There’s a joke going around the detention centre that it’s the best childcare facility in Australia.
“Let them run wild!” a young Iraqi mother says to me as my two children go running off around the corner to join hers.
“Honestly, where could they possibly go? You could just leave them here all day – or all year - and they’d still be here when you got back!”
I look at her motioning in an exaggerated fashion at all the security guards, locked gates and security cameras surrounding us and we both burst into hysterical fits of laughter. “Now, what is it you said about baklava?”
It’s one Sunday a few years ago - the day of the week my husband Lee and I used to pack up our kids and drive to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in the southwest of Sydney and share a meal with asylum seekers locked up in the Family Unit.
The centre is part of Australia's polarising asylum seeker policy. When we visited, most of the detainees were asylum seekers who had arrived by boat without a visa.
Though the Villawood Detention Centre still exists, the Family Unit is now closed (that happened in 2016). Following that in September 2017, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, now the Department of Home Affairs, introduced a new policy across all immigration detention facilities, effectively banning fresh foods and home-cooked meals from being brought in by visitors to these facilities.
Both these events have incredibly saddened me and my family, and our Sundays, hearts and minds are a little emptier for it. Below is my thanks to the people I met at the Family Unit and what we learnt from our time with them.
“Do you think we could get ‘Please don’t think all Australians are heartless bastards’ written in cursive font on the mud cake?”
Borne of a desire to do something – however little – to help, our visits gave the children behind bars an opportunity to play and make friends with some new kids, while the adults would sit around the communal table breaking bread and discussing everything from their journeys to food. Over time, I noticed, it became mostly about the food.
What does one take to lunch in a detention centre?
It’s probably not a question you’ve ever really pondered before (I certainly hadn’t) but it became something I thought about constantly.
“Honey, what food item do you think adequately conveys, “I’m so sorry you and your children are locked up with no foreseeable end in sight”? I asked Lee as we walked through a patisserie before our first visit.
“Do you think we could get ‘Please don’t think all Australians are heartless bastards’ written in cursive font on the mud cake?” As it turns out, there’s no food that really helps the situation, but as we discovered over time, food can still add moments of joy in an otherwise hopeless situation.
Building friendships with food
We begin our visits with cake, but as we get to know each other, our lunches blossom into something extraordinary.
Anticipating our arrival, the Iranians make Persian rice, the Sri Lankans make fiery curries and we bring baklava and the dolma (stuffed vine leaves) I rolled the night before.
“It’s so nice to do something so normal,” says my new Iranian friend as she sets down a tray of sautéed vegetables she’s purchased and prepared using what little money she has.
“It feels like a great honour to be serving guests again.”
Together we laugh, sometimes we cry and occasionally they dare to dream but mostly we just smile as we watch our children chase each other as if entertaining in such an environment is normal.
"It feels like a great honour to be serving guests again."
Sometimes the guards sit down with us, overcome with the sight and smells wafting in from the common area.
One guard who’s taken a shine to my girls, often rushes to bring them ice-blocks as soon as we arrive and he chases after all the little ones to ensure they’ve eaten lunch.
He struggles with what his job entails but says it’s far better that he’s in charge than some of the others who may not have as much empathy.
“Everyone’s gotta earn a living, darl” he says and we suddenly find our shoes fascinating.
I don’t mean to make this sound like the world’s most wonderful family activity, because it wasn't.
Some days were harder and talk was filled with death and despair. And other days many of our friends were too depressed to come to the common room or eat lunch.
But then there were the days when we turned up to discover a family has unexpectedly been released into the community and we celebrated in places that have no walls or guards.
We clinked glasses in the curry houses of Harris Park and sipped tea on cushions in backyards of their new homes in Bankstown.
I felt a thrill as I watched my mates begin to flutter their wings for the first time in years - as they finally allowed themselves to make plans, dream of love, jobs and a future.
Australia is lucky to have them, and it’s been my personal experience that our culture is all the richer for their gorgeous food.