a couple of times lately i have spent two to three hours in sydney's villawood immigration detention centre, as a visitor to the detainees there.
villawood, as we know it, is the holding centre for people who are awaiting processing either in an attempt to get australian residence or while awaiting deportation.
visitors are security screened in the same manner we may be screened at an airport, personal items are placed in lockers, wristbands are issued and gifts scanned.
i have only been to one section of the centre which, on first appearance is pleasant enough. detainees are called to the visiting area which consists of an outdoor grassed area with picnic tables and soccer playing males as well as an indoor lounge area, for want of a better word, where there are plastic chairs, a sink and microwaves, a couple of large TVs, a piano, plastic tables and "coffee" making facilities with styrofoam cups.
it is all very clean and newish, tidy and respectable. there are ramps catering for mobility problems and large windows. it is all quite pleasant, not at all the cold drab place i imagined until you start to notice some odd little things.
it's summertime and visitors bring watermelon, the skins are left on picnic tables with the flesh scooped out because there is only plastic cutlery.
the bathroom has no mirror and there is no kettle, hot drinks are made one by one in the microwave.
detainees talk about missing family, not knowing what the future will bring, strange curry not at all as curry should be, the stupidity of blunt razors that dont work but could still be used to self harm.
today i talked to a man who is 39, has been in transit across the world as a refugee for the past 17 years and feels that he has lost his life. he became a little agitated that his younger sister is soon to be a grandmother and he has no family, no country, no trade (though he has skills) and no life. i felt bad about discussing things that were so obviously painful and diverted to my great default conversation, which is food. i didnt know whether or not food would be a good topic with him and the old sport stand-by doesnt work for me so i was on a limb for a second there but it worked like a charm until i realised we were the only people left at the table and i had no idea what to say next......
visiting those people feels so useless and i wonder if they ever feel like monkeys in cages obliged to feel grateful for the peanuts from the visitors.