Previously in Refuge #44 An Ocean Liner: Iranian refugee Maryam has told Lesley and I how she acted as an interpreter between the Australian Rescue Navy and the other people on the boat en route to the Christmas Island immigration detention centre. When they reached Christmas Island, she was desperate to contact her mother. When she was told to do a blood test first, she broke down and wept.
A Chinese lady came up to Maryam and handed her a mobile, and said, ‘You call.’ It was 8 a.m., Australian time, 5:30 a.m. in Iran.
‘Hello?’ said her mother in a sleepy mumble.
‘Hi mum,’ said Maryam.
‘MARYAM!’ cried her mother and fainted.
Maryam pauses. She puts her face in her hands and stifles a sob, ‘Sorry, I miss my mum.’
‘I’m sure,’ says Lesley.
‘And the other people, they call their parents and some of them even have ceremony for the dead because they thought they were dead.’
‘Oh my goodness,’ says Lesley.
‘They had a funeral ceremony.’
‘So did your mum finally speak?’ asks Lesley.
‘She didn’t speak. My dad grabbed the phone. “OK, we’re in Australia. We are safe. I can’t talk to you now. I talk to you later.”’
‘So how long were you in Christmas Island?’ asks Lesley.
‘Another eighteen days. We weren’t there for so long.’
‘And from there to?’ asks Lesley.
‘Adelaide detention, Inverbrackie, more than one month. Then Melbourne and they release us,’ says Maryam.
‘How do you feel when you talk about it?’ asks Lesley.
‘When I think about this journey, I feel the stormy night again. I had lots of nightmares when we were in detention. Some nights, I thought I was floating. We were in the boat and the boat goes up and down. In detention, we slept in 2-storey bunk beds. Another night, I was on top and felt like floating. I didn’t wake up. I just fell on the floor and I saw around me was like the room with water. It was like dreaming and reality. I didn’t see Benham and I thought he was in the water. I opened the door and I was walking and I came out of the room “Benham! Benham!” Then suddenly I saw Benham walking and I was like, “Where am I?” Benham saw me and was so scared.
‘But now I am really happy that I am here. I am really happy that God blessed us and gave us the mercy to see Australia, to see a better life, a life without pressure, without fear. I don’t care about this crazy new government and their speech, you know, can’t allow the refugees. They weren’t in our shoes. They didn’t experience what we did.’
Before Maryam and I leave Lesley’s home, I thank Maryam and compliment her on her memory for detail.
‘I know I’m very good at the details. If you ask Benham to tell you this story, he’d say, “I was sleeping all the time. Yes, we had the stormy night. I slept that night, then the navy, then we went to Christmas Island. That’s it. But I’m really good at details.’
‘I think this is the woman versus the man,’ says Lesley.
We all laugh.
I drive Maryam home and compliment her on how good she looks. She says, ‘You have no idea how long it took me to decide on what to wear today.’ There is much more intentionality in this world than first impressions suggest.
For our next two interviews, I visit Maryam at her unit. As I remove my shoes at the door, I take in this neat and tidy apartment. The dining, kitchen and lounge are contained in a space that reminds me of an Ikea showroom.
Directly opposite the front door is a dining table for two, pushed against a wall, which bears several prints of a city, perhaps Paris. Cheerful yellow tiles clad the wall between the kitchen bench and the row of windows that offer views of the city. The tap drips, intermittently. To my left is an L-shaped lounged suite, a coffee table and a plasma TV.
They have furnished the place on Benham’s wage as a panel beater. Although he was a carpenter in Iran, he had apprenticed in his father’s workshop since he was a boy.
Maryam and Benham have working rights because they arrived prior to the Houston Report in August 2012. Prime Minister Gillard had commissioned the expert panel, which produced the report, in response to rising numbers of asylum seeker boats trying to reach Australia.
Still uneasy over using Maryam’s real name, I vacillate between her wishes and my instinct. One day, at my local library, I pick up a slim small book, On Privilege, by Julian Burnside. Burnside writes of his privileged childhood – a tennis court, a rose garden, a Toorak mansion. Then, with legal precision, he explains the etymology of the word privilege. Originally, the effect of Privi-legium, or private law in Latin, was to be treated differently to everyone else. It did not necessarily mean to be treated well. You could be treated very badly, much worse than everyone else, and that could still be privilege.
Over coffee, an old school friend tells me that Julian Burnside AO QC spoke at her son’s school on human rights and refugees. On the off-chance that he might respond, I locate his email address online and write to him, seeking advice on whether I should use Maryam’s real name. He replies on the same day.
‘Thanks for your email. I think it is unwise to use real names and boat numbers. Better to invent plausible names and invent plausible boat numbers (on the pattern: three letters and three digits). You could include a paragraph at the front of the book explaining that, for the safety of the people involved, you have changed their names. The impact should not be diminished if you do it this way. Very best wishes, Julian.’
I relay his advice to Maryam. She and her husband choose the fictitious names Maryam and Benham.
In the automatic signoff at the bottom of his email, Mr Burnside quotes Bishop Desmond Tutu, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’
This ends Chapter 8 Iran. Next Friday, 17 January 2020, Chapter 9 Australia will begin with Refuge #46 the Syrian dentist. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.