In 2013, I was the religious liaison officer in the off-shore processing centres on Nauru.
My role was to provide for the religious needs of the asylum seekers – mostly Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu. That meant distributing prayer mats and beads, Qurans, Bibles, and rosary beads. That meant ensuring the Buddhists’ request for a timber shrine was fulfilled, or that the Hindus had copies of their deities – Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu.
To quote Charles Dickens, ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’. Best, because I felt alive, working in a front-line position, using all my skills. Worst, because I did not, and still don’t, agree that mandatory detention is an appropriate way to address the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.
During a community meeting with the asylum seekers, one man asked when their processing would be complete. The representative from the Australian immigration department stated that this was not the responsibility of the Australian government, but rather of the Nauruan.
After returning to Australia full-time, I blogged about this, noting the shame I felt, during this meeting, to be an Australian.
For admitting to feeling ashamed, I was castigated by a friend. How could I call myself an Australian and say such things?
For my friend, the backstory of being an Australian was one of being a flag-waving, digger-loving, Anzac-bickie-eating, BBQ-loving, green-and-gold-glorifying, dinky-di, true-blue Aussie mate.
For me, the backstory of being an Australian was one of mateship, barracking for the underdog, being all-in-this-together, and a fair-go for all. I just couldn’t see the Australia I knew being played out in these government immigration policies.
The Australia I thought I knew wouldn’t wash its hands of people, wouldn’t turn a blind eye, wouldn’t privilege policy over people – or would it? The longer I worked in off-shore detention the more I saw that, yes, actually, Australia would do all those things.
It was then that I started to look differently at the backstory of Australia that I’d accepted as true. It was then that I began to realise that there was another story to my country, another story that I’d been vaguely aware of, but really hadn’t given much notice to.
As I watched how Australia dealt with asylum seekers, I began to really see how Australia had dealt with its indigenous peoples.
I saw another story; I heard another story and I began to look at my own part in this story, a part I didn’t like much.
I began to see that the story of Australia I’d been told, this story that I’d heard could be told and heard in quite another way.