Opinion

Mehdi Ali
‘I grew up in this cage’: Life inside the Park Hotel

The darkest months in detention are always December and January. In these months, from the windows of our rooms at the Park Hotel, we see people celebrating with their loved ones another year that we’re away from ours. This past Christmas and new year has been my ninth spent in detention.

Two days before Christmas, around 1.30pm, I was lying on my bed watching a film when the door to my room opened quickly. The guard standing in the doorway seemed on edge. They usually knock first. “There’s a fire,” he said.

An alarm went off and the scene in the corridor was chaos. Serco guards ran in different directions while smoke filled the air. One of them had trouble breathing. The smell of the fire and the smoke reminded me of my family home burning down in Ahwaz, in south-west Iran.

We were directed to the lobby on the first floor of the hotel. Some of the other guys had been asleep and were in a state of shock and confusion, as was I. Outside I saw fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. Inside, I could not see a single Australian Border Force or Serco officer. At the entrance to the lobby and behind where the kitchen was, there were dozens of police officers. A few of us approached them and told them that we needed to get out, that we were not safe.

One of the police officers told us to calm down. “Calm down right now. You cannot leave the building.”

I told him he did not have authority over us. “Home Affairs has authority over us. So tell ABF or Serco to come and speak to us.”

But no one came to see us. We had no choice but to sit in the lobby while the building continued to burn. I could see terror on the other refugees’ faces. The only refugee who left the building was a man who was hospitalised for smoke inhalation.

We sat in the lobby for hours with no Serco officers in sight. Some people were struggling to breathe. Bathroom access was limited, so some of us had to relieve ourselves in bottles.

People were becoming frustrated and desperate. One man stood and faced the police.

“It’s been nine years,” he said. “I’ve been in this detention since 2013. And they want to keep us here while the hotel is on fire. We’re anxious, we are tired. How long are you going to keep us here like chickens?”

He continued to plead. “Why are you guys here? Where’s ABF?”

Another guy tried to calm him down but the man couldn’t hold it in. “I have to get it out of my chest otherwise I will explode.”

The man punched a wall. He was overcome with fear and emotion.

While we sat there, my mind was rambling. Not because of the fire, but because I knew that I’m getting older and I’m losing my youth to detention. Each day that passes, I am trying to survive. The loss of my teenage years and early 20s is hurting me. Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from my many sleepless nights, I lay down and slept.

When I woke, I was shivering. I asked for a blanket but they wouldn’t give one to me. Hours had passed and we still weren’t allowed back upstairs. I was feeling anxious and tired and just wanted to lie down on the bed. Time was moving so slowly.

It was evening by the time Australian Border Force finally came to us with an update. Levels three and four were damaged, but level two, where most of our rooms were, was okay. They would move us back upstairs, one by one. The smell of smoke was everywhere.

When I finally got to my room and lay down, I heard my cousin Adnan shout: “Get me out of here. I can’t do this anymore!”

Outside in the hall, refugees and guards were gathering in front of his room. One guard was holding him. Other refugees started to shout, too. I was recording the commotion on my phone until a guard stomped on my foot. That’s when I lost consciousness of my surroundings and what I was doing.

I found myself sitting on a chair in my room, trying to calm myself down. My heart was racing and I was trying to normalise my breathing. I could still hear the desperation, misery, tears and shouts in the hall.

I wanted to talk, or shout, or something, but I couldn’t open my mouth. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my right hand was purple. I had punched a wall, possibly fracturing it. The first thing that came to my mind was that I wouldn’t be able to play guitar.

When I asked them to take me to hospital, I was told I’d have to quarantine in my room again, so I refused and told the contracted nurse that it was nonsense. Why can detention staff come and go every single day but I have to be locked in my room because of one trip to the hospital? After some negotiations and a few phone calls, I was told that I no longer would have to quarantine. I agreed to be taken to the hospital. Fortunately, my hand wasn’t broken.

After this incident, I spent most of my time in my room. I minimised my contact with the people around me. Their frustration and exhaustion affected my mental health. I needed to keep myself as busy as possible with reading, writing, studying music and watching movies. I also tried to sleep as much as I could, although I have sleeping problems.

Since levels three and four of the building had been shut down, our access to fresh air and space to exercise was cut off, too. There’s a small smoking area outside of the building by the road, where we can be taken by two guards, one by one. The area is surrounded by plywood fences. There are three chairs and a bucket filled with brown water and cigarette stubs and ash.

When I went outside for a cigarette, the two guards were chatting. They usually speak about their work schedule or make other small talk. Sometimes they even talk about ethics. One guard told me that people were starting to find out about our circumstances. Change was going to happen, he said.

“Even my neighbour knows about you guys, but I haven’t told her that I work here.”

“Why haven’t you told her?” I asked.

The second guard then spoke. “We didn’t sign up for this. I thought I was going to work with 501s [people being deported to NZ on character grounds], and even they have more options than you guys. They have a country to go back to which is safe.”

In the past few months, I haven’t eaten much. I’ve lost a lot of weight because of the bad food and loss of appetite due to stress. A few days ago, when I was heading outside for a cigarette, there was food smashed on the floor in the hallway. The guard on duty pointed to the door to a refugee’s room and said he was unhappy about it, so he threw the food on the floor. I later found out that the food had maggots in it. Breakfast the next day was mouldy bread.

I came to Australia by myself when I was 15 years old. I asked this country for help. I was a boy who needed a safe place to live. Instead, they locked me up for eight years, with no access to proper healthcare or education. I have been robbed of my most basic human rights. I am considered a threat to this country because I fled my home and came by boat. I am serving time for no crime because of this cruel system. There is no justice for me. Most of those who arrived by boat since 2013 have been released, except for a handful of us who are being used as political pawns. We are locked up like this to make sure the boats don’t start coming again.

The law tells us that children must only be detained for the shortest period of time, yet I grew up in this cage. Justice is all I ask for. I don’t want to survive anymore. I just want to live. 

Australian Border Force said the response to the fire was at the direction of emergency services. It did not respond to a question about whether guards had assaulted detainees. “All persons held in immigration detention facilities are treated in accordance with human rights standards. The Australian government has contracted appropriately trained and experienced service providers to ensure detainees’ needs are adequately met.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 8, 2022 as "A life on fire".

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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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