Life

To the refugees detained in Carlton’s Park Hotel, the arrival of Novak Djokovic felt like a miracle – if only the attention he brought would continue now he’s gone. By Mehdi Ali.

The sky of this cage

A person gestures from a window of Melbourne’s Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic was detained.
A person gestures from a window of Melbourne’s Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic was detained.
Credit: AAP / James Ross

For a long time, the residents of the Park Hotel have rarely seen the sunlight or starlight. In the absence of the moon and stars or any other source of light above, the sky of this cage has become a black and cold space. Gradually everything has taken on the colour of despair and hopelessness.

It is said that the speed of time for each person is a function of the material and spiritual conditions of that person. For the residents of this detention facility, we are facing a phenomenon called time stoppage – or at least its very slow movement. For nine years or more we have experienced the glacial movement of time with absolutely no certainty about the future. In this uncertainty, not only does time stop and break, but also the soul and psyche suffer.

Every human being in every position, as a human being, has their dreams and aspirations; but it seems that we, the residents of the Park Hotel, are deprived of this obvious human right. It is so painful that you cannot imagine your dreams for the future.

Last week, the addition of a world-class tennis star to the Park Hotel was more like a miracle. At the height of our despair, this miracle happened and that bright star came to us and directed the heaviest news and media attention to that cold and soulless building. All the cameras were zoomed in on the windows of the place so that they could capture images of the world’s tennis champion.

Reporters and reporters focused on the hotel windows, looking for Novak Djokovic news. They saw people whose first and last sin was just to choose Australia as a refuge. Have they seen the people who have been deprived of the idea of justice in Australia for a decade?

They saw the eyes of young people through the windows, whose last hope was summed up in the pens and cameras of reporters present outside the Park Hotel. I say it was a miracle for us, because before that few people came to us and asked about our current situation and uncertainty.

We did not dream that the world champion would be in exactly the same building we were. It was inconceivable in our imagination that this global superstar had become our wall-to-wall neighbour and had attracted the biggest media and news agencies.

When that person came to the Park Hotel, that unknown and silent place was at the top of the news. Disappointed residents of the Park Hotel welcomed his arrival, hoping that through the news about Djokovic the cry of oppression would be heard and a solution would be found. Think of the obvious human rights for them.

The oppressed residents of the hotel have been and are very hopeful that they will receive a small benefit from the sheer volume of news and reports about the tennis star, and through this they will bring their voices of uncertainty and suffering to the ears of free thinkers inside and outside Australia.

From a human point of view, as a resident of the Park Hotel, and because I have spent nine years of my life in constant uncertainty and despair, I really say that in my opinion this person should not have been detained and forced to live in the hotel for even an hour. I consider it an example of depriving him of his freedom and damaging his human dignity. None of us should be kept like this. Let our voices be heard by all the world. This is a historic milestone for me and all the residents of the Park Hotel.

It is very interesting for the media to know the details of Djokovic’s daily life. They want to know how the world tennis star spends his time for the few days he is in the Park Hotel. Although we are all detained in the same place, there is a major difference between us and the world tennis star, and that is his knowledge of indefinite detention. The tennis star of the world, as an adult man and a famous figure and under the pressure of public opinion and media, stays with us for a maximum of a few days and then leaves the Park Hotel forever. We do not.

I arrived in this country as a 15-year-old child with a backpack. I set foot on Australian soil with a variety of beautiful dreams and aspirations, and I have been detained until I turned 24 years old. I still am detained. Like many other examples, I have been deprived of my most obvious rights, such as the immunity of children from arbitrary detention and the need to protect asylum-seeking children.

Interestingly, Djokovic’s arrival at the Park Hotel coincided with my birthday. This is my first birthday in the past nine years that I announced to others. There is no such thing as a birthday party here because it requires a celebration of some hope and motivation that we have lost. A smile has also migrated from the land of this place, and if a smile sits on your lips it is certainly not a real one.

The tennis star of the world was next to us and from that moment a wave of different phones started calling to us. Everyone asked about the star and the details of life in the Park Hotel, to find out about his living conditions. At first, we looked exactly like an intelligence tool, which was very annoying. We asked ourselves how much we are valued from a human point of view and why no one takes away from us that we have lived like this for years – and the time in detention has created the difficult mental conditions we are in.

Why does no one ask how, since the age of 15, I was able to endure living on an unknown and backward island called Nauru and survive there and in other Australian detention centres for nine years? Nobody talks about the legal and natural rights of me and other friends, especially children living in different centres. These journalists did not ask why our case has not been a sensitive media issue for the past nine years and has not been taken seriously by the public.

Yes, we are thankful and indebted to the world tennis star because through him we were able to connect to the world of media and news. I have read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so much that I have almost memorised it. However, it seems that we are not part of human society and the provisions of the declaration do not apply to us.

Finally, we ask the media to understand the dire situation and the difficult conditions that the refugees are in at the Park Hotel, and also to convey the whole of this human story to the authorities and public.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as "The sky of this cage".

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Mehdi Ali is a refugee from Ahwaz, Iran, who spent nine years in immigration detention in Australia. He now lives in the US.

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