Before I visited Maribyrnong Detention Centre I had no stance on the issue of asylum seekers, refugees or boat people. Then things completely changed. I was 19.
I guess you’d say I grew up in a comfortable, fairly conservative, middle class Melbourne family. My mother had glaringly different views to mine and we frequently butted heads. She was very supportive of the ‘go back to where you came from, we don’t want people like that in this country, we decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come’ school of thought. Whereas, I was seeing firsthand the conditions we were keeping very vulnerable people in. Especially children.
There was a disconnect between mum’s view of the issue from the political or media angle, and my view on the ground. It was quite difficult for some time. We had stand-up shouting matches and I essentially honed my ability to answer difficult questions about the issue, and develop arguments I now use very regularly, around the family dinner table.
In 2009, I got on a plane to Indonesia. I’d heard from a lot of people in the community, particularly the Afghan community, about the conditions people were being held in over there. It’s hard to imagine now, but nobody was talking about Indonesia as a country of interest at that time. We’d only heard rumours about it.
I was between jobs and had the opportunity to just go, so I spoke to Dave Schmidt, a wonderful director and cinematographer, and he came with me. We had equipment and cameras, but it was just a matter of seizing the opportunity and having no idea what we would find.
The first day we were in Jakarta we went into one of the biggest immigration detention centers in the middle of the city. There were two cells full of men, and a couple of guys were young. Jaffar was one. A 13 year old. I asked the guards if I could speak to this kid for a minute and they let him come out and chat to us. He didn’t speak English at that point, but there was someone interpreting. We heard a little bit about his story. It was very clear how distressed and desperate he was and how much of a horrendous time he was having.
I couldn’t forget about all those faces behind the bars, but in particular the boy. Sometime around then I gave him a piece of paper with my phone number on it and told him that if he got to Australia, to get in touch and I would do everything I could to help him. I had no idea what might happen.
Jaffar is a Hazara Afghani. He was born in the center of Afghanistan, In a province called Urozgan. When he was very young, Jaffar’s older brother and sister were killed by the Taliban on the doorstep of the family house, in front of their parents. So the family left and moved to Pakistan. Jaffar grew up for most of his life in Quetta, but the Taliban became very active in that area and was targeting Hazaras. As soon as Jaffar became a young man of a certain age in a certain demographic of interest to the Taliban, his dad got together all the money he could borrow and sent Jaffar away.
Jaffar came to Indonesia fairly directly: flew from Pakistan to Malaysia and then caught a boat from Malaysia to Indonesia. He was picked up on the street in Indonesia pretty quickly and put in detention for about six months. He ended up getting on another boat, which became stuck on Ashmore Reef, picked up and taken to Christmas Island.
Having someone who is willing to look after you does not shorten or facilitate the process of getting a visa in any way. It’s just a matter of having somewhere to send a person. There was nothing I did, or could have done, to pave the way for Jaffar back then. And this process doesn’t exist any more for people who arrive by boat. It’s Manus or Nauru and see you later.
When Jaffar got his visa he was sent down to Melbourne to stay with me. Mum thought I was mad. She went between thinking I was mad and almost disbelieving what was going to happen. We were unsure when Jaffar was going to get his visa and how much notice we would have. In the end there was only a couple of days.
I brought him from the airport straight to Mum’s place. He was 14 at the time, and he kissed her hand, which is the traditional way a young Hazara would greet an elder. Mum burst into tears. She immediately had a connection with him and it has been, pretty much, true love ever since.
I was never worried about Jaffar and Mum meeting. I knew that a hypothetical feeling about a boat person would fade into insignificance when she met this young boy with such a difficult history. But even I was a bit surprised, and I think she was a bit surprised, about how much she has become devoted to this issue and the fact she has been so vocal about saying: “I used to feel this way. I now see I was wrong and here’s why.” She was very much responsible for assisting to get Jaffar’s family out here, and a great deal of her energy is poured into him, his family and his little brother Ali. Jaffar turns 20 next year and Ali will be nine in December.
