Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Merry Christmas Island

It started by seeing my students all over the island, even at the casino where I lived. They were laughing and joking, having a great time. When I questioned their escaped status, they told me they missed me and had come to visit.

After speaking to my colleagues, I understood that 500 detainees had escaped during the night some of whom were sitting on the tarmac of the airport staging a protest.

The Christmas Island facility was built to house 400 men. It was currently housing 3000+. The company contracted to run the detention centre had erected tents and filled every nook and cranny with bunk beds to accommodate the excess. Some rooms contained 60 -100 beds packed in so tight that   there was only about 20 cms between each bunk. New arrivals stayed in big tents for three months, this area was glamourously named, "Marquee". Stays ranged between 3 weeks and 36 (and counting)  months, reasons for their length of stay were arbitrary.

When I was informed that I'd be working in the single male compound of 3000, I actually became a little nervous. The only induction or training provided me was how  to use a Hoffman knife to cut someone down who was trying to hang themselves with makeshift ropes ….cut furthest from the knot so as to keep the evidence in tact. I asked if there was anything I needed to know about working at a detention centre, I continued to explain that as a teacher I had only ever worked in schools or universities, this was a first for me. They told me to be aware that these men haven't had sex for a long time so watch out. I later found out it was also not a good idea to let them through the locked gates, I thought I had been polite holding the doors open for them.

Surprisingly the men were of very high spirits and an absolute joy to teach. They treated me with complete and utter respect and were extremely chaste. They were fantastic ambassadors for the male race. Often they would queue after class to look me in the eye and say thank you teacher, I have learnt so much, thank you. Some would come to class early, sweep, clear away the rubbish, position the desks to how I liked them and wait at the door to announce that my classroom was ready. These were the most fantastic students I'd ever taught.

It was only a few days after the students had visited me. I was teaching a really fun grammar lesson with carpet and velcro inwhich  everyone was laughing and producing some great language. A colleague came running into my room and said, "quick Kate, they are burning down the detention centre, we have to evacuate, NOW!"

Acting on impulse I said, "ok can everyone follow me, we have to go". My colleague turned to me to say, "no the students stay". I was devastated. My beautiful students. How can I leave them behind?

All the detention centre staff were ushered out as the police in full riot gear ran in. Only hours later I heard a Hercules flying above and landing, more police were being flown in. The detention centre was now under their control. I had heard the way those police officers had spoken as we socialised, they revelled in their positions of power. I was therefore very concerned about my students' welfare; I knew that those now in charge, saw it as a change to teach the 'illegal immigrants' (seeking asylum is completely legal)  a lesson.

As I sit here writing now and recalling, the trauma returns…… to be continued if I can, as this was only the beginning.

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