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Hi Mom, this is Ali


A Catholic mother of a Muslim 'son' incarcerated at Baxter tells of her sorrow and anger at the destruction of a fellow spirit.

Name withheld

"Hi Mom, this is Ali. Happy Easter Mom! How are you doing Mom? Is all the family well? Mom, I am not so good. My voice is hurt from shouting for freedom yesterday and today I am afraid with all the helicopters flying over and over us... I don't feel so good Mom. I come to Australia for freedom and safety and a good life, but this is not good, Mom... Baxter is no good Mom. After three weeks I saw the doctor Mom, about the pains. I see psychologist too. He ask me about when I escape from Woomera. He say I had psychological trouble then. I am on medicine now, Mom. Zoloft.

My government has given me a passport. Australian government man said I am not Afghani because I don't look Afghani. But I speak the language, Mom and pass the tests, how can he say I am not Afghani? But now I have passport. Why they not let me stay here now Mom?

Now I have a passport, I think to leave here, because any other country will take me with a passport. No good for me to go home Mom. It is too dangerous. My Dad is dead, my grandfather is dead. Red Cross cannot find my mother and my sister. But maybe if I go home with passport, I can go to another country. . .

Do you pray for me Mom? Please pray for me Mom. I am very unhappy."

And so I went to join our Easter feast with my Muslim 'son' incarcerated in Baxter. Ali came into our lives through a circuitous route unknown to me but for the last link as the product of a comment to a friend. "We'd like to do something to help the refugees apart from marching or writing letters, but we are not in the loop to connect with those helping them on the run." Some weeks later a young person came to visit me at my office. Would we house a young man on the run from Woomera for a couple of weeks? And so Ali came to us and found himself in a world so foreign to him that he could hardly take it in. From bedsits and group houses, to middle class comforts and a bathroom to himself. He had lived in 20 places in three states in seven months but was to stay with us for several months. Frightened, always tense and alert, he could never relax, even amongst his own people, as some on temporary visas had informed on the escapees in a tormented attempt to gain residency. Avoiding the mosque for this reason denied him spiritual solace and made him susceptible to alcohol and marijuana. The latter he had first encountered in Woomera, where the guards had a of practice sedating the young men with dope, so they would be less trouble.

A beguiling mixture of innocence, ignorance, charm and trust, Ali struggled to live in our world which we saw anew through his eyes. A shopping mall was amazing, a cornucopia of riches. A dishwasher was a cupboard in which unhygienic Aussies put away dishes unwashed. Clothes were made to be worn till worn out, but rarely washed. We invited him to call us by our first names in the hope he would feel more at home. He bought a friend to explain to me that would be too disrespectful in my case. Could he call me Mom? He was amazed at my age: "Sixty-one? My mother is only forty something but she looks older that you!" He thought my mother was my sister, because he could not conceive of a place where people could live to be eighty-two years old.

Time was plastic. Where you were was where you were, so often my partner and I slept poorly wondering where he was and if he had been picked up, only to find he'd been staying with a friend and hadn't thought to call. Yet, a mobile phone was seldom out of his possession. He had a childlike ability to make friends and trusted too easily, so that soon, many people knew he was an escapee. We saw him exploited by employers who knew he could not afford to protest and who worked him long hours, paid him a pittance and then often deferred his pay for over a week. They took advantage of his need, just as the people smugglers had. They gave him documents, then took them back as soon as they were in Indonesia, to bring in a fresh batch of refugees.

I was amazed at the reactions of family members when they learnt he was staying with us. My mother was sure I'd be murdered in my bed by a terrorist. I tried to explain that I didn't think terrorists entered Australia in leaky boats without passports or papers. It was too dangerous to their enterprise. They might never arrive. One child was sure that my grandchildren would be traumatised when immigration raided my home and seized Ali in front of the toddlers. I pointed out we lived 5 floors up in a secure building and they'd have to buzz me first and I'd tell them "Not in front of the children!" The children: Ali delighted in the children. He missed his brothers and sisters. A grandchild was born while he was with us. Ali would play with him whenever he could, forgetting his problems in the uncomplicated giggles of a baby. Whenever we speak, he asks "How is X now."

Over time, my anger with those who had broken him out of Woomera grew. While he was with us for eight months, not one of them contacted us for fear we'd betray them. They had promised him documents, and at one time, I was told they were contacting criminal circles to get them, but none ever transpired. I was never sure whether this was a good or a bad thing. They had broken the young refugee men out, but then, had no idea what to do with them. Like articles of triumph, they were passed hand to hand, as every day was another win over the authorities. Despite the bitterness I feel, I have no doubt that these protesters felt passionately about the imprisonment of asylum seekers, but their passion seemed untainted with prudence, and worse, with what was best for the escapees. If life in Woomera was brutal, and it was-Ali had the scars to prove it-what future had he in Australia when the government considered him a renegade?

Ali had no documents because his country had been so devastated by the Taliban wars that the births may not even have been registered. Certainly he did not know how old he was, and would ask me uncertainly, "How old you think I am, Mom?" Some days fifteen, some days fifty, though he looked about twenty. As the schools had been destroyed in the civil war, none of his immediate circle were literate even in their own language. Unlike Aussie boys their age, a great deal of their distress arose not because they couldn't get out and have fun, but because young men their age should be marrying, starting a family and helping their parents. This responsibility he was ready for, yet we could never be sure he'd wear a helmet while cycling and so attract the attention of the police. Eventually, he met a girl, got a job on the black labour market and moved out on his own. Eventually, he was informed on by one of his own and seized on an immigration raid, with his guards crowing about capturing the "kingpin," the last of the Woomera escapees. He was hustled to the Maribyrnong Detention Centre, then within days, and against the advice of the government psychologist, who believed he should stay where he had a network of support, he was taken one night, without notice, and flown to Baxter where he remains.

Ali is not, and never was, a kingpin. He was, and is, a lonely, often frightened young man. This time, however, he does have a support network. His young girlfriend, who from a happy-go-lucky young student retailer has become proficient in the ways of the courts, has ensured that he has legal representation. He now has a passport, but still faces court for escape from detention - a detention so dehumanizing that he had mutilated himself as a way of externalising the pain. They sewed up the gashes without anaesthetic to teach him a lesson. Now in Baxter, his hope wanes as the days pass, evaporating in the heat in the dead heart of Australia and I have one less son at my dining table this Easter.







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