Published 29 March 2019
At nine o’clock on a Friday morning on the 26th of April, 2013, I unexpectedly find myself in tropical heat surrounded by razor-wire in a beige demountable crowded with the warm bodies of young children. The children, packed shoulder to shoulder in the tiny space, are from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and a place I have never heard of. We have no shared language, no resources and, due to the classroom being repurposed for the storage of spare bedding now lining the walls, there is not enough space for anyone to sit down.
Suddenly, two well-built guards in blue uniforms step into the crowded doorway. “There will be no lesson today”, the guard with the blonde hair tells me. “The classroom is needed for storage.”
“I will be teaching here today”, I reply curtly. “I have told the children there is a class. They are already here and I am about to begin.”
The guards look at me, then at each other. Much to my surprise, the guard with the blonde hair smiles and turns to catch the eye of his colleague. The men lean the mattress they are carrying on the outside wall and walk away.
I step into the classroom completely out of my depth. I had previously taught English to children here on Christmas Island for twelve months in 2011. Young students were bussed from the Phosphate Hill family detention centre to the local public school, and though the numbers varied with the amount of boat arrivals, there were normally around 10 children in a class. This time I have flown to Christmas Island from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands where I now live, nine hundred kilometres away, to volunteer at the highly secretive detention centre at North West Point over the April school holidays.
On this day, as I had entered the high security compound for new arrivals at the back of the detention centre, I had been locked in behind two towering steel gates that shuddered noisily under their weight, operated remotely by invisible guards. On Monday I had thirty-two children in my care, Wednesday, forty-nine. Today after another boat arrival overnight, the number of students has reached sixty-one. Some of the faces looking up at me have only had a matter of hours to process that they have survived their dangerous journeys. The room hums with a sense of anticipation, elation even, their voices bounce off the walls and catch under the low roof. I have no idea how to begin.
I walk to the front of the class and try to catch their eyes. The volume turns down a fraction.
“Good morning!” I shout as loudly as I can into the hubbub and 61 small faces turn and look my way.
“Good morning!” I shout again and gesture toward them with my hand.
“Good morning!” the students reply in a breath-taking array of accents.
I quickly realise there is not much point in talking for long, so, smiling, I shout as confidently as I can, “Vâysâ, goosh kon! Stop, listen!” hoping at the very least to catch the ears of the Iranian students. “Thank you. Are you ready? We are going to sing a song.”
I had both forgotten and never forgotten this moment. This story has never been told though I have been writing and speaking publically about my experiences of mandatory detention on Christmas Island more or less continually for the last eight years. The stories well up in me now as the Morrison Government announces its plans to re-open the prison camp at North West Point. An old darkness stirs, and with it I try to manage an ever-present, creeping sense of despair.
When I left my home near Fremantle to live on Christmas Island in 2011, I was not a writer. When I taught asylum seekers at the public school on Christmas Island as well as the older students in the Phosphate family camp, I was not writing. When I counted in and out the scissors and sharpeners to prevent my students from self-harming, still I had not reached a point at which I felt compelled to pick up a pen. However, when the Federally-funded Comcare report revealed the twelve asylum seekers a day on Christmas Island were attempting to take their own lives or self-harm in some way, something in me started to give.1 When a detainee who had become a friend attempted suicide by drinking cleaning fluids, and, I was told, eating razor blades, I could feel myself breaking, fragmenting, fault lines running through my flesh. My family and I decided we could no longer bear the burden of witnessing the cruel consequences of Australia’s border policies, so we left for the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
On my new island home, I had no job to go to. I sat in a fog of distress, unmoving, looking out over the shifting waters of the lagoon. Then one afternoon I realised there was no other way forward, I sat down at my small desk looking out over a line of lean coconut palms. Holding close the light of each small life that had come into mine, I began to write.
The poet Jane Hershfield tells us,
In whatever realm the artist’s discomfort arises, it tears open the fabric
of the psyche and the universe, leaving a hole the creative impulse
rushes to repair. The artist cannot help this anymore than a spider whose
web has been shredded; his or her survival is at stake.2
On the Cocos (Keeling) Islands I wrote, like I write now, to survive. I wrote to find my way back to hope, even when there was no cause for hope. In the words of Joanna Macy, hope need not be something we have, but something we do.3 I wrote to transform the darkness, to perform daily rites of alchemy, spinning the darkest acts of our Nation-State into a yarn leading me back to our common humanity, golden thread to work into the damaged weave of my world.
So stay with me here, now, as I write today. Join me in this ritual act of hope despite the camps on Nauru, despite the incredible suffering playing out on Manus, and despite the re-opening of the detention centre on Christmas Island at North West Point. Let us find our way back to that life-filled place as we bear witness together, see what unfolds in this rowdy, makeshift classroom. Stay with us as we begin to sing. See, the children are quick to learn the words. Heads, shoulders, knees and toes. Gently, tenderly now, I touch the children’s shoulders, knees, showing them the actions, smiling deeply into as many eyes as I can hold. The room is starting to glow. Emboldened, I try another song, If you’re happy and you know it….and the room almost explodes with joy and the thrill of our sudden, human connection. We ride so close to chaos, but the tune wins, the thrum of song, we have found a shared language, a dialect I can only describe as ‘love’.
1. Iggulden, T. 2011 ‘Comcare criticises detention system working conditions’ Latelineat http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3291669.htm 11 Aug (accessed 13 September 2017)
2. Hershfield, J 2015 Ten Windows; How Great Poems Transform the World, United States: Random House, p464.
3. Macy, J. 2012 Active Hope; How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, Calafornia: New World Library, p. 3.
Reneé Pettitt-Schipp is a PhD candidate in the school of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin University. Reneé is an award winning writer and educator who lived in the Indian Ocean Territories from 2011 until 2014. Renee’s work with asylum seekers in detention on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) islands inspired her first collection of poetry, ‘The Sky Runs Right Through Us’. This manuscript was shortlisted for the inaugural Dorothy Hewett manuscript prize and released by UWA Publishing in February 2018.