Liz Byron and Hannah White are now a long way from Christmas Island, but it’s clear that Christmas Island remains very much part of both of them, writes Evan Ellis.
BY Evan Ellis
In late 2009, when Liz Byron and Hannah White first disembarked from their small chartered plane, they joked they had come to Jurassic Park. Having flown 3,600 kilometres from Perth into the emptiness of the Indian Ocean, they landed on what is actually a giant submerged mountain, ringed by nearly 80 kilometres of continuous sea cliffs.
The St Scholastica’s College alumni and University of Sydney students were closer to Java, Indonesia than any Australian city. However, both had chosen to come here willingly, indeed enthusiastically. Both had exchanged their long and easy summer vacation to volunteer with the men, women and children housed inside the detention complexes on Christmas Island.
Their decision caught their families by surprise. “They were shocked you could go,” Hannah remembers. Now in a graduate program in the public service, she thinks back to her parents mixed emotions. “They weren’t thrilled but they were very proud. And they were impressed we sorted it out by ourselves.”
Liz, a Master’s student in clinical psychology, agrees. Her parents “were pretty reserved but came round”. Both believe their decision to travel together helped.
The two young women, only 19 at the time, were less conflicted. Hannah describes the decision as “a no brainer”. Liz was similarly upbeat and optimistic. “It was always something that we really wanted to do. We couldn’t really afford to work overseas so we thought we would do something close to Australia.”
Liz and Hannah trace this enthusiasm for volunteering to their alma mater, St Scholastica’s College, Glebe in Sydney. The two women first met as five-year-olds in kindergarten. Their friendship and commitment to social justice grew together. Both are able to rattle off long lists of opportunities students had to volunteer, from door-knocking for the Red Shield Appeal to hitting the streets with Vinnies, to rolling up their sleeves at the Matthew Talbot Hostel.
Liz is emphatic about the central role the school played. “Tell them how great our school is!” The school provided support and references for the university students as they waded through the heavy vetting process.
Annie Barnett, St Scholastica’s Director of Boarding (crowned by Hannah as “the queen of social justice”) explains, “Social justice is intrinsic at ‘Schols’. We are a multicultural school with a very diverse socioeconomic mix. Those who have are taught they have a clear responsibility to give to those who have not. To quote Benedictine thinking: ‘arrange all things that the strong have something to strive for and the weak have nothing to run from’.”
From this perspective, the young women’s decision wasn’t cavalier but a logical next step in their striving. Indeed, for Annie, Benedictine education is all about forming students capable of “listening with the ear of your heart”, a paraphrasing of the opening of the Benedictine Rule.
The beneficiary of the young women’s ‘listening’ was the Australian League of Immigration Volunteers (ALIV). This organisation was engaged to provide English classes, recreational activities, cultural competency and supplementary services to those in detention centres.
ALIV had formed a (short-lived) partnership with Serco, the British multinational contracted to manage Australia’s detention centres, which opened up Christmas Island to Hannah and Liz. This opening was not without complications.
The summer of 2009 was a tumultuous one in Australian politics. Two months previously, 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers rescued by the MV Oceanic Viking were accused of holding Australia to ransom when they refused to disembark. Maritime arrivals were continuing to climb as the major political parties argued over push versus pull factors, and detention centres such as the one on Christmas Island, were filling. Politicians and pundits were at fever pitch.
Liz remembers the political climate vividly. “In 2009 the issue of asylum seekers was a bigger issue. There was a lot more media. We weren’t told very much because of fears we would speak to the media.”
The young women signed confidentiality contracts, submitted to a timetable best described as fluid (they waited five days in Perth after giving way to Serco personnel for the next chartered flight) and entered into a program in one of the most politicised institutions in the country.
For five weeks the young women lived inside the detention centre. Their role was primarily to run English classes, both beginners and advanced, but they also facilitated sporting events, ran cooking classes, taught yoga, danced hip hop and put on discos.
“I think we found initially that we both struggled – with the metal detectors, duress buzzers, security in classes. We did get a bit of a culture shock because we were both quite young when we were teaching,” explains Liz.
However, both Hannah and Liz found that by focusing on supporting the detainees they were able to transcend this challenge. “It becomes your reality. To do a good job you get over it. If you harp on and think about it too much you lose sight of what you’re there for,” Hannah says.
Their days were long and full. “It was very, very structured,” Liz remembers. “We would work six days. We would work from 8:00am, with the first English class, until sometimes up to 11:00pm, where after the end of night activities we would return to our room for debrief.”
The long hours helped them build trust and form relationships with some of the detainees. Despite the cultural chasm that yawned between them, it was clear to Liz that the detainees only “look very different to us but are exactly the same”. This insight into a shared humanity was reciprocated by the detainees, who invited them to share in their family birthdays and celebrations; events where meagre resources were pooled to create little bursts of festivity behind the wire.
It was in these intimate moments and in the conversations between classes that the women heard stories of survival and hardship. “I met a lot of people who have had horrendous experiences and have lived through horrifying things and it was sort of like that journey continued when they were imprisoned when they got here,” Liz recalls.
Part of ALIV’s mandate was to support detainees through their immigration process by offering some semblance of normality. A good example is the soccer tournament Hannah organised. Twelve teams from the men’s centre competed in a round robin competition that climaxed in a grand final on Christmas Day.
Everyone from the detention centre came to cheer a fiery contest between the two leading sides. As the principal organiser, Hannah was invited to referee the final match. The honour given to a 19-year-old girl to referee “the be all and end all game of the detention centre” was not lost on Hannah. The game itself went down to the wire and after extra time was settled in penalty shoot-outs.
It was inevitable that Hannah’s and Liz’ time on Christmas Island would end and they would make the long journey back to Sydney. Like many aid workers before them, there was a period of re-entry, from marvelling at how much freedom, people, buildings and services there was compared to the little community on Christmas Island, to the surprise and discomfort that so few people seemed to appreciate. Hannah just wanted to tell people to “brighten up”. During this time they volunteered in a similar capacity at Villawood detention centre in Sydney.
While both women are now a long way from Christmas Island, it is clear Christmas Island remains very much part of both of them. Liz was an Arts student when she went. On her return she completed honours in psychology.
“When I was on Christmas Island I just heard these stories, crazy scary stories of what people were living through. I realised there a whole lot more suffering in the world than what I had previously understood. I thought I’d get involved in counselling as an area I could be of assistance.”
She hopes her Masters in Clinical Psychology will help her find a career with children in developmental psychology. “A lot of work there was with children who were detained. I was really intrigued that despite everything, they were still smiling, laughing and going to class.”
For Hannah the experience made her even more aware of the interplay between government policies and the reality on the ground. Having worked and volunteered extensively with asylum seekers and people with disabilities in the non-government sector, Hannah wanted to see and understand the other side. She recently began a prestigious graduate position in the public service and is keen to learn how policy-makers can tailor humane solutions to the challenges of today.
Both Hannah and Liz are continuing to listen with the ear of their heart.