R Wood | 02.02.2003 04:36
"We're going to Christmas '. With that proclamation my wife accepted a job on Christmas Island and I finished my thirty- five years in Victorian schools. "Stay in your job and it will kill you". "You care too much", she added for good measure.
Interested friends and acquaintances would ask what would I find to do there." Isn't it every mans dream to be kept by a women on a tropical Island", was my glib answer. I'd add "beautiful woman", if my wife was in earshot.
So began our two years on Christmas ,an idyllic Island, 350 kilometres from the Javanese coast.
The arrival of the Tampa and the subsequent construction of a detention centre on the Island to house asylum seekers shattered my reverie as a kept bloke.
My offer of volunteer work teaching the detainees led to a full time employment at the centre
Friends apposed to detention centres were a little dubious of my new teaching duties. I rationalised my role by claiming the moral high ground as a teacher providing a service and some pleasure under difficult circumstances. "Just like a prostitute really" ,as one friend said over drinks, "only the pays a little less".
On my first day of teaching I stood outside the main gate of the detention centre. They are forbidding places. Forlorn and abrasive, full of galvanised steel and mesh. The razor wire demands your attention.
Inside where the detainees live was a different story. There was warmth and good humour from the mainly Sri Lankan men and the small contingent of Afghani and Iraqi families. I enjoyed teaching these people; they were my students. The motivation and pleasure in their learning of English rekindled my love of teaching. Both, they and I, always looked forward to the next session. There were gales of laughter during role-plays. Their favourite English conversation activity was played out between the 'immigration manager' and the 'visa applicant'. The 'immigration manager' would always end this drama with a warm approval of the visa application followed by a round of gleeful applause from the audience.
I taught the Iraqi and Afghan women each morning. We would do this in their dormitory away from the gaze of the other detainees and ACM staff. Some of the ladies spoke Arabic whilst others spoke Farsi so their halting English was their means to converse with one another. Some shared the lesson with their babies, fussing over them as they pursued their studies with pride. The proudest moment for me came when a young Afghani mother, married at 14 and celebrating her 21st birthday in detention moved from not being able to recognise a letter of the English alphabet, to writing and reading English. Her enthusiasm for learning humbled my teaching skills. Her pride in her achievement will stay with me forever.
Within this group of four young ladies a strong bond of respect and friendship became evident. It was clear that they came from vastly different backgrounds. In using pictures of household appliances for word recognition and conversation starters the Iraqi ladies shone. The Afghani ladies looked bewildered.
It is hard to teach about the kitchen when you still have to walk to the communal well for water. The concepts were just not there.
When we talked about family wants and needs though we were on the same ground. Not surprisingly in this world of fragmentation and division through religion, race and politics we all want the same things for our family and friends. Just as the concept of a washing machine was unfamiliar to the Afghani families the concept of peace for Australians is equally unfamiliar. It is unfamiliar because we take it for granted.
Peace for these young mothers was much more immediate. When the Australian government offered the Afghani families $10,000 to return to a 'peaceful' Afghanistan the young mothers comment to me was "I don't want to take my babies back because for 21 years, sometimes peace, sometimes war".
Often to encourage their English conversation I would play the part of an official gaining details from them. The ladies love this, as they became very used to the questions and confident in their answers. Fatima, one of the Afghani mothers, would smile widely when I asked her where she wanted to go. "Please give me a visa, I want to go to Australia today". "Is that all?" I would reply. "No, I want my family to be happy and healthy as well". With the end of the conversation there would be self-congratulatory smiles all round.
This week Fatima died in detention. She finally got her wish to remain in Australia. I see her smiling face before me and her words "You are a good teacher", strike at my heart.
I only hope that Fatima gets the chance to have the rest of her wish fulfilled; that her husband and her three little children continue to be healthy and ultimately happy in country that will accept them as refugees.