Mum now talks to people who have the views she used to hold and she will bend over backwards to try to discuss those views and say, “Well, actually, do you understand this and this and that.” It’s quite incredible for someone to change their mind and be so open about it. I think she is just extraordinary.
Jessie was always different. I’ve said many times before that she was put on the planet to challenge me, because everything about Jessie from the moment she was born was a challenge to every belief system I had. She never accepted the standard view on anything. She’d always push me to provide answers. This was easy when it was general knowledge, but when it came to beliefs it was much trickier.
I grew up in an ordinary working- class Australian family, one of four children. In those days you didn’t get very involved in politics. I just knew that my parents and my grandparents were pretty conservative, but I often think it was because they didn’t have time to be anything else.
My dad was self-employed, and all of us, the four kids, have ended up being more or less self-employed. There was no unionism or office culture discussed. It was pretty mainstream Australia: Robert Menzies and all the rest of it, when everybody tended to be on the conservative side of things.
The views I started to feel about asylum seekers came from listening to general media and getting sucked in by the scare campaigns of politicians wanting to stay in power – by people being anti-Muslim and indifferent. They focus on the whole religion thing, without taking time to get to know the individuals.
Jessie started visiting asylum seekers because it was the Christian thing to do. She has always, even as a little kid, cared for others. In primary school, when they did community visits, she went to an old people’s home and sang to them. I didn’t know this, but she started going back there every day after school. She adopted this woman who was very elderly; Jessie was angry that the lady’s family never came to visit. I only learned later how often she used to go.
When Jessie got older, she never knew what she wanted to do, but she used to get angry at injustices. So all I could say was, “Work hard at school, become a lawyer and then change things from the inside. Don’t go rattling cages and being stupid.”
I knew Jessie was going to Indonesia, but I hadn’t understood the danger she would put herself in. She and David had hidden cameras on them. When I found out, I felt sick. I’ve always thought, that whatever Jessie did, if she got herself in a mess, I’d be able to come and help. She really went out on a whim with that one, but I was also extremely proud of her. I’ve always been very proud of her, of her lack of fear to express her differences. She’s never wanted to conform to anybody else’s image of what she should be.
After Indonesia she told me she’d met this boy and she was going to foster him if he got to Australia. I thought this was la la land and said, “oh yes dear, yes dear”. Then she told me he’d rung from Christmas Island and I was still saying, “yes dear, yes dear”, not realising what was happening.
When she picked him up from the airport she brought him to meet me. It was really very moving. Jaffar took my hand and kissed it and I just didn’t know what to do. I learned later that this was a sign of respect for people who are very elderly, which didn’t impress me! But a lot of women don’t get to my age in Afghanistan. Then he met my mother, who has just turned 90, so you can imagine... What I remember most was my own emotion, and my own disbelief that this boy had got this far, through all of that suffering, and here he was, with us, going to English language school, living in relative safety, having good meals. He was so brave, so courageous. He didn’t break down about his family.
Most of my friends and family don’t really understand the lengths that Jessie has been to in her life and what she does. A lot of my close friends don’t agree with my ideas and with Jessie’s. I’d like to think maybe their views are a little bit more balanced, because they’ve met Jaffar; they’ve met his little brother Ali. The more people you meet, the more it demystifies and takes the fright away. What’s happening now in the Middle East can only set racism and bigotry back into the dark ages. It’s understandable that people here think that way, but they have to understand that the majority of people in those countries, like Jaffar and his family, they don’t.
The rest of Jaffar’s family members are out here now, except for his cousin, who we are still fighting for. Jessie actually became an immigration lawyer to get them here, so she could fill in all the paperwork and follow it through. There are thousands of people who do more than we do though. People who don’t talk about it, they just do things. What we do is a drop in the ocean.