Cover of book: They Cannot Take the Sky

Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope [eds.]
They Cannot Take the Sky

How does a young doctor, driven out of Iraq by political violence that engulfs the very hospital he is working in, end up in the isolation unit of an Australian maximum security prison? He has committed no crime, under local or international law. Then one day in 2000, after 10 months in Australia’s immigration detention system – 10 months wasted, for himself and the country he will embrace – he is left on the side of a desert highway in Western Australia to wait for a bus.

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is the most celebrated of the contributors to a new book of stories by refugees who have endured Australia’s system of asylum-seeker detention. “It was a mixed feeling,” he recalls. “Because now I was free but I was starting from zero.” Munjed became one of the world’s top orthopaedic surgeons, in osseointegration, helping Australia’s war veterans walk again after losing their legs in battle.

How many of the other contributors to They Cannot Take the Sky hold the same potential, frustrated – and worse – by a system that confined people to desert camps and now remote islands? Many of the two dozen refugees are now at university, studying law or business or health sciences or international relations. Others are still marooned on Manus Island, trying to study from there. Some will succeed, others will struggle, but the point of their stories is that they’re all trying to do what Australia ostensibly demands of them – fit in.

Stories of violence in detention recur. Jamila, detained at Woomera aged just five at the time, describes a pivotal moment in the history of Australian detention. In 2002, a man, desperate to draw attention to the plight of his sister and her five children in the centre, jumped from a rooftop into razor wire – his bloodied body literally bouncing on the coils. “He didn’t die” she recalls, “but the conditions in the detention centre drove him off the edge, literally. You wouldn’t do that if you were completely sane, you know.”

Another detainee, 13 years old, carved the word “freedom” into his arm in rage as the man jumped.

Alongside the personal testimonies – which include occasional references to the kindness of some guards – is a serious political point. Detention centres are big business, operated by companies that also run prisons. But asylum seekers are not convicts and the profits from their suffering amount to blood money.  PT

Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2017 as "Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope [eds.], They Cannot Take the Sky".

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