Stories from inside Nauru

First published in the Guardian

“I didn’t want to live in this world any more. I don’t want to be alive the next day. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to open my eyes. No hope. Disappointed.”

Refugees who have been settled on the Pacific island of Nauru under Australia’s offshore asylum policy have told the Guardian in covert interviews of their deep sense of helplessness, and fear of Nauruans who resent their presence.

Since May, more than 400 people who were detained after trying to arrive in Australia by boat have been found to be refugees and released into an island population of less than 10,000. Their arrival has convulsed Nauruan society and there is growing antipathy towards them.

They live in several guarded camps dotted around the island. Their cramped quarters provide the basics, but little more. In the following interviews they describe a monotonous and unsafe existence devoid of hope. Many are escaping through a heavy regimen of sleeping pills. Depression is ubiquitous.

The refugees’ future is uncertain. The Nauruan government has given them five-year visas; Australia has said they will never be allowed to settle there.

Tony Abbott’s government has pursued the policy vigorously, but the Australian stance is essentially bipartisan. It was the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd who made the announcement that still defines Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia,” he said before the 2013 election (in which Abbott eventually trounced him). Rudd’s policy drew criticism from the UN’s refugee agency who warned the policy was likely to harm the “physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees”.

The date Rudd made his speech, 19 July, 2013, has become notorious among asylum seekers – an arbitrary marker of the capricious immigration politics that has left them in limbo. Many have family or friends who left Indonesia days before them and are now settled in Australia.

The policy achieved its goals. The boats to Australia have (mostly) stopped. But not without a cost.

The following interviews were conducted in the refugees’ accommodation on Nauru while local security guards slept outside. Nauru has effectively banned foreign journalists, making it difficult for refugees to explain their plight, or for the Australian public to scrutinise the consequences of its government’s immigration policy.

All names have been changed to protect the refugees. The refugees pictured have covered their faces for safety, not for religious reasons.

Read on at the Guardian.

Can Mary Meets Mohammad challenge attitudes about asylum seekers?

The Guardian

This Australian documentary shows the relationship between Tasmanian pensioner Mary and asylum seeker Mohammad.


Mary and Mohammad. Photograph: Kristy Dowsing

Mary and Mohammad. Photograph: Kristy Dowsing


I watched Mary Meets Mohammad in my old school theatre in Tasmania. Around me sat Hobart’s middle-class compassion set. The ageing Quakers, inner-city parents and sincere teenagers of my youth. Concerned, earnest Guardianistas all.

We laughed, wept and nodded along knowingly with a film that documents the suffering of asylum seekers in mandatory detention and confronts the unchallenged racism towards Muslims and asylum seekers that exists in pockets of Australian society. Heather Kirkpatrick’s documentary feature was moving and powerful, but it didn’t change any minds in that audience – as the filmmaker acknowledges: “People often say, ‘well, you are just preaching to the converted.'”

From the end of this week, the documentary will be shown in inner-cityPalace Cinemas across Australia. But since an extended season in Hobart in June, Kirkpatrick has also taken Mary Meets Mohammad around the country. She spent her inheritance to produce the debut film. Then furiously raised funds in order to show it in places where its message would meet the most cultural resistance. It has now screened at more than 80 locations, including sell-out shows on Christmas Island.

“So many people came to see it, including a lot of the Serco [detention centre] guards, that they hosted another one. It think that was great because I think they’re a pretty divided community,” she said.

The documentary follows the unlikely love that develops between Tasmanian pensioner Mary and Mohammad, an Afghan man imprisoned in the Pontville detention centre near her home. As their relationship develops, Mary moves from suspicion, to sympathy, to grandmotherly adoration for a Muslim man she says she would once have described as a heathen and a coward.

“We haven’t been taught to think of them as human beings,” Kirkpatrick says. “In Australia they’re boat people, they’re troublemakers. Unfortunately, we don’t have media to balance that by visiting an asylum seeker in detention and getting their side of the story.”

When Mary meets the man on the other side of the razor wire, or news report, her transformation is radical. Kirkpatrick says audiences across Australia have been receptive to the film and that many of them spoke to her of a shift in their attitude towards asylum seekers. “It’s definitely working. I’m confident of that,” she says. Speaking to people after screenings, Kirkpatrick realised that “they sort of did take that same journey as Mary”.

The film’s power lies partly in the testimony of Mohammad, who speaks of the tragedy of his Hazara people, forced from their homeland by the Taliban and persecuted in camps in Pakistan. He talks about longing to see his family and his struggle with depression in the face of indefinite internment.

An Australian Government report in 2012 references research that shows “clinically significant symptoms of depression were present in 86% of detainees” with “approximately one quarter reporting suicidal thoughts”.

Kirkpatrick said that after meeting many asylum seekers through her work with the film, she was yet to come across one who had been through detention without becoming depressed or considering killing themselves.

But even more than Mohammad, Mary is the key to the film’s appeal beyond an audience who share its concerns. The funniest moment of the film comes when she jumps on her mobility scooter to pick up a slab from the pub. In the same way as The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan, Mary is recognisable across Australian society’s great divide – the flannelette curtain as we call it in Hobart.

When audiences get to see one of their own having a change of heart, Kirkpatrick says, “all those barriers just come crashing down”.