Kannan is an experienced writer and poet working both in Tamil and English languages.
He was detained for almost 7 years and is currently living and writing in community on a bridging visa.
THE ALMOND TREE: A refugee story
photograph by Janet Galbraith
The almond tree stood bare in biting cold. That was in the month of June. Nudity is unbecoming. But nature made the tree bare and was relishing it. In the eyes of nature, it might have looked beautiful. But I felt bad.
Inside the refugee camp, everyone moved with grief and gloom, yearning to die. The trees and shrubs around us have a great influence on the life we lead here. That’s why this bare almond tree caused a kind of dejection in us. Our emotions withered like an autumn tree.
In our country, shriveled trees do not sprout again. They die. Nature creates life to suit itself. Our nation’s trees and shrubs will not shrivel, sprout, wither and germinate again in this Melbourne land.
In September, the early summer woke from its slumber and embellished the almond tree with flowers. The Lord made her dazzlingly beautiful. I was engrossed in her beauty. The sun rays that fell on my shoulders gave me some solace. As the hours went by I could not endure the sun. It was blazing and burning my shoulders. I could no longer bear it. There was a weird rage and aversion within me. Emotionally I was still desolate.
I went to the visitor’s room. The heat was moderate there, though the air conditioner did not work.
It was a familiar voice. I turned around.
Maree was there with a scarflike cloth in one hand and a container of cold water in the other hand. She described the thing she held between her fingers as a ‘Kinder Cool’ band.
There was always a group of girls around Maree. The group was always shedding tears. Maree hugged and consoled them. She brought a parcel for of them. It contained things for which they longed.
The desires of some people made me furious. They seemed irrelevant to the situation in which we lived. But Maree looked at matters from a different perspective. That was love, which she also taught to her daughter. Her job was to give gifts and lend an ear to everyone’s laments and console them. The daughter became childlike, playing with the kids and making them happy. All the refugees received this embrace and warmth. It was a soothing experience. For refugees like us who had lost everything in life, it was a great relief.
She called me politely. I went over to Maree. The cloth she had was now immersed in cold water. She had the instruction sheet in one hand. She explained, ‘After it is fully soaked in water, if you place it around your neck, you will stay cool. It is a preventive measure against heat stroke and heat exhaustion.’
I laughed. ‘Will not Melbourne’s coolness be sufficient?’
Maree answered, ‘No friend, this will be used by brothers and sisters in Nauru and Manus island refugee camps.’
She said it reassuringly and placed the water soaked cloth around my neck. It relieved the burning sensation from the hot sun and a soothing feeling rose up inside me, just like the painful stories that live in my memory.
The refugee camp brings out varied experiences. Among the refugee camps in Australia, Melbourne’s MITA camp is the best. After spending 34 months in refugee camps around Australia, MITA camp was the first time I saw children. I witnessed their innocent and innocuous beauty.
From July 2013, pregnant women began to visit this camp to give birth to their offspring. Their tears lie frozen in the Melbourne winds. The great joy of a woman lies in attaining motherhood. This ecstasy of motherhood is Nature’s gift. It is not that only a woman can understand the pleasure and pain of motherhood. A man views it as a male but will understand the pain and pleasure of it.
Whenever pregnant mothers returned after meeting the case manager, their eyes brimmed with tears. The mother and the foetus together experienced the grief, fear, dejection, powerlessness and all the pain the body generated. Why did she weep? ‘Yes’, the case managers said, ‘In very few weeks after giving birth to your child, you will have to return to Nauru or Christmas Island: the place you came from.’
In those camps, one witnessed the worst torments. Yes, they came to this camp completely anguished. Pregnant mothers shared painful experiences they had to undergo. Pregnant mothers were allowed ten minutes to bathe once a day; others were allowed less than 5 minutes. This included attending to nature’s calls. There was no clean potable water. The temperature in the open military tent soared above 35 degrees Celsius. There was unendurable heat, insufficient food and inadequate medical treatment for diseases caused by high temperatures. Sufficient clothes were not issued. Even sanitary napkins were not issued to women.
Essential basic requirements for present day living were not supplied. Due to these psychological torments, our emotions, thought processes and our endurance were damaged. We wanted to speak out, but fears for our future made us dumb.
We came here in search of a fortunate life. But there is no life here. For their own reasons, politicians attempt to justify their crimes by painting us as very dangerous people. International human rights organisations can do nothing but come up with ineffective reports. In the history of the human race, the self-serving laws of the politicians and the doctrines of religious fanatics never created a healthy human race.
In another few months, these children are going to see this sinful earth. Every event happening to the mother during her pregnancy has a bearing on the development of the child’s brain. Her laments and psychological disturbances will also affect the child inside her. Governments are talking about child safety laws. Here is a child, tormented in the womb itself. The mother does not take sufficient food, due to the psychological anguish she suffers. Taking medicines for psychosomatic illnesses and developing symptoms of diseases by inflicting pain on herself in both body and mind will cause the child to have an unhealthy life. This is a medical reality.
These refugees spent every moment of the day in fear of their future life. For some, that future arrived. They departed from this place to the hell that they always feared. Those faces and the innocent laughter of the children come to my memories.
