At the coalface: Working with refugees in Indonesia

In first semester of 2015 I lived in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where I was completing the second semester of my Master of Human Rights and Democratisation (Asia Pacific Regional Program) at Universitas Gadjah Mada. During my time living there, I interned with the Jesuit Refugee Service where I was asked to be an English teacher at community housing for refugees in Sewon, Bantul.  Having completed a day’s training, I was soon teaching a number of students five days a week. Particularly appealing to me was JRS’ central mission of accompaniment – recognising the vitality of humanising people who are too often stigmatised and reduced to the label of “refugee”.

Refugees at Sewon were men from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran and Iraq, all of whom had spent at least a year in Indonesian immigration detention before being granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and transferred into community housing. All were awaiting resettlement in a third country, and most of them hoped to be granted asylum in Australia. But given the Abbott Government’s retrospective reforms that dictate anyone who was registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia post-July 2014 will never be settled in Australia – this is increasingly an impossible dream.

I enjoyed teaching my students a lot, knowing that they were extremely grateful to have a native speaker of English – particularly one from the very country they wished to one day be resettled. Those that attended class were eager to learn, understanding the importance of English for employment in their future resettlement country.

Watching them progress in conversational English was hugely rewarding. I taught them Aussie lingo: a quick-witted Iraqi guy took great pleasure in wishing me a “great arvo” every day. Other highlights were the more social aspects of teaching – enjoying a cup of tea and a chat, being treated to a delicious Burmese lunch, breaking the fast during Ramadan with an Afghani feast, and of course playing futsal regularly with the guys.

A more difficult part of my time with JRS was providing emotional support and conflict resolution. I listened to their daily struggles of missing their families, immense boredom and conflict with housemates. Other than English and computer classes, they are banned from working or accessing education in Indonesia. Time is spent sleeping, walking, on the phone, watching TV. The 24-hour news cycle meant that they are re-traumatised everyday by images of persecution from their homelands and elsewhere. Friends send first-hand accounts of atrocities on Facebook. TV news makes persecution of Muslims in Myanmar, car bombs in Baghdad or the Taliban’s brutality an ongoing reality for these men.

Unable to work and burdened by anxiety, survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress, they commonly suffer insomnia. When the Immigration Department imposed a nightly curfew on request of the local village, many felt they had been placed back into prison. I listened to stories of life in immigration detention. Sharing cramped, squalid cells with Vietnamese fishermen infected with tuberculosis. Routine torture for misbehavers and those that selfishly attempted to assisted in translation.

What always astounded me about these men was their resilience, their generosity and their gratefulness for what little they had. Even on the darkest of days, the guys could always share a laugh and invite you for a cup of tea. Never did I feel resented for my privileged position and the cruel treatment of asylum seekers by my government. I was sad to leave, and knew my departure was poignant for them – partly for losing a friend and teacher but mainly for seeing someone freely travel to the safety of Australia when they could not. I had witnessed this happen with the departure of two refugees to Australia the previous month.

I sincerely hope that each and every one of them is offered asylum by third countries soon, and that they are reunited with their wives, their children and their parents in a timely manner. They have endured enough.

Originally published in PieceWrites.


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