A Perilous Wait for Safety
Poetry and Film send out an SOS for lives at risk
As Australia’s refugee deal with the U.S becomes further mired in controversy and uncertainty, the plight of around 2,500 people left stranded on Manus Island and Nauru remains unresolved.
Amidst the confusion, and the headline-grabbing tweets and political posturing, an emergency siren should be wailing. Because human life is in danger.
Waiting and staying alive on Nauru and Manus is a risky prospect.
Here in the Eurobodalla locals recently had the chance to hear first hand about life in detention from someone who narrowly survived Nauru’s Immigration Detention Camp as a young refugee.
Ravi or S.Nagaveeran - as he is known as a writer - is a Sri-Lankan born poet who now lives in Perth.
Using poetry, slide images, and personal narrative, Ravi delivered a powerful poetry reading to a packed audience at Moruya Public Library on Wed 18 January.
Above: Ravi's poetry reading and short film preview at Moruya Public Library last month
Locals were also treated to a moving preview of a short film which Ravi has collaborated on.
For a young man, who smiles warmly, cracks jokes, and answers questions patiently, Ravi has suffered deeply.
Reading to the capacity audience, Ravi shared works penned from within the confines of Australia’s detention system and published as an illustrated collection of poems titled ‘From Hell to Hell’.
The book is aptly described as “an uncompromising expression of the unrelenting grinding away of hope and health” of detention.
The risks to mental health of indefinite detention have been extensively documented in medical journals and cautioned against in a string of reports since at least the early 2000’s.
The list of risks associated with – or caused by indefinite detention – is long and now widely known:
Trauma and re-traumatisation, hopelessness, isolation, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, self harm, inadequate medical services and paediatric and natal care, the lack of emergency medical facilities, a lack of psychological support services, disproportionately high rates of insomnia, depression, anxiety, suicide and other psychiatric disorders.
Held indefinitely for over 3 1/2 years on Nauru and in Melbourne’s Broadmeadow’s Immigration Detention Camp and confronted by these daily realities, Ravi explains why he started to write:
“I was forced to face reality and the realisation that I needed to find a way to deal with all the emotions that I was unable to cope with. “
“ I took up writing to expand my feelings creatively with poetry and drawings.”
Using a compelling blend of poetry, slides and personal narrative and anecdote, Ravi spoke eloquently in Moruya about his time in detention – and about how he cannot fail to think of those still locked up, left in limbo and at risk.
Now free and living in W.A Ravi has become a leading member and the state co-ordinator of ‘Writing Through Fences’ a pioneering not-for-profit organisation, which first published his collection of poems in 2015.
Above: Poet S.Nagaveeran (Ravi) signs copies of 'From Hell to Hell'
The project ‘Writing Through Fences’ shares the poetry, prose and Art produced by people in detention. It has been the brainchild of poet Janet Galbraith.
While some of the members of ‘Writing Through Fences’ are journalists and writers who fled their country because of their writing, others came across the group and started writing poetry for the first time or - had been making their own art or writing before joining.
Ravi also works in other media.
He recently collaborated with filmmaker, Charby Ibrahim. Together they have produced a beautifully rendered short film. Skilfully wrapped around a surprising and engaging premise - which riffs on iconic Aussie folklore – it draws on Ravi’s drawings and poems, utilizing photographic stills, moving image, and a lyrical style of stop animation.
A special preview of the film in Moruya, left the audience profoundly affected with members of the audience asking to see the film again once it is officially released.
An international screening awaits the film and it is due to make its official debut at the Melbourne Human Rights and Arts Film Festival 2017 .
Stay tuned for news of the film’s festival debut ahead in The Beagle!
A natural communicator, Ravi is good at breaking down barriers and finding concrete ways for others to understand aspects of the life-threatening dehumanisation and harm that is endemic in detention.
A tag with a number printed on it , is still kept in a small box which the young poet travels with when doing poetry readings.
The I.D tag was assigned to Ravi when he was first processed as an asylum seeker.
Fleeing political persecution and brutality from the civil war in Sri Lanka and the ongoing persecution of Tamil people, Ravi arrived in Australia by boat in 2012. Contrary to common misinformation, arriving by sea to seek refuge, is not illegal. It is legal. And it is protected under International Law.
Throughout his detention, the identification number - the very first thing he was given in Australia – was used to replace Ravi’s name and to displace his identity.
Hope for any sense of future, was ground into the dust and the mud, with his endless incarceration in Nauru’s mouldy tents and razor-wire camps.
In his poem ‘You have changed my name’ Ravi writes:
“These words tell it all to you –
my pains in this dusty place.
Here I have lost all of my happiness, all my hopes.
I have no strength within me.
I am like a dead body.
Now you can do whatever you want…
‘I cannot find peace in my heart because I am a criminal.
That is the name you have given me.”
Nowdays, the numbered tag could just constitute a reminder of darker days. Or act as a reminder of the the punitive and dehumanising conditions that systematically and inevitably break the psyche’s of men, women and children held in indefinite detention.
But in Ravi’s case the ID tag has also become a physical marker that bears testimony to his resilience and survival. And the fact that Ravi refuses to forget all those who are still detained.
“ I’m not asking Australians to take all their day to think about what it is like to be in detention” he says.
“ I’m just asking people to take a few minutes - a few minutes to just reflect on what that must be like. And whether they feel that it is right . Just a few minutes to think and reflect. ”
Papua New Guinea’s move yesterday to deport 2 Nepalese asylum seekers, and its threats to forcibly deport up to 60 asylum seekers from Manus – despite impending legal determinations and controversy surrounding defects in PNG’s refugee determination process - has raised grave fears for the plight of detainees and those sent back to persecution and their deaths. Tensions and fear are being racheted up on the island.
And as the U.S - Australian quagmire drags on, alarm grows for the mental health and survival of those already struggling to cope after four torturous long years.
The SOS is out there, loud and clear – but will we as Australians respond?
‘From Hell to Hell’ by S.Nagaveeran is published through ‘Writing Through Fences’ and available online at http://writingthroughfences.org
Proceeds of sales of 'From Hell to Hell' go to assisting refugees
by Arts journalist M Blinksell
Magella Blinksell is a member of PEN International
and Refugee Action Collective Eurobodalla