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Sleepless in Australia

IT’S their first Christmas in Australia and some of them just can’t sleep.

For these men, part of a group of mainly Afghan asylum seekers who arrived in Brisbane from the Australian immigration detention centre on Nauru in September, this is not the sleeplessness of excitement or anticipation but of utter fear.

They fear being returned to the suffering and persecution they escaped.

For them, having been granted five-year Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), the threat is not immediate but for the ones they left behind on Nauru it is.

The Australian Government is telling them it is now safe for them to return, but no one is convinced.

So intense is the fear and despair on Nauru, that 21 asylum seekers on the island are on a hunger strike and four have sewn their lips together.

For the volunteers at Brisbane’s Romero Centre, which specialises in supporting asylum seekers on TPVs, the plight of these refugees – mainly of the Hazara ethnic minority – has a personal impact.

The ones most dedicated to the work of the centre, like Mercy Sister De Lourdes Jarrett and Frederika (Freddie) Steen, share the torment of these people forced to live in ‘limbo’. They see the fear in their eyes.

They are now friends of the 21 men who arrived from Nauru in September and they are painfully too aware of the despair gripping the ones left behind on the small Pacific island.

Sr Jarrett and Ms Steen feel a cruelty in the threat to return these people to a life of suffering.

They know what it is like to comfort families totally distraught as they reach the end of three-year TPVs and receive the Government decree that it is time to go back to Afghanistan or Iraq or some other strife-torn part of the world.

‘They come here (to the Romero Centre) to weep,’ Ms Steen said.

‘Our place was the first port of call for a young mother when she found out her (family’s) application for permanent residency was rejected,’ Sr Jarrett said. ‘She was in tears saying, �We can’t go back. What can we do?’

‘It is so cruel.’

That woman is in deep depression, contemplating a return to ‘hell’ with her husband and two preschool children � the youngest born in Australia.

Among the men freed from Nauru in September, the Government’s decision to send asylum seekers back to Afghanistan strikes fear.

‘Two of them missed their English classes the other day,’ Sr Jarrett said. ‘The night before they had slept only an hour.

‘They couldn’t sleep … They knew they would be penalised for not attending their classes but they couldn’t concentrate. They were too disturbed.’

Still, it’s time to celebrate Christmas.

‘It’s a very painful process for me,’ Ms Steen said. ‘I find it so hypocritical when we pat ourselves on the back for joy and peace. For who? For the child in the detention centre? Where’s the peace and joy for them?

‘There won’t be peace in my heart until this crisis is fixed.’

Sr Jarrett said the Christmas greeting can feel hollow … ‘but we must still have hope’.

Centre co-ordinator, Franciscan Missionary of Mary Sister Janine Bliss said the 11 men of the Nauru group still left in Brisbane were Muslims. They were ‘getting the idea’ of what Christmas was about and she thought they were beginning to look forward to it.

‘It’s a new experience for them,’ Sr Bliss said.

‘It’s an opportunity for the positive aspect of Christmas to be explained to them. Hopefully they’ll have some experience of that.’

The centre had a Christmas party for the refugees and their supporters, and Sr De Lourdes said the families, especially the children, entered into the spirit of the occasion.

‘It’s the love of children that comes through – which is universal,’ Ms Steen said.

She said most of the children were unaware of their parents’ suffering.

‘The parents withhold bad news from the kids and protect them as much as they can,’ she said. ‘And they’re grateful to their Australian supporters who put a buffer of normality around the children.’

Ms Steen said it could be a devastating time for the men from the Nauru centre as the rest of the community celebrates a time of great joy with family while they are separated from theirs.

For the refugees, the volunteers at the Romero Centre have become like ‘family’.

‘This is like a home for them,’ Sr Jarrett said.

In recent days she was reminded of this when she drove a young man to the train station to go to Adelaide for a job.

‘The tears rolled down his cheeks as he said: ‘I’ll| miss the Romero Centre. When I walk in here everybody loves me … Please pray for me every day’.

Ms Steen added: ‘This is a 21 year-old boy – away from his family, with obligations to pay debt, having to leave for work, having to leave the people he trusts and who love him.’

Ms Steen, who has been involved in refugee work both personally and professionally for 25 years, says the refugees she meets now at the Romero Centre, such as the Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians, are the most transient and marginalised refugees she has seen.

Because they were denied permanent residency and were granted TPVs of three or five years, they were committed to a life in ‘limbo’.

‘They can’t make any decisions about the future, they can’t put down roots and they can’t feel they belong,’ Ms Steen said.

‘Your whole life is bound by the fear of forced repatriation. Fear imbues everything you do.’

Ms Steen said these people had satisfied the criteria for refugee status yet were not being treated as genuine refugees.

‘These people came looking for peace and justice and we’ve treated them so badly, it’s shameful,’ she said.

‘If most Australians knew the truth of what we’ve done we would apologise and seek their forgiveness.’

The Romero Centre, operating under the auspices of the Mercy Sisters since December 1, adheres to a slogan taken from the words of Oscar Romero � ‘You cannot do everything … but you can do something’.

And the ‘tribe’ of people wanting to do something is growing, says Ms Steen.

‘And they’re not bleeding hearts. They’re ordinary Australians who care about social justice.’

One way of supporting the centre’s work is to buy one of its 2004 calendars which are available for $5 from the Romero Centre, PO Box 6115, Buranda, Qld 4102, or by phoning (07) 3393 2500.

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