Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Things I've forgotten to remember

The other day I found myself browsing through old documents on my computer. I came across a folder entitle 'Darwin.' There were only three files all of which were entries I had written after the long ten or twelve hour days. I was a volunteer in a detention centre for asylum-seekers. My job was to make their hell a little less brutal and remind them us aussies weren't all for locking them up. That month was undoubtedly the most intense month of my life. Here are some of my scribblings, copied and pasted as they were written (except for the names, that have been changed for the privacy of these people I met - the majority of whose whereabouts and safe-being I do not know). 

It was the Christmas party and all the volunteers were trying to get the clients involved. We were dancing in a circle in the middle of the mess hall in front of the band doing the sprinkler and the shopping trolley, the dorkiest moves we could think of. We were clapping in the air and stomping our feet, trying not to move our shoulders and our hips. Meanwhile, the clients sat in a circle of chairs on the outskirts sitting, some smiling and tapping their feet, others staring on in bemusement of the volunteers. A young chubby Iranian guy by the name of A* stopped and asked in a somewhat concerned tone, 'Do all Australians dance like this?'

On Christmas day we were meant to paint Christmas trees. Instead, they painted my face. A dot in the middle of my forehead like an Indian princess. A circle around my face, and A* painted eyelashes on my eyelids.
'Is it bad?' I asked A* H*.
'No, it's not bad.' He said laughing some more.
'Then why are you laughing?' I asked, confused and adamant that it was something bad he had taught me.
'Because I feel like I am talking to an Afghan girl.'
I smiled smugly and more than chuffed, satisfied it was far from bad.

One guy had gotten his visa and his friends had pinned him down to the floor. The Iranians were always louder and more outgoing. This chubby guy on the grass being held by his larger friend while the other tickled him, sending girlish squeals throughout the compound. We stood by and laughed, giggled - amused at the normality of it all. School boys in a playground.

The Indonesians were something else all together. They played guitar and smoked constantly, grabbed you and tried to propose. They were cheeky, if there was one word to describe them. 

The Hazaras were gentle, I had always said. Quieter and gentler than the Iranians and the Kurds. They looked slightly asian and had eyes that were bewitching. Their faces told story after story, mystery after mystery. 

A young Hazara only 20 years old with brown curly hair and a lazy eye was one of the favourites. He always seemed to be by himself and being one of the youngest in the compound the volunteers seemed to take to him quickly. His name was A* R*. One day he was singing a hazaragi song, I asked what it was and he wrote it out for me, singing as I tried to read the lyrics in the appropriate accent. 

It became an instant hit at lunch and dinner, in programs and making friends with anyone who spoke hazaragi, they would clap at the end when I finished and smile unexpectedly when I began, amused at this filipino-australian girl singing this hazaragi song from start to finish.  'Do you know what it means?' he asked. 'When you are not here, I will miss you... you are like bird flying with a broken wing.' It was sad, so sad. All of the hazaragi songs were. About forbidden love and goodbyes, mothers aching for their children and friends separated by oceans. They were all love songs. Everytime I sang 'Balak Balak' - to fly - I would raise my arms in a flapping motion, up and down like a bird. 

'How do you say "I appreciate you coming"?' L* was always asking questions. He had a pen and paper on him at all times and was one of the most eager students. He asked what the meanings were to all the words he didn't know, he wrote them down and used them in sentences. He asked me to check his work and took his english very seriously. He had a close shaved head and brown eyes, he looked almost like a monk. 

'You are very good. We had volunteer like you before, she was of Arab background and very good. How do you say, how do we tell the volunteers like you were a good volunteer.' I almost welled up in tears.

N* wrote on the inside of connect 4 'Grace is smiling and friendly. She is very nice, I hope she has a handsome husband or boyfriend one day.'

