‘keep your heart warm’

‘The only thing keeping me going is hoping. I met some really nice people. I love them’.

He leans forward, his face serious, whispering.

‘The Australian people keep my heart warm, alive’.

I stare at him incredulously. At this stage, it’s likely the young man sitting across from me will be deported back to the country he fled from, a place where an inevitable death awaits him. I sit here, knowing that a government that does not represent me is doing everything in its power to prevent him from being granted asylum.

He gazes wearily into my eyes, filled with a small, slightly formidable shred of hope.

I am in pieces.

***

I interviewed Farid* six months ago on a balmy summer’s eve on my balcony. He leaned in close so the iPad could record his barely audible voice. I felt chills despite the warm weather and was a wreck in the aftermath of taking it all in. It took many failed attempts to finally sit down and write it and even more months to work up the courage to post this piece. Recently my  journalist best friend called me to say she had also recorded his story. Afterwards she sat immobile on her floor, unable to move or even comprehend transcribing the interview. We both agreed to hold off on publishing or broadcasting until we had checked with lawyers and made certain that publicising his story would not put his delicate case for asylum in further jeopardy, or make life harder for him in his home country, should the cruellest outcome of sending him back ever occur.

I decided to tell his story either way.

***

He walks with a quiet gait, in an almost trance-like state, lost in thought, distracted and downcast. He won’t talk unless he is spoken to and at first, he responds with quiet, delicate, one-word answers, muffled slightly by his accent.

I fire question after question at him, as though I’m trying to break through some kind of invisible barrier. I don’t know what I’m trying to get out of him or this interview or why I’m even doing it. I haven’t even begun and I am already helpless, limp and lost in a sea of thoughts plagued by the media, by conversations I’m trying to mute in my head, as this young man sits bravely and stoically before me.

‘What makes you happy?’ I ask him later, after questions about the anguish of travelling by boat, of living in limbo and waiting for residency, of escaping his country and the problems he faced and just before he outlines his hopes and dreams of becoming a world champion in the sporting field he has excelled at (it’s because he is so successful in this field that I can’t name the sport, for it will almost certainly give him away), when he responds:

‘I don’t know what you mean?’ he responds humbly and unassuming, as though ‘happy’ is not an option for him.

I have to explain the word ‘happiness’ to him and eventually he answers, smiling for the first time that evening…

We start at the very beginning.

‘How did you get to Australia?’

‘Boat’, he says seriously. ‘I didn’t know it was going to be a boat like that’.

I try not to think about what kind of boat he had in mind. Political problems plagued his local neighbourhood only a few years ago. A powerful local Islamic group made life impossible for him and his family.

‘They have the power to kill and put people in jail. They’re with the government but they have their own rules’.

He had a prominent position in his community and in the city council, so he was often in their direct line of fire. When his life was threatened and he was in danger of being captured, tortured and imprisoned by the group, he made the decision to leave his home country. Farid made the trip by plane and arrived in Indonesia.

He spent two months there. He quickly discovered that people could be waiting up to one or two years for the UN to make a decision about their case and to send them somewhere safe. He stayed in a house with ten people living on top of each other. That’s when he started to hear that Australia was a good place to go, that it was safe for refugees.

You have no idea where you’re going but suddenly you’re travelling in a van squished together with ten people. You spend 25 hours in that van, with no end in sight.

‘You’re feeling shit and you don’t know where you’re going or how long it takes. You just go, no other option’.

This is only the prelude to the now infamous boat journey. Eventually he makes his way on to a small, rickety boat, where the worst experience of his life gently beckoned towards him. He recalls that there must have been 70 people in the boat.

Until that day he had never been on a boat in his life.

They were on the sea for two days before arriving in Christmas Island. In that time the experience was so harrowing, that his only thought was of throwing himself into the sea.

I ask him to tell me more about the boat. His face transforms now into a slightly crazed expression.

He tells me how you have hope before you get on the boat, but when you are on the sea, the wild crazy sea, squished in with desperate people you don’t know, you start to feel bad, you start to regret the decision to get on the boat in the first place. But you are here now, terrified as it rains and as you rock back and forth on choppy waters. You had no idea it would be like this and you don’t know where you’re going. 

