Flickers of gold paint are etched into the material from the tiny paintbrush which he grasps with his oversized fingers. The patch of white material held in his large hand has a black outline of some sort of symbol that I can’t quite recognise. I watch as he dips the brush into the gold paint and continues with clumsy brush strokes. He is a middle aged man and has a wry look as he paints, suggesting he may feel uncomfortable as I look on. Or does he feel a tad foolish painting with a dozen security officers milling about with keys jiggling in this high security facility?
This is a detention centre for asylum seekers and I am visiting today because I am a believer in providing asylum to individuals who have fled their countries for their safety or because of war. Safety is a human right and that is why I find myself here today, surrounded by people of diverse ages and cultures knitting, painting and sewing. They are held in an environment of safety for now, but devoid of any certainty for their future; that can’t feel safe.
Why am I really here? What can I do?
I am in a precarious situation, I feel so out of place. Why am I really visiting? I clutch my bag of activities - English worksheets, pictures of Australian animals, a map, a shopping catalogue, a dictionary. Can I really pull out my laminated world map and strike up conversation: “So tell me about where you are from and where would you like to live?” Shall I find the cutest image of a possum or a furry wombat and suggest we make a list of interesting adjectives? Or do I open up my Kmart shopping catalogue and initiate a vocabulary activity as we pour over images of food and fashion?
All of this is nonsense to me. I am sitting with three asylum seekers - a former champion cricketer, a school dropout who can speak 7 languages and a young Iranian woman who is finger knitting the most exquisite glove. They have all been locked up for several years in detention, out of sight and well out of mind from the average Australian. In fact, so well out of sight, that I frequently miss the turn off in my car each time I embark upon my long drive to the detention centre. The low profile buildings, the shadowy trees, scrubby bushes and large mounds of earth almost make this centre invisible to find.
Invisibility… perhaps this is why I come?
W.E.B. Du Bois, an influential sociologist of the twentieth century argued that racism and segregation practices in American society had acted as a vast veil to shut people out of their world. Du Bois used the veil as a metaphor to describe the barrier which separates races and then results in exclusion, conflict and alienation. Here is his lyrical depiction of the veil:
“And then- the Veil, the veil of colour. It drops as drops the night on southern seas- vast, sudden, un-answering. There is Hate behind it, and Cruelty and Tears… And yet it hangs there, this Veil, between then and now, between Pale and coloured and Black and White- between You and Me…..” The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.
As I look around the activities room I see invisible words painted on the walls: EXCLUDED, ALIENATED, SEPARATED, HOPELESS. And so I close my eyes and imagine how this scene could now outplay...
In my mind’s eye I snatch the tiny paintbrush of trickling gold paint from the middle aged man and make my way to the walls. With guards watching on, I paint the words: INCLUDED, TOGETHER, BELONGING, HOPE! And in this moment the veil suddenly begins to pull at the seams. The guards rush to grab the veil, tugging ever so tightly to keep it in place. But their efforts are in vain! Delicate threads of the veil begin to quickly unravel and slip through their hands. Within the fine fibres of the unravelling threads the painful scars of Hate, Cruelty and Tears tumble to the ground. Silence stuns the room. As we all watch on with baited breath, the veil that hangs ominously in this detention centre tears violently in half from top to bottom…
Allies unthreading the veil stitch by stitch
Can the veil be transformed? Lifted? Unveiled? At a structural level, I’m not sure there is anything we can do to bring down the veil but at a personal level - yes. There is hope.
I see myself pulling on tiny threads and I know I’m not alone. All along the edges of this invisible veil, there are many advocates hard at work, trying to grasp a loose stitch of the veil so that it begins to unravel. I am trying to change public perception by providing a firsthand account of the asylum seekers who exist behind the veil of a detention centre. If public perception begins to sway, then the veil begins to lose some of its hidden power.
My friends are pulling their own threads by providing financial support to a family clinging to hope in a UNHCR refugee camp.
Outside a children’s hospital in a nearby city, activists are protesting. At a 24 hour vigil, they are unravelling stitches in the veil, in the hope that a young child undergoing surgery will not be returned to offshore detention.
In the back rooms of private homes, churches, schools and community organisations, allies all around the world are working creatively and persistently to tear down the veil, thread by thread.
I return to the man with the paint brush and ask him what he is painting. With a couple of teeth missing and a bashful reply, he tells me he is painting a cross with eagle wings. “Tell me what this means to you?” I enquire. I’m not sure if he understands the question but I pause expectantly. “The cross is my hope and the eagle is my freedom.” Our eyes lock together. He is so beautifully visible to me. This man who has traversed the shores to find safety. “There is no veil between you and me” I whisper.
This is why I’m here.
Natalie is passionate about human rights issues, matters of the mind and interfaith insights. When not in deep thought, Natalie loves to travel, drink good coffee and keep fit where she resides on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
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