'What religion are you?' he asked on my last day.
'I'm Catholic.' I said, one of the first conversations on the topic of religion that I had there.
'Is that like Christian?'
'Yes, almost the same.' I said, not wanting to confuse him by going into the detail of the history of the Catholic church.
'When do you pray?' He asked, in all seriousness.
I paused, smiled a big at the bluntness of the question that was the first time I had ever been asked that.
'Ahm... well we have mass on Sundays.'
'What's mass?'
'It's where everybody goes to pray together and the priest leads it.'
'What's a priest?'
'Like... the person who leads the prayer.'
'But when do you pray, do you pray everyday?'
'Well.. before eating, if I remember.. and before I go to sleep sometimes.'
'Where do you pray?'
Again, I was amused - both at my unpreparedness of an answer and the directness and keen interest of his question.
'Anywhere. Before I go to sleep in my bedroom or before I eat wherever I am.'
'How do you pray?' There were a bunch of guys around me as well while L* asked the question, interested and watching.
'Well, like this...' And I motioned the sign of the cross saying 'In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit' and I put my hands together.
'What do you say?' He asked, a glimmer of a smile played across his lips.
'Thank you God for my family and friends, for their safety. I pray for all the struggles going on in our lives and in the lives of people around the world. We offer up our worries to you. Amen.'
He seemed satisfied with that. 
'Will you pray for me?'
Tears welled in my eyes and I had to fight them back. 'Of course I will pray for you. I will pray for all of you I said and looked at them all.' I had to blink back the tears, we weren't allowed to cry. 

I saw A* through the window peering in and I gave him the biggest smile I could muster, waving him to come in. I knew I had to tell him it was my last day, he didn't know yet.
'A* how are you?' I said shaking his hand.
'Good, how are you?' 
'I'm good. I have not seen you for a while. You are always playing Sangrak.'
He laughed, 'Yes.'
'Come sit and play with me, today is my last day.' The phrase was so final. 
His face dropped and his mouth opened. 'Your last day.. today?'
'Yes.' I had to force the smile to stay there, ordering the corners of my lips to stay upward.
'So come and play.'
'But.. why?'
'Ah, don't be sad. There will be so many new volunteers. H-gapneeya doostiman.'
He didn't smile.

A*H*  was a smart young guy who said he was seventeen although he looked about twenty two at least. Most of the unaccompanied minors did. You couldn't tell if they had lied to get into the ASTI or if their experiences had aged them. Either way they were smart beyond their years and lacking something of the cavalier and self-indulgent attitude of my generation of Australian friends. He had a scar on his cheek, a burn from when he was younger. He was from Afghanistan but lived in Pakistan, which was meant to be safer. He had told another volunteer, how he had seen dead bodies in the water coming over. How the captain had told him 99% of people that got on the boats would not survive, how he was lucky to be of the 1% that survived.

'What will you do once you're out?' I asked. 
'I will just enjoy my life. It is a time for enjoyment. I have had too many difficulties in my life.' I smiled and hoped he would, hoped it was true and that he would – Inshallah – get to finally enjoy his life.  


Rereading this reminds me of how much I have forgotten, of all the faces and names and phrases I swore I would not have erased from my memory. The truth of the nature of memory and experience shocks me, especially when I realise that so many of the things that are so real to me here - every routine, quote, inside joke, encounter - will be less in focus with every new day, new routine, new quote, new inside joke, new encounter. Nobody can live in the past or the future, it's a magnificent way to miss out on real life but still I lament the faults and holes in my remembering. I made a lot of promises to myself and to other people that month - mostly about not forgetting, about changing, about making sure other people knew. I've done my best to be true to that and still stand by the fact that those were some of the most intensely lived days of my life. They may not get as much spotlight as the way I harp on about Spain or Bolivia but that is because it had nothing to do with location or cuisine, culture or self-discovery. It was where I learned the stuff that we are all made of.  It's where I saw what people mean when they talk about 'our shared humanity'. 

1 comment:

  1. I've definitely been more fascinated with memory the more I do things worth remembering. Travel as moment's are so prolific comes to mind. A friend told me recently about a false memory he had, he claimed he had done the Brdige Climb as a child but no one could vouch for it. He had to concede it might have just been a vivid dream.