Tales from Sydney's Immigration Detention Centre

For nine months I have volunteered at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney.

For the past few months, an African woman has also been visiting the centre. She is Somalian and was once in detention in Villawood. Before that she was on Christmas Island, and before that on Nauru.

On this day we all sat together laughing, as volunteers do. This was the first time I had properly spoken to her. She seemed happy, calm and free.

We began playing a game where we had to guess each other's age. When it was my turn to guess her age, I saw her face and her skin was smooth, her dress was colourful, and the garment around her hair was vibrant.

I had found out earlier that she wanted to become a nurse or a lawyer, she was not sure yet. She had yet to choose because she is not able to work or go to school in Australia as she is still in “community detention”.

I guessed she was 29 as I had a vague idea of her life so far and how long it had taken her to get here. I thought with her experiences she could not be any younger and I did not want to offend her by guessing too high.

She is 21 years old. A year younger than me.

She had first come to Australia from Somalia when she was 17. For four years all she had seen of Australia was the inside of different detention facilities. When I was 17, my biggest concern was deciding how I would style my beard.

An aspiring human rights lawyer told me recently, it is difficult to feel long-lasting emotions or care for cases like this Somalian girl's. Her story was missing “something”. “We have all heard stories like this and it is easy to grow numb to it.” 

Her story is not unique. She is one among millions and she is one of the lucky ones.

Early this month, reports began emerging that the Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, wants to “fast-track” visas for white South African farmers who are being persecuted in their homeland. On the same day I spoke with this Somalian woman, a detained Iraqi man in Villawood talked about Dutton's proposal with volunteers.

He spoke of his fear that he will never be let out of there, that his children would grow up in “the outside” without him. He said, if the words next to “nationality” on his claim were changed from “Iraqi” to “South African”, he would be freed tomorrow.

No one disagreed.

[Names have been excluded to protect privacy.]

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