Maree is able to breathe because the tears and stories they left behind are still suspended in the Melbourne air. Maree loves their souls.
Today an effort had been made to find a symbolic solution and as a result, the ‘Kinder Cool’ band is resting in my arms. This may not be a total relief but it is full of love. This is the real true human compassion. This is what the compassionate Australian people said, did, and executed.
Through the glass I look at the almond tree. Thousands of blooming flowers smile at me reflecting the faces of those innocent children who passed. But I do not know if this is a reality. Reality is not in my hands. I am a refugee but you are not.
First published in Overland, 11th December 2014
drawing by Eaten Fish
LOST FREEDOM IN CAPTIVITY
A refugee like me is in front of my room. I realise – there is distance between him and me. The distance between his room and my room is not up to 3 metres. He has a very small bird cage in his room. He does not realise the room he lives in is for him a cage as well. It is stupidity not to realise even what is known. If not, what else to say? One can be man only if he realises the life he is living. Why has he not realised every drop of the hour he is losing and the pains from those losses.
Every day he shows on the TV screen pictures of birds similar to the one in the cage. It is possible to see and hear the voice raised by the bird on seeing the pictures. Now the bird has stopped raising its voice – though it is still alive. The reality is the liveliness of its soul has been killed. When I compare my life with the life of this bird, I am able to feel the pains of the bird.
I am living in this detention camp for more than four years. Many natural feelings that arose within me are now dead. In all human beings, dreams and passions for the future naturally arise. This is the law of nature. Such do not arise within me now. My feelings of the soul are being killed by pain. Has this also arisen in the bird’s body – pain due to immense suffering, pain due to its disabled condition?
Before realising that the TV pictures it saw are false images, or that they are out of its reach through the iron bars in front of it, how much distress, struggle, failure, shame, pains of disability did the bird feel. All these losses kill the feelings of the soul. I believe this very deeply.
My detention camp is giving me this experience.
Think a bit! Is this true? Or is it a mirage – like the feelings within me? I submit my feelings to you. Analyse and see. True? Or false? Observe this next story as a tool of measure of my experience.
During my young days I desired to rear a Mynah, or a Parrot. At that time there was an elderly person living in front of my house. The society held him in high esteem. He was not well educated, but he was very good in manners. He was an obstacle to my desire. I was not mature enough to understand his words of advice. I only felt a sense of obstructed desire. Now the elders words are conversing within my soul.
At that time I was only able to love the birds voice and its beauty. I did not have the understanding that nature had created all living beings with emotions. Every species of the living world has its own activity. Every living category has its own method of living, comparable with the organs provided for it. This bird, for example, has wings. Nature has designed a way of life for it. It has to fly to fulfil the way of life designed for it. All aspects of this birds functionalities are trapped inside the metal cage. Natures expectation is that it should live the life designed for it but it has been disabled from fulfilling its expectations.
Nature has designed an environment for every living type suitable for its own way of life. At appropriate times plants flower and produce fruits. Birds have no physicians. They find their own medicine from nature for their illnesses. Nature has given them the necessary know-how. In the ancient times every man also had this know-how. Even now some still do. Birds migrate according to changes in climate. They do have ideas, thoughts, feelings, food habits, even a culture in them. They practice love – even chastity – and this is a wonder of nature. These are not humans exclusive assets. Humans did not create this nature. Humans are created within this nature.
That is all. That bird is trapped inside this cage with all its feelings and cultured habits suppressed within. How much of its emotions have been killed?
It opens its wings and created sound. It is our ignorance that we do not understand the language in it. It did not fail to express its distress. We misunderstood the message of distress as its sweet voice.
I have experience of distress. I keep expressing my distress through the medium of truth. For over four years, nobody seems to be understanding my distress. But these politicians keep saying something. They say I have a responsibility to respect the laws made by men. The bird lives due to its inability to break the cage. I am caught in detention due to a multitude of laws created by man. We are both in the same boat.
The politicians do not hear my cries.
Who hears the cries of the bird?
A poetic line deeply buried within me is – ‘birds eating the fruits do not know the pains of the roots’.
We can say this as follows: ‘Men who appreciate the wings of the bird in the cage do not realise the pain the wings suffer’.
Previously published in Peril http://peril.com.au/blog/politics/reflective-thoughts-from-a-sri-lankan-refugee-now-a-prisonerbut-free/
I went to a cemetery. What I found were the headstones and the tombstones of different nationalities, as well as the beautiful roses and other flowers that had been left there, flowers without roots!
The thorns of the rose may seem small, but they are powerful, like the people who cry for freedom for others. Butterflies do not come to this place. There is nothing good to smell here. The roses have a smell. The flower of the rose in my eyes has become the politician. Like the politician, the roses are sitting on our tombstones.
I look at the headstones. I find the old generation, I find the new generation … and then me. My freedom is with the old generation. My dream is the dream of an old generation. My soul is an old generation soul. My life belongs to the old generation who lie under the ground.
Who killed us … the old generation, the new generation? Who killed us?
A long way under the ground, new digging is happening. A tree is putting down its roots. Many seeds are growing upwards. The butterflies are coming and going.
I look at the stones. They tell me that one day I will go to sleep peacefully there. But I know that I will never sleep peacefully in this present life.