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Christmas Island

I landed on the island filled with an exhilarated terror. The volunteer recruitment process had been haphazard and I wondered if I would even make it this far. But now, there I was, on a tiny, lush, forest island, with pterodactyl-like birds circling overhead, and thousands of asylum seekers being detained.

My first night was spent inside the family detention centre (Phosphate), with no pillow on my bed. Due to the ninety percent humidity, air conditioners had to run constantly to prevent the paint on the walls from molding or important documents curling up in the damp air. I kept dreaming that a coconut crab entered and lopped off one of my toes.

Volunteers tended to be law or allied health students and came for four-week stints. This meant that my trainers were also in their 20s and had only been on the island a few weeks longer than me. They led me to the control centre, where asylum seekers queued to use the phone, so that I could sign in my contraband items (laptops and tweezers). One of the guards puffed their chest out when cautioning me that if any contraband items were not signed out at the end of the session, detainees would have their rooms searched. I cringed inwardly. I later learnt that not all guards were like this: some were apathetic, others needed the cash or had no one waiting for them on the mainland, while some were bilingual and assisted as informal interpreters to the asylum seekers.

In the family centre, children scurried along the walkways, past giant centipedes and red crabs that rocked and shook their claws like angry, elderly neighbours. A group of children spotted us and raced over to examine the hula hoops in our bags. After the session, one little girl carried her butterfly colouring-in picture with her for days. It made my heart hurt because there were no toys for her after we left for the day.

Fruit was scarce on the island (due to the Phosphate in the soil). I remember one mother saving an orange each week so that when her little baby turned one, she could celebrate. She was glowing proudly as she broke open an orange with her hands and passed it to me. Other women in the compound placed flower necklaces over the little girl’s head, blessing her and kissing her cheek. I tried to contain my feelings when the guard denied the mother a photo with her child at this milestone.

At the Sports Centre, local and asylum seeker children proved that language barriers could be surpassed simply by running around and knowing each other’s names. Face painting of children quickly turned into children painting the faces, arms, legs, necks and hair of the volunteers. Sri Lankan dot patterns emerged among the slosh of colourful mess.

I am dared to race across the Aqua Run in the pool. The inflatable limbs creaked as I stumbled through the obstacles. To the joy of my young Iraqi friend, I tumbled into the side pool so he beat me to the final slide. Many of the children were not great swimmers (particularly if they came from land locked countries).

One of the older local boys fled angrily when prompted to leave the pool. In his race to the oval, he jeered at me - picking up stones but throwing so that they miss me. Eventually he fell onto the grass, picking at it heatedly with his nails. When swearing and spitting didn't get a reaction, he cried. Through the sobs, he disclosed that his parents separated last year with his dad returning to the mainland. His father could rarely afford to visit and this boy was stuck a million miles out to sea. When returning to the playroom he wiped his eyes and a Curdish boy from the centre reassured him in broken English and handed him the bat to play cricket.

The unaccompanied minors were also held at the family centre. Most were fifteen-year-old fisher-boys who the media had dubbed "people smugglers". They played acoustic guitars and sported trendy Indonesian mullets.

We took turns to drive the jeeps across the island to the men’s centre (North West), trying to conserve petrol (a limited island resource) and dodging crabs. It was mind bending to find the ocean at every orientation, the expanse of sea never interrupted by land. Locals, rightly, acted in fierce protection of their robber crabs. I recall a fine of a thousand dollars for accidentally killing one and thirty thousand for eating one. Initially, the drive was scary but over time, it became more like an arcade game, especially in misty weather when red crabs swarmed across the earth.

The men’s centre was a high security compound; we were given duresses (safety alarms) to keep in our pockets. We never needed to activate one but the pins would occasionally fall out during an activity and cause a racket. Clearance checks occurred in a large metal structure that volunteers referred to as “the raptor cage”. It was not uncommon for us to hum the Jurassic Park theme song as we entered. The men’s centre was much larger than the family centre, with compounds surrounding a central oval, new compounds being built (Violet), some asylum seekers slept in massive army tents (November) or lived in rooms that were meant to be classrooms. Men walked laps of the oval, talking in serious tones. Although, they greeted us warmly, I could see signs of their deteriorating mental health. Some stopped shaving, showering or leaving their rooms. A man leaving a twelve hour long interview with the Australian Federal Police was offered a Panadol, knowingly, by a fellow asylum seeker. Interpreters swished elegantly between the interview rooms.