‘Did you know the boats can sink?’ I interject.

‘I hear about this when I am already on the boat!’ he cries out.

‘You are thinking you might get lost at sea and you hear the screams of the children’.

 ‘I can say I died in that time. You want to die. You don’t have a choice to go back, Even if it capsizes, you have to finish the journey or you die’.

He describes how the boat nearly crashed on Christmas Island and I shudder at the thought. I grip the chair beneath me when he tells me how they were seen to be coming towards the island but no one helped them.

They try to call the Australian police and plead with them.

‘Why are you not coming to catch us?’ they cry into the phone, hearing indifference on the other end. I dwell on the incorrect use of the word ‘catch’ for some reason. It reminds me of fish.

The Australian personnel kept them on the water from 9pm to 9am.

‘Oh what, doesn’t anyone work the night shift?!’ I scoff, my sarcasm flying over his head. I am getting worked up but he doesn’t even notice. He is back there now on that boat.

Eventually the royalty emerge from their thrones to rescue the 70 odd, desperate people. They ‘catch’ them and take them straight to detention.

He spent 4.5 months in detention. After that he was moved around like cattle. One month on Christmas Island, six weeks in Darwin, two months in detention in Broome. He relays the numbers like clockwork, as though this isn’t valuable time in a young man’s life.

‘It’s like prison. It’s a waste of time’.

‘There are people who have been there for three or four years. They were suicidal, crazy. They see people get released, while they stay, not knowing why.’

 ***

Something miraculous happened along the way. He starts to talk about one of the detention centres being a more open and friendly place. His face lights up when he mentions his sudden turn and interest in Christianity during his time in Darwin. He joins a group who teach him about the Bible and charity work. He seems  visibly uplifted when he talks about this class and how it allowed him to leave Detention in order to talk to other people. The cynic in me wonders if Christianity’s appeal was in the slight hint of freedom it afforded them, but I start to realise that its drawcard was bigger than that. It gave him a sense of purpose and belonging during a time that was deadening and devoid of life.

‘I have good feeling with Christianity and I like it. They are nice people, very helpful…and…why not?’

Farid converted to Christianity during his time in detention. The religious Islamic group that he had escaped from found out about this because in his words, ‘they hear everything’. The real reason is that Farid has a high profile back home. He was a national champion in his chosen sport. Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever for extreme religious groups to find out things you don’t want them to know. They go to his family’s house and make a scene, swearing and threatening them.

It ends in them stabbing his brother. I ask how he felt about this and he shakes his head and stays silent.

Having converted to Christianity, it seems his life back home is in peril. If he goes back, he could be executed. Farid is eventually placed in Sydney, where he is embraced by a small Australian community who love and adore him, making it all the more devastating when his application for asylum is rejected after being handed to the new and, let’s face it, atrocious Liberal government (and handed from one case worker to the next, each time making it more and more difficult for Farid to plead his case).

They started to ask him about things he couldn’t possibly remember and drill him for details from two years ago – names, dates, the exact name of that guy and that small thing that happened on that street. They assume from the outset that you are lying and the onus is on the desperate, fleeing refugee, to have to prove that you’re not lying – you’re simply traumatised by the entire experience, obviously. After facing rejection time and time again, he sends a letter to Scott Morrison pleading his case but like all things to do with Scott Morrison, it is futile.

He whispers to me that if they send him back, he will end his own life. I believe him when he says this. Months later, news broke of Leo Seemanpillai’s tragic death. My hand flew to my heart. I know this story, I think, and it’s closer to home now than ever before – because this story has become our home, the home we have built for ourselves on our great and sprawling, hostile continent.

I am now so acutely aware of the agonising impact this ordeal has on the mental health of such resilient people and I am afraid for them and for the future of this country.

‘I didn’t know you were going to ask me about the bad boat’, Farid remarks as we walk to the car.

‘I thought I was going to talk about my sport. But I am happy to talk with you about these things. It is like talking to the psychiatrist – I feel better now!’

We laugh and I hug him goodbye, feeling more useless than ever.

***

My new friend watches on, helpless to the unfolding calamity, caught between worlds, unable to go back, unable to stay, unable to breathe freely without the impending sense that he is neither welcome nor safe.

