AKHTAR* was 14 years old when he started a friendship with a young shepherd girl in remote Afghanistan.
The girl’s brother was a member of the Taliban, and when he heard of the friendship, he demanded Akhtar’s life.
Akhtar’s father stood in his place and he was taken away and executed, with the killers leaving Akhtar to retrieve his father’s decapitated body.
The Taliban threats on his life continued however, and Akhtar’s family decided to smuggle him out of the country. The teenager later managed to board a boat for Australia.
It was on Christmas Island where he met trauma counsellor Christine Cummins, a former graduate mental health nurse at Bendigo Health, sitting opposite her while biting his knuckle.
“I vividly recall a frightened young boy… he was so tormented by the horrific chain of events that he blamed himself for the death of his father,” Christine said.
Traumatic stories such as that relayed to her by Akhtar were common among the refugees who were sent to the Christmas Island detention centre after making the trip to Australia by boat.
In order to make sure these stories are heard, Christine has compiled some for her soon-to-be-released book Dignity in a Teacup, using altered names to ensure anonymity.
Christine arrived to work as a trauma counsellor in January 2010, seeing an opportunity to apply her psychotherapy skills to refugees following on from her experience as an aid worker in Sri Lanka.
Her arrival coincided with the end of the Sri Lankan civil war and during a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, causing thousands of Tamil and Hazara people to flee to Australia.
Her role involved counselling anyone who presented at the detention centre with a history of torture or trauma, referred by the International Health and Medical Services.
They would be placed on a minibus to be driven out of the detention centre to meet trauma counsellors like Christine, with recurring nightmares and restlessness common afflictions.
“Generally people connected through the fact that we wanted to sit with them and offer them an opportunity to talk if they wanted to,” she said.
“They were out of the detention setting. We were really all absolutely adamant we would treat people with a huge amount of respect.
“We always offered them tea and coffee in a porcelain cup. That’s one of the reasons why my book is called Dignity in a Teacup.”
For about the first year, Christmas Island acted as a transit centre for refugees who would have their claims assessed within months.
Then in 2011, the assessments all-but ceased. A backlog started at the centre and temporary accommodation was constructed.
Christine said asylum seekers and refugees accepted that there was going to be a period of detention while their assessments were processed, but they were not prepared to be detained indefinitely.
“What they were then confronted with was this indefinite, mandatory detention, separation of family, and they were separated permanently,” she said.
“There was no end in sight. They were never given a timeframe. That was greatest hurdle that we came up against constantly, people saying ‘how long is this going to go on for?’
“They were questions none of us could answer.”
As the wait dragged on, refugees from further regions in conflict – Rohingya, Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Sudanese, Somalis, Iranian Kurds – continued to arrive in Australia, to be sent to Christmas Island for processing.
A year would pass, and asylum seekers continued to have no answers about their claims.
“We always saw that there was a marked decline in someone’s mental state after they had been detained for six months,” Christine said.
“Come 12 months, there was another really big drop, and then if it looked like nothing was being done in terms of processing their asylum claim – which was often the case, particularly later in the time I was there – then people would start to lose hope.”
She recalls providing trauma counselling to Jamila*, a 75-year-old Kurdish woman from Iran.
Her family had been politically active, raising the ire of Iranian authorities. She was regularly interrogated and tortured, and when her favoured wrist was smashed without medical treatment, her neighbour helped to smuggle her out of the country.
Selling all her belongings, she funded a place on a boat bound for Australia where her sons had previously gained asylum, only to be told she would be sent to Nauru.
On Christmas Island, Jamila was the only Kurdish speaker and her night terrors were a source of personal shame.
“She would have these traumatic memories, flashbacks, she would jump up and start to scream,” Christine said.
“She had this disability. She couldn’t use her right hand. Even to shower and dress herself, she struggled.
“It was the kindness of another refugee woman who helped her during the day. They couldn’t even speak to each other, they just used gestures.
“The only dialogue she heard was from interpreters telling her she would be sent to Nauru.”
Christine managed to confront an Immigration Department delegation on Christmas Island to “beg” for Jamila to be sent to Australia, and was ultimately successful where she was reunited with her sons.
For her efforts, Christine was reprimanded and many of her own rights were removed.
She left Christmas Island in November, 2014, returning to live and work in Bendigo.
Her experiences showed her that Australia’s experiences with refugees and asylum seekers was just the tip of the iceberg for a global problem that was only becoming worse.
Christine now advocates for refugee rights as a convenor of the Bendigo branch of Rural Australians for Refugees, and organised a vigil for local Hazara families last week.
She said speaking with such a large volume of refugees on Christmas Island opened her eyes to the desperate situations people find themselves in – and it was rarely as simple as just staying in “transit” countries like Indonesia or Malaysia.
“When I met with hundreds and hundreds of people and heard their first hand accounts about what conditions were like in Indonesia and Malaysia, then I fully understand why they have had to keep moving,” Christine said.
“They have detention centres there too, but they are prisons. You’re just locked up indefinitely until you can bribe your way out.
“Any of those basic human rights that we all look for as a human being, they’re denied those in those transmit countries.
“They have to live in hiding.”
She hoped that by telling their stories, it could help add empathy and understanding to the refugee debate in Australia.
Dignity in a Teacup will be launched at 5.30pm on Saturday, December 15, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Myers Street, Bendigo.
It will be available for purchase from February.
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