the situation a lot more bearable for you. The great majority of them are asylum seekers and refugees. Some of them I met on Christmas Island. We get together on the weekend, we have barbecues. I used to teach them English. We used to go bushwalking, those kind of things. But also, when one of us has got a problem we discuss it—what you have to do, where you have to go, who you have to contact.
So it’s kind of like your family. It’s something that I don’t want to lose.
This is an edited extract from They Cannot Take the Sky, a collection of first-person accounts of the reality of life in mandatory detention. It’s now available in all good bookstores. They Cannot Take the Sky has been compiled and edited by Behind the Wire, an award-winning oral history organisation. Check out their website for more info.
Photo: Sarah Walker. Digital art: Grace Jennings-Edquist