All the while my heart is gradually breaking in one long calamitous slow take, like shards of crystal shattering across the island.

We are long overdue for our revolution.

***

*names have been changed

we cannot walk alone

‘It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”– Cheryl Strayed

I was maybe six or seven years old when my mother first alerted me to the fact that I was not safe. It began innocuously enough. I wanted to walk by myself to school like the other kids.

My mother’s hand flew to her heart, as though she had been shot. She may have even stumbled backwards and looked at her hand to check for blood, such was the shock she experienced. Her face contorted with panic and worry and rage all at once. She shouted ‘NO’ a few times and ranted about safety and what was I even thinking, this crazy child of hers.

When she was done, I thought that I had pushed it too far, trying to go on my own. So I tried another tactic and whipped out the older brother card for the first, and probably last time.

‘But maybe Matt could come with me? Would that be okay?’

She wailed once more.

‘Oh great, so they’ll kidnap your brother and then they’ll rape you!’ she shouted.

If I asked her about this today, I doubt she’d recall the moment. And yet there it is, locked away in my memory bank. Her words stung with such voracity that they left an indelible mark on my soul that you can still see two decades later. I didn’t know who ‘they’ were. Ghosts maybe. Faceless men. The back of a panel van.

The only thing I knew is that my brother would be kidnapped but it was me who would be both kidnapped and raped. Because I am a girl and one day I’ll be a woman and maybe one day after that I’ll be a human.

Maybe.

I remember that split second of hesitation before whispering,

‘don’t say that, mama’

and in an even smaller voice,

‘maybe they’ll only kidnap me too’.

But from the outset it became clear. The battle lines had been drawn. I am a girl. I could be raped. I cannot walk alone. I cannot walk with my brother.

I cannot walk.

***

Perhaps this is why I have made it my mission statement to walk alone wherever possible, going so far as to venture to foreign countries on my own.

As I grew older and more rebellious, the phrases brandied about in my house were often followed with the addendum.

‘You can’t sleepover at your friend’s house; you’re a girl.’

‘You have to do all the cleaning yourself; you’re the girl.’

‘You can’t go to that party and stay out late; you’re a girl.’

And in between those phrases came my cries of protest,

‘but the boys can do it, why can’t I?!’

But the logic was not infallible. I raged against the machine but the fight was futile and it seemed like things would never change.

***

I went to an all girls’ school that was entirely feminist at its core; I let them brand me with their radicalism. But I didn’t always see the every day manifestations of sexism in my own life because I started to block it out. It was a matter of survival. It was only recently upon reflection, that I realised how bad things actually were.

I was fifteen going on sixteen when our school did a simulated business week with an all boys’ school. Half of my grade went to the boys’ school and half of the boys went to our school in a kind of swap.

On the first day we were assigned to groups. A CEO had to be elected from the group by way of a democratic voting process. It was a tie between me and one of the boys. I can’t remember the specific details, but the tutor decided that I was the winner and declared it as such. The boys immediately began their protests, crying out that I only got the job because I was ‘a pretty girl’. Not a smart girl, or a confident girl or a girl with social skills.

A pretty girl.

Is that all you got punks!?

I smugly took it in my stride. Okay, so I’m pretty. Fuck you.

I didn’t even care about the ramifications of what they were saying, or that this superficial sentiment would carry along in my life up until the present day, filtering through all my achievements, my hopes and desires, my relationships, only to land smack bang in the middle of my everything.

Just another pretty girl coming through, nothing to see here, folks.

But I quickly learned that being a pretty girl was not a good thing, not by any stretch of the imagination. I was cat called for the entire duration of the week, leered at, groped, was told what they wanted to do to me, was treated like an object, was made fun of as a way of getting my attention and then hit on. One time I was sitting on a bench waiting for my male cousin to finish his class so we could go home together, when a year 12 student started making lewd gestures at me from his classroom. Naturally the teacher’s solution to the harassment was to kick the student out of  his class, thereby sending him directly to me, the receptacle of his idiocy. He harassed me for half an hour before my cousin finally turned up, looked at the guy and shook his head at me.

‘I hate having you here this week. I’m getting so much shit from all the guys about you!’

