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A Facebook message seven years ago prompted poet and activist Janet Galbraith to found a writing group that brought hope and connection to refugees. “It was formed out of the relationships between human beings, reaching through prison fences and beyond borders.” By Behrouz Boochani.

Writing Through Fences

Journalist and award-winning author Behrouz Boochani.
Credit: Hoda Afshar

One day in 2013, a young Somali woman, Awaysee (not her real name), posted a short message on her Facebook page: “Heart’s tendon tells a sad story that is full of optimistic silent words.” At the time, she had no idea that this short message was the beginning of a years-long journey.

Australian poet and activist Janet Galbraith responded immediately: “Hi, I wanted to say the two lines you wrote are beautiful, are you a poet?” Awaysee answered: “If you knew you would laugh and cry.”

It was at this point Janet found out that Awaysee was a refugee imprisoned at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows. As their friendship developed, Janet made friends with many people held in various immigration detention centres all over Australia and, later, in Indonesia. Eventually Janet created a Facebook page named “Writing Through Fences”.

For me, writing about this initiative without writing about Janet as a person is difficult. I’ve known Janet and have followed the work of Writing Through Fences for years. For me, Janet and those who have worked with her are important figures, part of a history that officially started when John Howard stood up at the launch of his 2001 election campaign, clenched his fists and shouted: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come…”

In 2013 I was in exile on Manus Island. I managed to smuggle a phone into Manus prison and Janet was the first Australian to get in touch with me. She wrote something similar to what she had written to Awaysee: “Are you a journalist?”

Rather than talk about the conditions of the prison camp, we wrote to each other using poetic language. For me it was a way to send out words and know that someone was reading them. In this way our relationship grew stronger.

In those days, detainees covered the windows of their rooms or tents with bedsheets so we could use our phones. Because the light from our phones was conspicuous during the night, we were forced to put blankets over our heads.

The situation was harder than it sounds because once every month – sometimes every two months or every fortnight – the guards would swarm into our rooms and tents about four in the morning. They would overturn our beds and even check inside our pillows and bed frames in search of contraband. They would take our phones away.

Janet was a friend to me through all those moments when guards attacked us, through the 2014 uprising. She was there beside me when we took part in the large-scale hunger strike in 2016. She was practically living on that island, not just with me but with many others, and not only in Manus Island but also in different detention centres.

She was there during all my acts of resistance, trying to create spaces so my writing could be noticed. My long-term comradeship with her and other friends helped to expose Australia’s detention system.

One day, Janet asked me: “Did you know there is a migrating bird named ‘Pacific heron’ and twice a year it travels between Manus Island and Australia?” This was a poetic image: we were now Pacific herons. We would send our poems and other writings to each other, send them to the lands on which we resided. As a result, this relationship between two people on different sides of the Pacific grew more profound.

Writing Through Fences was this simple. It was formed out of the relationships between human beings, reaching through prison fences and beyond borders. It involved refugees communicating with each other and with people in Australia.

During that time, Janet told us how much she loved the moon. When she was a lonely child living in country Victoria, she would visit the forest and pick flowers. She would sneak onto the balcony in the nights and spend long periods looking at the moon. For that little girl, the moon represented a compassionate mother. The moon was a friend that could talk to her and comfort her. Janet wrote to me about all these things.

The moon became like a point of contact that connected human hearts like telephones. Sometimes dozens of human beings, all refugees held in different prison camps on different sides of the ocean and beyond borders and fences, would look at the moon at a specified time. Looking at the moon became a tradition – a beautiful ritual – for many members of Writing Through Fences. I took part in this ritual on a number of occasions. 

As Janet explained to me, at first Writing Through Fences was a closed page so that women and girls could feel safe sharing their stories and poems. Over time, men were also permitted to join the group. They all encouraged each other to write.

It involved many people from detention centres in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Christmas Island, Indonesia, and later on Manus Island and Nauru.

Howard’s declaration was the beginning of an era in Australian history in which the state tormented many human beings and destroyed many lives. In 2001, during the infamous “Tampa affair”, Janet was one of the people campaigning for those on board. She wasn’t one of the central figures but she was there, and she was fighting. Later, when refugees were exiled to Manus Island and Nauru, Janet tried to communicate with the refugees. However, getting in touch was very difficult because at the time one could only write letters, which made it hard to make strong connections. She still has the letters from that time.

During those years Janet lived in the small town of Broken Hill, where she organised meetings that educated people about asylum seekers. She and a group of local people held actions, often based around writing. One action was to fly kites with messages of support for refugees in different languages, on the top of the slagheaps around the mines.

Janet posted photos of that ceremony to one of the detention centres in Australia and I asked the refugees to ask Janet a question: “What value does your action have when it takes place in a remote area and your voice does not reach the mainstream media?”

