Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Things I've forgotten to remember: Part 2

The ASTI was a world away, albeit in the same universe. There were no fences, no barbed wire and no gates. It was an old motel that was now housing families and unaccompanied minors in the bunk beds and multi-level rooms. It had a shallow gated pool that they were allowed to swim in when there was a lifeguard, no grass and a small back concrete area with a sad-looking volleyball net held down by broken bricks. We walked in after showing our licenses to the guard sitting at the front of the motel, bored and tired looking. We signed in but not before a young girl came up and gave me a hug. We were allowed to hug the kids and sit them on our knees, let them give us kisses and hold their hands. Human contact. 

There was womens yoga inside and mens yoga outside everyday at 11am. We managed to get a tall Kurdish man by the name of M* to join in, he was a towering and formidable figure - thick eyebrows that met in the middle - all off set by a large friendly smile. I learned later that day he was a father, his two children were as gorgeous as they come, the prince and princess of the ASTI motel. His son had almost marble blue eyes that shot through - not blue of the ocean, but a pale almost milk blue of the sky on a clear day near sundown, or of a marble staircase reflecting it.
'He's got gorgeous eyes,' I told M.
'Like his mother,' he said. 
His daughter P had more of his dark features, long eyelashes that extended from here to infinity.
'Where are you from?' I asked M.
'No from. I am Kurdish, we are not from anywhere,' he replied, 'I speak Farsi, I lived in Iran but I am Kurdish.'

His name was H* and he spoke flawless english in an almost english accent. He had told us he had studied english for 7 years. He spoke Arabic, among other things. He liked russian authors, particularly Ivan Bunin and I recommended Leo Tolstoy – Confessions and other religious writings to him.
'Christmas Island was disgusting. It was like hell, worse than hell. Everyday,' he held out his hands in resignation.
'I saw people cut themselves, slices up and down their arms.'
He went on to relate a story about an officer who was racist.
'He asked me, “What do you think of this Tamil tiger?” and he tried to act as if he was good, as if it was okay. It was disgusting. I told him “what do you mean?” but I knew what he meant, what he really meant. And he was trying to act as if he was still good.'
H* was extremely articulate and I remember thinking what a great thinker he was. I asked him why he didn't come to any activities and encouraged him to come, 'We want to talk to people like you and hear your stories, we want to listen – even if that's all we can do.' Later that night while I was in North 1 he came to scrabble, without hassle and without spruiking. He came and sat for almost the entire two hours sitting and playing with the others. Another small victory, I thought.

The younger guys, the unaccompanied minors or UAMs, loved idioms, so did the men at the centre. The UAMs english was the best out of all of them, probably because they went to school. They were always using any excuse to slip them into conversation, like 'Piece of cake' or 'Green with envy'. They were so eager to practise their english, to improve, to be part of this new country that rejected them so outrightly. 
'Grace! Grace! Ask me how my day was.'
'Ask me.'
'Ok, how was your day A*?'
'Same shirt, different day.' And he had a smile that ate half his face up, so wide that his eyes disappeared into full cheeks of satisfaction. He proceeded then to turn to another volunteer who was leaving. They were always making jokes between them and he was not happy that she was leaving.
He said to her, 'T
ouch my shoulder.''What? Why?''Just touch my shoulder.''Is it, cold?'
There was a momentary pause before we burst out into laughter. I loved how they took these idioms literally and made them their own. He had given her the cold shoulder and a warm smile at the same time. 


There were a group of Burmese guys who were sitting in the corner. There weren't that many of them, most of the guys in South 1 were from Afghanistan and spoke Hazaragi. I approached them and asked them how they were, what they were doing and why didn't they come over. I asked their names. There was a serco officer sitting with them and he spoke their language too, he would translate if I spoke too fast but A* was the one who understood the most. He was a very skinny guy with large round eyes that seemed dilated like an owls.

'Thanks for coming over, I know it means a lot to these guys. It may not seem it but I know them, even their body language has changed. They are more open. They just want to be acknowledged.' Again, there was that ache in my chest again, the onset of blurriness at the back of my eyes. 'I will remember you guys! You have to come to programs, come to art and yoga!'

I did see them and speak to them after that. A* invited me to play soccer with them and I would smile and wave everytime I saw them, I could see the difference too. They were a minority among a minority. A small group of Burmese guys amongst Afghans and Iranians. In North 1 I heard there were only 4 Burmese guys in the entire compound – North 1 had about 200 people. What loneliness among loneliness I thought.


On one of my first couple of days I had my first experience of sadness, the bleak outlook that so many of them must have had. His name was S* and I had never met him before. I was talking to people through the fence, which we only later learned we weren't meant to do, and while the others walked away I saw him there, standing by himself.
'Hello,' I said, smiling.
'Hello,' he replied, taking a step toward the fence. I did the same.
'How are you?'
'Not good,' he replied, straight out.
'Why?' It was such an instant response, it probably didn't occur to me how insufficient and inappropriate it was.
'Because I am here. Everyday. I have too much tension in my head.' He said, fingers rubbing his temples.
I didn't know what to say.
'I know it isn't good, it is a difficult place.
'Do you pray?' I asked, although religion was on the contraband list of topics along with politics, it was the only thing I could think of.
'Yes, but my God does not listen. He is angry with me.'
'No, that's not true. I know it is hard but you must have patience.' I wasn't sure where this was going, didn't want to patronise him or set him off.
'I know, I know,' he said.
'What is your name?'
'My name is S.'
'I hope to see you at activities. We want to listen to you and help you if we can. We can not solve your problems but we can be here just to listen.'

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