Yes it must be so hard, to experience this for just one week of your life.

A teacher from my school who was on duty – someone I liked and admired – pulled me aside to whisper angrily that my skirt was too short and that I was asking for trouble at an all boys school.

My skirt fell just above my knees.

I looked at my watch to check the time/see what century we were living in.

That week I sat by myself at lunch, read my book and ignored the comments. It’s incredible how little any of this actually affected me at the time. Maybe because I didn’t interact very often with the opposite sex, so I had become immune to it in some weird, twisted way. I chose to interpret this attention as complimentary because essentially, if we really wanted to look at the facts, I guess I was a pretty girl in a knee length skirt. I took the power back. They were nothing to me then. This was self preservation and denial at its best.

It’s only now that I look back and tremble with anger at the injustice of it. That our girls have had to endure this kind of bullshit for so long now and still do and try to mask it as ‘no big deal’ or to ‘just get over it’.

I should add that I wasn’t a very good fake CEO. I probably ran the fake company into the ground. I wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe that other guy would have been better. But that’s not on account of my gender, but rather that I was an aspiring author with my head in the nebulous and probably blew the company budget on catering. But the truth remains that I was democratically elected to be fake CEO because I could command a crowd, convinced the non-misogynistic half of the team that I was worthy. And I walked away from the experience unscathed – I was almost invincible. I didn’t need validation from these monkey morons. I was a goddamn powerhouse, plucked from my gender to fly high above the cretins.

I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.

***

Years later I was reminded of all of this when a good male friend told me that he was moved to tears by the things I had written. My reply was one of shock. I didn’t even know he had read those things.

‘Of course I do. Why do you think I’ve been sending you my scripts to read?’

‘I thought that was because you had a crush on me’.

‘Fuck you for saying that! As if I’m that superficial. As if you’re not good enough to warrant that compliment! Why do you believe that about yourself? It makes me sad.’

And he was genuinely sad for days afterwards.

But around the same time during a break up, a boyfriend wanted me to know that I would only ever have success in life because of my looks and my heart dropped into my ovaries and exploded there, to hear and recognise that voice that already echoes in my own head, reiterated from the mouth of another. The things you don’t want to ask yourself but you live with all of your life.

Did I get this job because of my looks?

Is he just saying that because he likes me?

Who would I be if I wasn’t pretty by society’s standards?

Fuck your pretty.

Here’s my brain!

***

‘Women in time to come will do much’

This was our school motto (the motto of the school with the teacher who told me my skirt was too short). Our founder Mary Ward was a revolutionary heretic of her time in the 1600s who believed in the radical notion that men and women were equal before the eyes of God. And that women should be allowed to act in plays, at a time when female roles were almost always played by young men. She told her nuns to stop wearing their habits, educated young women, travelled around Europe setting up schools for girls, and trained them to work with the poor and the persecuted.

So basically she was imprisoned and treated like a heretical witch and ex-communicated from the Church.

Ladies, this is your foundress!

And because it was high school and because most people in high school are dip shits, her radicalism was never truly appreciated. But I worshiped her in secret and spent a lot of time learning about religion and the meaning of life because of her (yeah I was legit the biggest nerd out).

There is one passage that I remember reading in year 12, while preparing for our final graduation ceremony. It was an innocuous enough passage, a quote that barely even registers to the average mind, but it stuck with me for so long afterwards, about the way education was so pivotal to the feminist fight.

Just a small passage about why girls were treated differently in schools.
And something about textbooks.
I’ll never remember it.
But somehow I always will.

***

I did a three sixty and found myself coming back to feminism after a heightened awareness of how important it still was in the world, even after all this time.

I think the most flagrant reminder of this was a solo travel trip I took to Turkey in 2009. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life but it was pocketed by several moments throughout where I was terrified. Like that time I took an overnight bus to Istanbul; filled with men who stared at me as I walked on, alone. And how the one sitting opposite from me stared at me for the entire six hours. So I stayed awake all night, afraid he might do something. He tried to speak to me at several junctures throughout the trip but I said no and he continued to stare at me. How can anyone stare for that long, I thought.

Please stop staring at me.

