I met Ali (not his real name) on my third visit to the children’s detention centre at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Authority (MITA) in Broadmeadows. Ali is a 16-year-old artist from Afghanistan. He has been held in Australian detention for five months — three months on Christmas Island and two months in Broadmeadows.
Ali has been granted refugee status, but is still waiting for a security clearance, which could take up to two years. His art explores the anguish of child refugees and is an extraordinary representation of life in transit through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and of life in detention in Australia.
“I was born in Afghanistan and lived in Quetta,” Ali said.
"My father was a librarian and the Taliban killed him when I was eight.
“Our family heard we were on a death list, that the Taliban were looking for us. So we moved, with my uncle taking my seven brothers, sisters and mother to Pakistan to safety.
“In 2008, my uncle returned to Afghanistan because he heard the situation was better. He hasn’t been heard of since. We are very worried about him.
“I fled Pakistan, coming to Malaysia. Then from Malaysia I went to Indonesia on boat with six others from Iraq.
“I left my four sisters, mother and two brothers in Pakistan. I didn’t have any contact with them when I was in Christmas Island, but in Broadmeadows we get two phone cards every week. So I can call them.”
Explaining the processing of his refugee status, Ali said: “I have only minimal contact with my lawyer. We’ve talked two times. I first spoke to him on the 22nd of November in 2010. The last time I spoke to him was after my refugee status was granted.”
Ali was unclear how long he would remain in detention, saying: “We are given no true information about a leaving date. The department of immigration tells us 90 days is the maximum we are to be detained.
“But we know this is not true. Some boys have waited 180 days. Some have had two interviews already.”
On his art, Ali said: “I started to paint in Pakistan because I was interested in cartoons. I started to draw from them. I had drawing classes in 2005 and for seven months I then started to paint my own paintings.”
Ali does not receive any drawing or significant English classes from Serco, the private contractor that runs the detention centre.
“I have been to three English classes in the last 60 days. We leave the centre to go swimming once a week. They conduct English classes here too. But all of us have trouble sleeping, concentrating.
“We want to get out. All the boys, they must not wait such a long time. They were forced to come here.
“No one wants to put their life in danger, to journey through the oceans, waiting so long, puts you out of your mind.”
[Ali, and other young refugees locked up in Broadmeadows appreciate visits from the public. Contact Refugee Action Collective (Vic) at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to help free children from detention. See Facebook page “Keen to visit Asylum Seekers in Detention (Melb)” to organise a visit.]