Previously in Refuge #21 Windows face inward: Suthan spent months at the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre in South Australia. Eventually released on a Removal Pending Visa, he met Barbara Brown through her volunteer work with the Blackwood Circle of Friends and moved into the Brown family home.

Barbara and Warren’s children from L-R: Zoe, Jesse, Renuka, Kate

In 2005, when Suthan moved into the Brown family home in Blackwood, Barbara recalls that he was very withdrawn. He used to lie on the couch, curled up in a foetal position, watching Bollywood movies, oblivious to the fact that no one else could sit down. Then he started talking about suicide.

‘You can’t say that sort of thing here, not in front of Zoe, not in this family, not after what we’ve been through,’ said Barbara, furious.

Suthan had touched a raw nerve. Although it had been a few years since Jesse’s death, a family marked by suicide never forgets.

Suthan hated taking anti-depressants and tried reducing the dosage, but this made him feel terrible. So he took up the offer made by his psychiatrist, Professor Barrett, when the professor had treated him at Baxter. Professor Barrett had told Suthan to go and see him at any time, any day at the hospital, no appointment needed.

The professor asked Barbara to come in for another visit, and told her, ‘Suthan has the worst case of depression I’ve ever seen.’

His diagnosis amazed Barbara because she knew that, as Head of Psychiatry at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, he would have seen very many patients. With Professor Barrett’s support, Suthan and Barbara worked towards recovery.

Image by BeccaH from Pixabay

To help Suthan reset his body clock, for example, Barbara would sit with him in the garden to let him soak in the sunlight. There they could talk, or simply sit and listen to parrots squabble in far off gum trees. With Barbara’s encouragement, Suthan joined a gym and exercised every day.

She accompanied him on his fortnightly trips to sign in at the office of the Department of Immigration & Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). This was a visa requirement, but Suthan hated going there because he was terrified that someone might lay a hand on his shoulder and lead him away. He still had nightmares about returning to Sri Lanka.

Suthan and Molly, the Brown family dog. Molly was a just a puppy when Suthan moved in. Suthan used to set his alarm to take Molly outside in the middle of the night to toilet train her.

Slowly, Suthan started making his own way around Adelaide and comparisons between Australia and Sri Lanka came to him. How strange that people kept to themselves here, reading books on the buses, everyone silent. In Sri Lanka people talked to one another all the time. In Sri Lanka, although the army and the police were everywhere, the possibility of danger seemed ever-present. Here in Australia, he felt safe and could walk the streets alone.

Sleep came more easily at night. Gradually, his anti-depressants were reduced to a third of what he had been taking in Baxter.

As Suthan recovered, he sought to express his gratitude to Warren and Barbara. He gathered his friends from the detention camp to paint the house. They were moving all the furniture to the middle of the lounge when the TV crashed and the screen lay in smithereens all over the floor.

‘Oh well, it’s just a TV,’ said Warren. Barbara looked at Warren with fresh appreciation – this special man. Not many people would have said that.

With Barbara’s permission, Suthan began clearing the garden. When she returned later that day, she gasped inwardly. Disciplined severity had replaced the look of benign neglect. But Suthan was not finished. He bought seedlings from the local nursery and a few months later there was a carpet of pink blooms. Then he painted all of Barbara’s flowerpots bright blue.

‘My house was starting to look like a Sri Lankan house,’ laughs Barbara. ‘So we had to negotiate something in between Australian and Sri Lankan.’

Suthan asked if they could keep goats in the garden.

Zoe said no. What about chickens? Zoe agreed.

‘I realized then that he was trying to recreate the garden he’d lost in Jaffna.’

Not long after his release from Baxter, with the help of the Refugee Association, Suthan and a few friends, former detainees, secured a vine-pruning job in Renmark. Accommodation would be provided.

When they arrived, they were led to several tents, pitched by the highway. All night, the ground under Suthan trembled as trucks roared past. Frogs croaked. He slapped his face and legs – mosquitoes! Inside the tent, the six or seven other men kept shifting, trying to find a comfortable way to arrange their arms and legs. In the morning, they saw that all their food had been stolen. Possums.

The next day, the boss explained the work and talked at length about workplace rules. His manner reminded Suthan of the guards at camp. When it rained, Suthan’s friend ate in the toilet but Suthan preferred to get drenched. Many workers left. Suthan stuck it out for one and a half weeks before he gave up.

Because he didn’t want another job like that, he decided to study. Barbara took him to visit Thebarton Senior College in Adelaide. She saw his face brighten at the sight of rows of standard roses flanking the walkway to the main entrance. The teacher who administered his entrance exam was friendly and Suthan thought he did very well. But his 70% mark was insufficient for Year 11 and he enrolled to study English in the New Arrival Program instead.

Just as Suthan was taking these tentative steps towards independence and normality, DIMIA sent him a letter asking him to pay court costs of $4,000. He negotiated a payment of $50 per month because he was a student. Then the following week, another letter from DIMIA instructed him to get his travel documents in order so that they could send him back to Sri Lanka. Barbara hadn’t fought so hard to give up now. She galvanized people to write letters of support. The Blackwood Circle of Friends raised $1,400 for an immigration lawyer.

Suthan and Barbara taking part in a parade as
members of the Blackwood Hills Circle of Friends

Two months later, when Suthan was in class, he received news that the Immigration Minister had applied Section 48B of the 1958 Migration Act that allowed him to grant Suthan a three-year Temporary Protection Visa even though his asylum claim had previously been rejected. Suthan hurried to the hospital and told his friend Professor Barrett the good news. The professor took Suthan and all his staff for celebratory drinks. That night, at home with Warren, Barbara and family, they had a big party and drank pink champagne.

‘Since that time I feel a little bit relaxed. I managed to get my driver’s license. Because of my depression I felt very nervous during my test; I failed twice and I wanted to give up. My friends encouraged me to keep going. When I got my license I become more happy and more free. The Circle of Friends offered me a car to drive and when I started driving I got lost everywhere.

Now I have a job in an Indian restaurant as a kitchen hand and I prepare the entrée plates. I have become a good worker and they ask me to work everyday because they like me a lot. The boss invited me to his house and I had wine. I feel very proud of myself.’

The end of Suthan’s Story, as written in Barbara Brown’s thesis.

This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge. The continuation of Suthan’s story – Refuge #23 Don’t Touch the Hotplate – will be published next Friday, 9 August. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.