“Not all the narratives about activism in Australia take place in the big cities,” Janet said. “Clearly, this was a symbolic event. We wanted to say that even in small towns, in remote places, away from the coast, there are people who are thinking about the refugees.”

Janet said Broken Hill had a long history of incarcerating Indigenous peoples. “Many of their ancestors experienced life held in prison camps here. There are also parts of that town that have been destroyed by mining companies and it is important that we draw connections between these stories.”

She was aware of the plight of refugees from childhood, and it became a significant part of her life. Janet was brought up in rural Victoria in Beechworth, where the major source of employment – aside from farming – was the Beechworth prison. “Many people, once released [from Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre], were settled around the area and worked mostly labouring jobs – tobacco and fruit-picking and other heavy work,’” she said. “Stories were shared about the camp.”

When she was older, she met a group of Jewish women who had come to Australia after World War II as refugees, who told her their stories. Many of these women were homeless, or they had at least experienced homelessness. These experiences led Janet to embark on a long journey of activism with creativity in mind, that eventually grew into Writing Through Fences.

After seven years of this work, she has a massive archive of writing by refugees. She has saved hundreds of pieces of writing on her computer, and has published only a small number of them. This collection narrates part of the forgotten history of Australia.

 

Writing Through Fences has published several collections of writing by refugees. One of the most active participants is Hani Abdile, who was 17 years old when she fled Somalia. The first piece of writing she posted on Facebook was about education and freedom. After 11 months on Christmas Island, she was released from the prison camp, and in 2016 her book of poems, I Will Rise, was published by Writing Through Fences. When the book was published, Hani wrote me a long letter saying she could not hold back her joy. She was overjoyed because the writers in detention were happy and encouraged even more to keep writing. 

Other books from Writing Through Fences were From Hell to Hell (2015), by Ravi (S. Nagaveeran), a Sri Lankan refugee who wrote about his experiences on Nauru, and Our Beautiful Voices, a collection of writing by young refugees held in prison camps and published by Mark Time Books, a publisher in Castlemaine. The Strong Sunflower, by Mohammad Ali Maleki, was published last year, when the author was on Manus Island. For this book, a number of Australian artists created images to correspond with each poem. It’s a good example of the effort made by Writing Through Fences to facilitate new dialogue between Australian people and refugees.

Janet also worked on a book that includes writing by women refugees from Nauru. However, until now she has been unsuccessful in getting it published – partly because of difficulties with funding – and, as a result, some of the writers have given up on publishing. This raises an important point: many refugees are afraid of publishing their work. Their experiences have taught them that the system has a perverse desire to punish people who tell of their suffering or write about it.

As well, Janet collaborates with refugees on writing articles for publication in the media. One example is Imran Mohammad, who wrote a number of articles for The Saturday Paper, Guardian Australia and other media when he was in detention. Shamindan Kanapathi, who is currently held in Port Moresby, has also written many articles about the situation of refugees.

She has been pressuring the Australia literary community and media for years to publish the work of refugees. Now Janet, Hani Abdile, my translator and collaborator Omid Tofighian and I are working on a special issue of Southerly dedicated to Writing Through Fences (with assistance from Brigitta Olubas and Elizabeth McMahon of the University of New South Wales).

Janet dreams we will publish all the writing by refugees that she has collected over the past seven years in an edited book. I truly believe these works are an important part of Australia’s historical memory, part of Australia’s unofficial and forgotten history:“a history from below”.

These writings hold the knowledge that comes directly from the lived experience of refugees. The philosophy that emerges from writing and creating inside detention centres helps imprisoned refugees to survive the hardship of incarceration. In addition, it is a significant resource for researchers, writers and artists to understand Australia’s detention system. By engaging in Writing Through Fences, refugees tell us they are not voiceless, they do not need others to be their voices. They want to project their own voices. In other words, refugees are part of the main discourse. They are not passive. They want to make change.

Last year I took part in the WORD Christchurch Festival and many people who I had worked with over the years came to New Zealand to see me. Of course Janet was there.

One night we were walking in the quiet streets of Christchurch and paused on a bridge. We stared at the moon for a long time. I felt that this was the end of the journey. But Janet told me: “No, this is not the end.”

She was right. This is not the end.

Iranian poet Rasoul Yunan writes:

You love the moon more than you love me

And now every night the moon reminds me of you

I want to forget you

But no handkerchief will remove this moon from the window

 

Translated by Omid Tofighian, an award-winning lecturer, researcher and translator of Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador 2018).

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Writing towards freedom".

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Behrouz Boochani is a senior adjunct research fellow with the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre, University of Canterbury, and is an associate professor at the University of NSW.