I was always touched that men would place one hand over their heart when waving to greet or farewell me with the other hand. Over a decade later and I still catch myself doing this sometimes - tapping straight into my heart. I had initially applied for the role to volunteer with children but it was working with the men that had the greatest impact on me. I fell into the miming, stick figure drawing and word play jokes in English classes. In “Australia Class”, I played Midnight Oil and ACDC. The group elected Christine Anu as the “Australian Bollywood queen”. Every time I hear “Take the Weather” by Crowded House, I picture writing lyrics on the board and us all singing the chorus together.

In music class, I attempted to teach the Australian National Anthem on recorder. As you can imagine it sounded appalling and I dissolved into laughter as the more musically inclined men opted to go for a walk and the remaining men tried to make bird call noises. When I stayed an additional week in the team leader role for the new volunteers, I am nicknamed “Commander Chief” by one of the men. While another volunteer, Katie, is Smiley and Locky becomes Lucky, I am Commander Chief. That still makes me smile.

My first volunteer session in the tent city took my breath away; the horror of a dozen makeshift bunk beds, in the dark shuddering fabric, with muddy grass for flooring. Bless the men for the warmth of the community they created there. Trivia was raucous and ended in a playful water fight. When I set up a Paddle pop stick bridge competition, a group of academics (some of them engineers and physicists) created an epic masterpiece. I felt so strongly that our society could really benefit from these people. “Will they grant my visa?” they asked me sometimes. I had learnt to respond “Inshallah” (god willing), with the greatest of hope.

The volunteer days were long and the food did little to sustain us. At five o’clock the plastic containers of curry were passed around. On my first evening, I attempted to eat meat to keep my energy up. On finding an artery in my food, I remained vegetarian for the rest of the trip. Initially, the curry provided a novelty of arriving ready to eat, however, patterns soon became evident amongst the food. “Curry sludge” was the staple, “chish” was what we called a white solid that could not clearly be identified as chicken or fish (and could perhaps be neither). On novelty days there was fried chish, tomato chish or curry chish (for the connoisseur). The rice was often in such a solid block that we could carve into it to make sculptures. By my fifth week on the island, I ate only cereal and fruit.

Dinner at North West Point was an occasional cause for excitement and jeering directed at the volunteers at Phosphate. When the WA premier visited we all ate Fish and Chips, a bittersweet triumph. In addition to the better food, party nights at North West Point were amazing. Kurdish men drumming and Harazari men singing and chanting. Sometimes they would chant the traditional song “Dana be Dana” as I entered the group. The crowd of men would elect a brave member to solo dance: lifting his arms, bobbing his shoulders and spinning in a circle. I observed a marked difference in the platonic physical affection men show one another in Middle Eastern cultures. They would quite comfortably link arms, hold hands, huddle together when watching a film and touch each other’s faces comfortably. This seemed to impact the male volunteers in the program the most - some reported never feeling so truly connected with other men in their life.

Evenings at the family centre often involved volleyball games on the dusty old court, giant jungle insects in the floodlights and the looming canopy just behind the high fence. The children threw bird-sized moths at each other and the point was called out in Farsi and English.

Some volunteers smoked cigarettes in the middle of the oval, late at night. I sat for company and stroked the shy grass, watching it retreat in biological wonder. What a strange, fantastical place. It never felt time to sleep; there was too much to do and process. We felt such a strong sense of purpose and bonded quickly as volunteers. At the end of the day, when I was doing a stint as team leader, the dreaded timetable room called to me create the activity roster. It is here that I hit my exhaustion wall and cried.

