Previously: I speak to a Sri Lankan refugee, Suthan, on the phone. He gives me Barbara’s phone number, telling me that she is like a mother to him and that she has written his story. Over coffee, Barbara begins to tell me the circumstances that brought Suthan to her family.
Barbara’s husband, Warren, grew up in Port Augusta, three hundred kilometres north of Adelaide. Once a thriving seaport, the rural city had been reduced to a place where freight drivers stopped for petrol and a quick meal. Barbara used to hate going there because it was the sort of place where nothing ever happened.
On family trips to visit Warren’s parents, Barbara used to linger in bed. In the early morning stillness, she would hear a door creak open, followed by the patter of tiny feet – that would be their four children making their way to the kitchen, rifling through cupboards and then back to the bedroom that they all shared. By this time, little Zoe had been born to them, totally unexpected.
In her mind’s eye, Barbara could see the children ensconced in a mound of pillows and doonas, munching sweet dry cereal bricks from plastic cups. As a busy stay-at-home mum, Barbara came to appreciate Port Augusta as a wonderfully relaxing place.
After Kate and Renuka grew up and left home, after Jesse passed away, the Brown household grew smaller, quieter. Every couple of months, on the long drive back to Port Augusta, only Zoe sat in the back seat of their white Mitsubishi, a second-hand car that had come with gold hubcaps.
In 2002, when the Howard government opened the Baxter Immigration Detention camp, Barbara decided that a good use of her time in Port Augusta would be to visit people held there. She was a member of the Blackwood Circle of Friends, a support group for refugees and asylum seekers. She had heard about the conditions inside the camp from other members, who found it terribly difficult to visit the camp regularly due to its isolation.
At Baxter’s car park, Barbara stepped out of her Mitsubishi and looked up at the high fences and barbed wire. She driven only twelve kilometres out of Port Augusta, but she sensed that she was about to enter a completely different world. Handing over her mobile phone, she followed a uniformed guard through a long walkway to the visitor’s area, a hall with a series of tables and chairs.
Refugee supporters had given her a list of people she could visit and now, those refugees appeared, smiling. With hand signals and a few words of English, they offered Barbara bits of cake and asked if she would like water, or tea, or coffee. She found herself humbled by their small gestures of hospitality, small gestures that pushed back against the bleak institutionalized atmosphere.
At dinner that evening, Warren’s father poured drinks as usual. From the kitchen, through an opening in the retro display cabinet, Warren’s mum passed hot food – probably something like lamb chops and mashed potatoes. The plates were placed on faded cork placemats. As they ate, Barbara tried to describe how she terrible she felt leaving those people behind, knowing she was driving away to a family and a home-cooked meal.
But she felt that Warren’s parents, staunch Anglicans and life-long Labor voters, were trying to steer the conversation away. Why? She knew they were not adverse to other races. After all, they had accepted Renuka and Jesse as their own. Was it because Warren’s father had fought Japs in the war? Or that Warren’s mother had been a war nurse?
Perhaps they felt uneasy. Perhaps they weren’t ready to hear about the new detention camp in town, a camp where no one outside could look in, and no one inside could look out. Perhaps it was just more comfortable for everyone if it remained that way.
A week after our meeting, Barbara emails me her thesis. It is titled Suthan’s Story. Barbara and Suthan are named as co-authors. It contains not only Suthan’s story, told in the first person, but also Barbara’s response to his story. I read her words:
‘I remember the first time I visit Baxter; it is a prison, and no one should pretend otherwise. Hidden people in the desert. Shame. My angry words empty out until there is nothing more to say. Stones falling on desert ears.’
It would become a family ritual for Warren, Barbara and Zoe to visit Baxter whenever they went to Port Augusta. They would bring colouring books and toys for the children, or birthday cakes for Afghan and Iranian refugees they had started to befriend.
Around 2004, the Howard government began quietly releasing detainees from Baxter. When Barbara heard about it, welcoming the occasional bus from Port Augusta became part of her schedule. Her children were at school and she could make time to be there. Initially she formed a welcome party of one, but later some members of the Hills Circle of Friends joined her.
