Indonesia: an encounter of endless mutual learning
14 August 2014

Taka Gani visiting detainees in Surabaya, Indonesia (Jesuit Refugee Service).
We came to realise we were not alone in feeling hopeless. We learned from one another about the qualities, values and strengths that could offset our frailties.
Bogor, 14 August 2014 – "Please remember us". I still recall these words that a young detainee told me in 2009, at the end of my first visit to an immigration detention centre in Indonesia.

When I first visited 23-year-old Donya, a Hazara asylum seeker from Afghanistan, he had been locked up in a cell with four or five others, 24 hours a day, for almost five months. At the time, I was blessed with permission to visit each cell and to have a brief chat with the asylum seekers, most of whom were from Afghanistan and Burma.

Donya's words became glued to my mind and heart. It was my first direct experience with detained asylum seekers and I knew little about the centre. My heart spontaneously told me, however, that this was no place for and no way to treat people who had fled their home country out of fear for their lives.

That encounter was my first lesson in an endless learning process with asylum seekers in detention. I could never have imagined that it would also be the beginning of a long friendship with Donya during which we learned much together in the ‘school of life'.

Many of us in JRS know something about what life is like in detention centres for asylum seekers, refugees or migrants: how darkness can be inflicted not only by the physical walls that separate them from the outside world but also by their crippling feelings of uncertainty about a totally unknown future.

For asylum seekers forced to leave their homeland, every step of the way is shadowed with uncertainty, as they leave their families behind and embark on a long journey they hope will lead them to a safe and secure future. Their questions are many: "Why are we locked up like this in a jail?" "When are we going to be released?" "When will UNHCR visit us?" "Why are we not allowed to contact our family?" "Can you help us?" "Am I going to arrive safely by boat to Australia?" "Am I going to be accepted as a refugee?" "If I become a refugee, when am I going to be resettled?" "How soon can I be reunited with my family?"

These and other questions were always ready for me whenever I went to the detention centre. At first, since I knew little about the rules and regulations of the centre or about the mechanisms of coordination among organisations working there, I couldn't bring even a glimmer of light to the darkness of uncertainty.

I felt as though I was stepping into a jungle of confusion. What can I tell them when I don't even know what, where, how or from whom I can find answers? Sometimes feelings of hopelessness, anger, frustration and sadness crept up as I realised how little I knew or could do for the detainees.

During this time, however, I appreciated and found great support in the togetherness and openness of my fellow team members as we shared our experiences after visiting the centre. We came to realise we were not alone in feeling hopeless. We learned from one another about the qualities, values and strengths that could offset our frailties.

All we could do was simply to listen to anything the asylum seekers wanted to tell us, either through spoken or written words, or through photos they shared with us. All we could offer was honesty, saying what we knew or didn't know, and how we felt.

I felt happy to see the sparkle of hope in the detainees' eyes when the information shared satisfied at least some of their needs. On the other hand, my heart sank when I saw their looks of sadness and sorrow whenever I was unable to answer their questions, especially the main one: "When are we getting out of here?"

There were, and still are, times when I feel like saving myself from the burden of their hopelessness, from replying yet again, "I don't know". I would like to offer a clear answer, a specific date, even if I have no way of knowing when they will leave the detention centre. But something that Donya wrote to me at the beginning of our friendship has been my saviour in those moments of deep uncertainty:

Dear sister, since I came here for the protection of my family, remember that my family is in danger. I have the right to save my family from fear, terror, misfortune... As you are my sister, be honest just like a sister and consider that your brother is asking you a question.

I have a family who looks to me and thinks that I can make a brighter future for them. They think I can protect them from harsh and bad people. I am in prison. Right now I can't even help myself. Whenever I think of my present condition, I become so disappointed that I sometimes think I'll say goodbye to this world and its people.

Dear sister, reply honestly about what should I do. Don't hesitate and don't think about my heart. Just say the truth because God likes the truth and a truthful person.

Sometimes I feel as if I am running a marathon in terms of the energy levels needed to keep going... racing with questions from detained asylum seekers, with blurred answers from the authorities, with the dimmed light of hope that needs the fuel of accurate information.

Donya's letters have been a blessing for me in this race against constant uncertainty. His story is on-going: in 2010 he was recognised as a refugee and released from the detention centre in Indonesia. But he chose not to wait for destiny and left by boat for Australia, where he was again detained for almost a year on arrival, until his release in 2011.

Throughout his time in detention in Indonesia and Australia, Donya continued writing to me about his thoughts and feelings. One letter he shared with me, The aim of my life, has become my favourite 'energy drink' in this JRS marathon of mine.

I have many wishes. First, I should like to get an education, no matter how old I am. I want to be a social worker or a journalist. My goal is to help the poor; to protect those who are in danger; to show the right and bright path; to spread the light of education; to give shelter; to guide the youth... to burn the candles of love, faith and belief; to remove hatred from the earth; to clean the tears of orphans, the poor, needy and widows; to bring smiles to those who never knew how to smile; to work for humanity. My life is my family. I know I have mentioned things that are impossible. But I have faith that I can get them soon. May God bless my family; I pray to God that I will meet my family again, protect them and that soon we'll be together.

Donya's faith, courage and love for his family open another window for me as I look out onto the uncertainties of life. There is wisdom in the uncertainty. It creates a fertile land for creativity, freedom and possibility. Donya's trust in life has taught me not to seek to trade in uncertainty for a known future, but to try to make the most of the excitement, adventure and mystery in every moment of life, and to look beyond what is visible to experience the wisdom in uncertainty.

Taka Gani, JRS Asia Pacific