I think I prayed for him to get off the bus but he stayed. When I finally got to Istanbul, I ran so fast to the nearest taxi and told him to take me anywhere but this bus stop. It wasn’t until I noticed  that I genuinely had no idea where he was taking me, and as he drove for too long and stared back at me with menace, that I soon realised there was no safe refuge except for the one we imagine.

I was told not to walk around alone at night – yep, they already told me that, two decades ago, I thought. A guy who worked at the hostel offered to accompany me at night, pretending to be my boyfriend. I felt cloistered, claustrophobic, sick and stuck. He took me up to a rooftop and said,

‘If you didn’t have a boyfriend I would kiss you,’ as if that was the only barrier to kissing me, and not just that I might not want him to.

At the only hostel in Bodrum, an Australian rogue traveller who worked there told me in a calm, nonplussed voice that it wasn’t a safe place to stay because there wasn’t really any security and they didn’t lock the doors. He added, while eating a kebab, that girls had been followed home by men who sometimes got through the doors but you know, no big deal really, it’s all just a bit of fun, right! We’re all cool and easy going here, right mate! I literally remember staring at him for about five minutes in silence before picking up my bags and walking out of the hostel and I didn’t stop walking until I found a hotel, checked in and stayed in my room for about 10 hours before finally deciding, fuck this shit, left the hotel and sat at a cafe where I met an Australian Turkish couple who took me under their wing for a day. I think they took pity on me when they saw that I was literally trembling with fear.

***

I saw it everywhere in the physical manifestations of every day life. Have I ever been safe? The way I change my behaviour based on that inexplicable pang of fear that shoots up and down your spine against your will. The way I am ogled, objectified, inappropriately touched. The way boyfriends don’t see their own privilege, or realise their conditioning in the way they treat me. The way male friends have hurt me, ostracised me, expected me to love them, treated me differently for not doing so. The way they judge me. That list in my phone of random numbers – the license numbers of every taxi I’ve ever been in as a precautionary method to feel safer because of that one time the taxi driver thought it would be funny to lock the doors. The fact that I can’t walk home late at night without fear, the way I clutch the makeshift hair clip that looks like a knife, texting girlfriends to say you arrived home safely, always always always jumping when a stranger comes up behind you.

The way it was me, out of the whole group of people I was with, who was jumped on a street in Barcelona, and how it was only the girls who came to my aid, and how the one guy with us kept walking, and how we never let him live that down, even though I didn’t need him – I fought my attacker off on my own. But he was symbolically absent from the fight. I was reminded again of my mother’s words. And even though I didn’t leave the house for three days, I eventually did and when I did, I didn’t stop. I walked everywhere with my head held high, on high alert, ready to kick down doors.

Then there’s the harmless stuff; the belligerent and insulting sexist comments still made by people in our migrant community, who appear to still be stuck in the 1950s migrant time capsule. Make your own sandwich, why not?! The way the whole world is still suffering for this inequality. The views of the men in my life. The views of the women. The toxicity that persists.

I learned a lot from my best friend in my early twenties – the way she carved out new paths that no one else had previously explored. She was judged for it but she didn’t care. It was almost like she didn’t even realise how radical her actions were, and she hadn’t quite married them up with her own feminist ideals. It was only later that I’d see how it all built up inside as a kind of anger, watching her tell a guy off for assuming he could touch her without her permission. I saw in her a revelatory way of existing and it was a powerful thing. I am grateful to her for the influence she has had on me. I hold her up as an icon of how life can and should be for women and I always go to her when I’m feeling overwhelmed by it all.

I need to remind you of this from time to time. We can be just like you . You just don’t know it yet.

And there are ways in which men can be part of the revolution and ways for them to better understand what the fuck everyone is talking about when they speak of gendered violence. As uncomfortable as that is to read, it highlights the disparity in equality, that for so many women, we have had to live with these realities for so long, just to exist.

Being a woman is the single greatest thing you can know, I thought as I watched a trans friend try on her new clothes as a woman for the first time, a pang of excitement rushing through me. But I didn’t want to let her in on how hard it was to be a girl. Or maybe I was in denial at the time.

Maybe it’s that I still somehow have hope that by the time she finally experiences being a woman, it will be different.

Women in time to come will do much.

In time to come.

The time is now – and we cannot do it alone.