‘The scene at the bus station was something out of a movie, I tell you,’ says Barbara, smiling.
She raises both hands to form a camera lens zooming in from above, as if our café table were the Adelaide bus station on Franklin Street. The Immigration Officer would come in his suit and the men, who had risked their whole lives for this one moment, sat on the concrete curb and filled in their forms for Temporary Protection Visas.
‘One time it was raining so they asked the staff at the bus station if they could give them a room. We went into the broom cupboard and the broom fell on the Immigration Officer’s head. I mean it was just hysterical, really.’
‘Did the Immigration Officer find it funny or –’
‘Oh, he was very embarrassed by the whole set up. To realise that this was so important and there were Australians like me witnessing all this. You know, it was a pretty shonky kind of set up really. Then you’ve got to celebrate with them, so you take them out to lunch. Because it was such a special moment for them, you try to make up for the broom on the head,’ she laughs.
Because released detainees were only given a map of Adelaide and a few nights stay at a hostel, Barbara and the other Australians used to say, ‘Why don’t you come and stay at our homes instead?’
The first time her offer was accepted, Barbara prepared a quick lunch of ham and cheese toasties for the men who had spent the night, because there was so much to be done that afternoon: open their bank accounts and visit separate government offices for Medicare and Centrelink cards. But when she served lunch, they said, ‘We don’t like sandwiches.’
‘Were you affronted?’ I ask, amazed.
‘More guilt than affront. I thought these men had suffered so much and I had thrown this lunch together unthinkingly. Their mothers would probably have ground spices for a curry. I think I tried to cook more rice after that.’
In this way, several young men passed through the Brown family home. Some stayed till they could find work. They were looking for work all the time: fruit picking, vine pruning, and all sorts of things. Some of them went in every day to English classes at TAFE. Around the tea table at night, the family would sit around and hear about the adventures of their guests.
‘It was a wonderful experience for us and it was great for their English. I used to go around and stick little signs on the furniture: chair, door, table. So that was all fun.’
‘Was there a discussion with your family? It’s a big thing to take someone in,’ I say.
‘It’s a big thing and I apologized to my family. I’m a bit of a bull at the gate. If I get an idea, I run with it. Often, they very graciously come along for the ride.’
Barbara lists the factors that made it possible for them to open their home: Warren is a very generous man who loves Sri Lanka, the country and the culture; Kate and Renuka had moved out and there were spare rooms; Barbara had loved being an at-home mum and was ready to continue. But Zoe, the only child left at home, used to say, ‘That’s right, mum, going around the streets, picking up strangers.’
‘Perhaps,’ muses Barbara, ‘there was also the sense that she didn’t want Jesse replaced.’
Zoe was around ten when Suthan moved in. He was a quiet, gentle person, usually the first to get up and wash the dishes. When Warren became unwell, Suthan took over the gardening. When Zoe became ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and would collapse from dizziness, Suthan used to pick her up. When Barbara had to feed Zoe, Suthan would hold Zoe’s head in his hands so that Barbara could give her a drink or something to eat.
Gradually, Zoe related to Suthan, as a little sister to a big brother. Earlier, Barbara had shown me a photo of Renuka’s wedding. She was a radiant bride in white. The family – Suthan among them – stood should to shoulder in on green grass before a brown fence, smiling.
‘Young men coming into our house were desperate for a family and us, given what we’d been through, were ready to be that family. It was kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces all just seemed to fit,’ says Barbara.
The pieces may all have fit, eventually, but I realize that Barbara and Warren provided incredible leadership. Their actions demonstrated courage and kindness, and they persevered even though Zoe was extremely reluctant at first. In retrospect, it is easy to see that their selfless hospitality paid off: healing for the Brown family, healing for Suthan.
After meeting Barbara at the café, I drive home and reopen Suthan’s story on my computer. With a face and a voice to put to the name, I read not a refugee story, but the story of a man.
This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge. Next Friday, Refuge #18 King Coconut and the Mango Tree will be published. Subscribe for free to receive emailed links to new episodes every Friday.