We had one day off per week which was when we attempted some "life admin". This often involved hunting for enough phone reception to contact family and friends (and assure them we were not dead) and wash out sweaty T-shirts in the industrial-size washing machines.

After these tasks were completed, we would explore the island together. We drove past temples that were a single open room - four corner columns, no walls, overlooking the sea and a few burial plots. Slowing at the round-about, we would read the communal chalkboard messages, scrawled family birthdays, “trampoline for sale” or council election dates that danced across the black grit. During a forest walk to The Dales, the monsoon rain stuck my shirt to my steamy skin and crabs ducked around my feet, dancing backwards with claws raised in warning. The massive wingspan of the birds caused me to spin around and gaze upward at the canopy. I had to squint to see through the rain while being hugged by the warmth surrounding me.

The car spaces adjacent to the supermarket directly overlooked the lonely sea. There was an eerie movement on the horizon; the large Navy ship towered over a small boat, dazzled with orange speckles. Each speck the life jacket of an adult or child, man or woman, all crammed together, afloat on the rocky waves, in a shaky boat. Later, they tell us how they ran out of water, got sick, comforted each other’s children and waited. In the high seas they often prayed as they thought that they would die. We stand silent for a long time. A few volunteers light a cigarette. Something wells up inside of me that I cannot put a name to.

The walk down the shopping aisle was, frankly, confusing. Wildly expensive fresh produce but cheap, duty free alcohol and cigarettes. Day off ended at the pier. Some are waiting by the other four wheel drive, with messy hair and animated expressions. Soon my feet leave the rusty damp of the jetty and I own a frozen moment before the sea engulfs my body, slapping my thighs and shoulders. Silence for a moment and then the reemergence. Past my water dropped lashes are wavering images of volunteers on the jetty; stargazing with legs folded and towels rolled into a pillow. We all contemplate how little sleep we can survive on.

The only outing with clients occurs from the family centre to the non-for-profit outdoor cinema. One compound at a time board the bus and at the movies the officers hand out popcorn and Pop Tops with a smile. The two blockbuster movies that I saw were terrible but very appropriate for a non-English speaking audiences. I liked glancing back over the rows to see their eyes upon the screen, forgetting where they are or what comes next. Back in the compounds the news on the TV spouts the words “Boat People” and “Cue Jumpers”. Don’t you know they can hear you?

When I agreed to stay one final week in the HR role, I spent my days in the community centre (where we could access the internet) to work on program planning. Outside was the perfect climbing tree with a long horizontal branch where you could lie back and look up at the leaves. The volunteer manager and I met the lady who runs the Op shop and (hilariously) shared her office with the mayor. On the patchy island internet, I received my final clinical placements for uni and a childhood friend asked me to be her bridesmaid - it all felt a world away.

Back at “home” (the volunteer accommodation), we lived like we were on a school camp - eating from each other’s plates, calling each other nicknames and sharing silly in-jokes. We would later comment, “I knew her for four weeks on the island. That is equivalent to a couple of years anywhere else.” We were so used to being together, moments after waking, passing around cereal boxes and talking sleepily about our dreams. Then, at the end of the day, wishing each other drowsy “goodnights" across the corridor, holding eye contact that meant something like "only we know what this experience is like".

When the six weeks ended with the deadline of the start of semester, I still couldn’t comprehend how I would leave. During our stop over at Perth airport, another volunteer and I contemplated getting on a plane straight back to the island. The journey from the airport to my house felt so surreal. Where was the sea? I couldn’t see it anywhere.

I have no memory of walking to my bedroom or falling asleep.

“Dana, it’s dinner time,” my mother said through the island air.

I grabbed at my pocket in an agitated manner and wondered why I’ve been left to sleep, “I have to give the keys for Dale to Luke."

Dale was the white four wheel drive.

“Dana, you’re in Melbourne,” my mum mused gently.

“We have to go pick up the volunteers from NorthWest. Is tonight party night?”

I move my sore legs begrudgingly. What is my mother doing on the island?

“Dana, you're back in Eltham, in your old bedroom,” my mother says, her voice now closer, “Dana, you’re home.”

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