by AUE mySalvos | 16th October 43 Comments
How can I be free when they are not?
Lieutenant Tara McGuigan was part of the first Salvation Army team to arrive on Nauru on 10 September, to provide humanitarian support for asylum seekers being housed there. Now back in Australia, Tara reflects on her service on the remote Pacific island nation.
“How was Nauru?” When one of my closest friends asked me this question only hours after I had returned to Australia, I was stuck for words. I felt it was like being asked: “What’s the meaning of life?” How could I even start to express what for me was an experience so huge, so overwhelming? Right there, on the phone, I couldn’t lucidly put into words any one thing about what Nauru was like for me.
Now into my third day back, however, I am able to lay some clarity around the question, “How was Nauru?” This 21sq km island is four-and-a-half hours by air from Brisbane. The asylum seekers, who arrive by boat in Australian waters, are transferred there while their claims for asylum are being processed. This can take a long time, often years.
They are placed in camps where they sleep under canvas. Nauru is within five degrees of the Equator. The island is extremely hot and humid. Living conditions are far from ideal. The actual camp area is no more than two acres. There is no air-conditioning, and a few fans ineffectively disturb the heavy humidity.
How could I say the experience was “great” when it was so tragic for so many who kept regularly arriving by plane from Christmas Island or Darwin? How could I say that it was fulfilling when all the time I was surrounded by desperation and hopelessness? How could I say that I was able to bring these residents some hope and friendship when they had left behind everyone they loved and everything they owned or shared or enjoyed?
How could I say that I was able to support young Raj (all names used are pseudonyms) when he had witnessed his mother being gunned down before his eyes at the age of nine? How could I say I brought a smile to Ravi’s face when he arrived with a smile that never left his beautiful face despite the horrors life had flung his way? How could I feel I had offered a hand of welcome to an angry Hameed when, on his arrival, he yelled, “We are not animals,” as he looked around him and felt rejection and desolation?
How could I say I made a difference when nothing had really changed for my brothers? In fact, despite good food and the promise of better living conditions, on Nauru their quest for freedom in Australia had just taken a turn for the worse. More than that, it had come to an abrupt halt.
They had fled war, death, torture, and suffering, and then the risk of drowning at sea, in search of freedom from fear, safety and a new life. They had scrounged around and scraped up every dollar and cent they could find to pay their way, preyed upon by heartless people-smugglers who wanted nothing else but their money and cared less for these desperate human beings than they would if they squashed an irritating fly.
I feel helpless. I feel like a grain of sand on a beach of pebbles. I feel like I am a whisper amid a cacophony of sound. I feel like a faintly glowing star trying to light up a dark universe.
I feel humble. I feel ashamed. I feel like I am nothing, insignificant and puny. No, I don’t feel blessed, I don’t feel free, I can’t sing “Give thanks” when my fellow human beings live in circumstances that call for nothing less that abject pity and sorrow.
How can I be free when they are not? How can I be thankful for my own little comfortable life when so many people have no place to call home? How can I say I am blessed when all their worldly possessions are carried around in a single plastic bag, zipped up at the top so their meagre belongings don’t fall out?
In my spirit and my thoughts I go back to Topside, the name of the asylum seeker village on Nauru. I see myself walking in my comfortable Reeboks thanking God they are strong enough to withstand the layers of pebbles and stones that cover most of the ground. My friend Omar makes a parting request of me, to please ask for a pair of shoes for him because all he has are his rubber thongs and it’s hard for him to play in the cricket and volleyball games the Salvos organise.
There is a solitary tree in the compound under which many of my brothers gather. It is the coolest spot. As I fly back into Australia, I notice rivers and lush green countryside covered with forest in many places. I experience a newfound consciousness for a country of natural abundance. As I sit on my lounge in my comfortable house, I look out over the garden surrounded by beautiful and plentiful trees and plants and bushes. None of that at Topside with its single tree crowded with chairs and camp beds on which displaced people sit and lie as they try to find shade and catch a whiff of breeze.
Albert Einstein said: “Time is not at all what it seems. It does not flow in only one direction, and the future exists simultaneously with the past.”
My life and the lives of these asylum seekers are inextricably bound. I am the boy Dilan, 18, fleeing to Australia in a boat, spending 28 days at sea, the last five with no food or fresh water, surviving on sea water laced with vinegar and sugar. I am the devoted husband and loving father of Fathima and Nissa and Saji left behind in war-torn Iraq, promising to find a way to bring the most important people in my life to a place of freedom and safety. I am Shamir who changed from Christianity to Islam because I was persecuted and punished for my faith. I am that son, that daughter, that friend, that relative who lives in nowhere land.
What answer can I give to people who, as we say goodbye after three weeks of intense life journeying, turn their eyes to me and ask: “What will happen to us? Do you think we’ll ever get to Australia?”
How do I speak words of hope to people who have called me “Akka” (Sri Lankan for big sister), “Sister”, “Aunty” and “Tara Miss”, acutely aware they may never see their hope fulfilled? I leave feeling like a deserter, acutely aware of these people’s need for love and respect, hope and kindness. My heart is scattered among them all. We are one.
For reflection: “Lord, set the captives free.” Read Isaiah 58:6-10.
Lieutenant Tara McGuigan is Corps Officer of The Salvation Army’s Capricorn Region Corps.
Thank you to everyone for your questions and concerns regarding recent events in Nauru. The Salvation Army has given the following response.
There is no doubt that one of the most challenging and heated issues facing Australia in recent years has been the ongoing response to asylum seekers traveling by boat to our shores. The Salvation Army recognizes that this issue has generated many different views and solutions, and that Australians hold a wide range of views about what should or shouldn't be done. We respect and understand the strong, differing viewpoints that have been expressed in these posts.
However, The Salvation Army's calling is not just to engage in debate and discussion, but to stand with, and work alongside people who are suffering and vulnerable.
The Salvation Army is not in a position to change government policy at this point in time, but we are committed to doing everything we can in the Asylum Processing Centers at Nauru and Manus Island to try and make a difficult situation a little more tolerable for them.
Our presence in the Regional Processing Centers does not mean we support the policy of offshore processing, just as our presence serving tea and coffee and providing encouragement to our frontline troops in WW1 and WW2 did not mean we support war or violence. But we always have and will, be on the frontline, in places where there is suffering or need.
It is not in the heart of The Salvation Army to walk away from people when they are at their most desperate and alone. For The Salvation Army to withdraw from Nauru would leave these people's care only in the hands of the security team. One of them said to me as I was leaving Nauru recently, " Please don't take The Salvation Army from this place. You are our only hope."
I will not let this man, and his friends down, by deserting them for a short lived political statement. If caring for these people impacts our brand, then we will pay that cost. There are almost 400 men on Nauru and you can be assured that for the vast majority of them our presence is making a difference.
Its perfectly reasonable to object to a government policy, but still be fully engaged in providing humanitarian assistance to those affected by the policy. This is the situation we're in and we will stay the course as long as our support is needed.
We ask all Australians of faith to pray for our personnel who undertake this important work and for all those who will come into our care. We ask all Australians to think compassionately and generously towards those displaced in the world, who are searching for a new home and a safe haven.
Thank you for all your contributions.
Paul Moulds AM (Major)