New Australians

Open letter to everyone at the mercy of Peter Dutton and the Immigration Dept

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(Cartoon by @AntonPulvirenti)

To all the people with loved ones at the mercy of the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, I want you to know, I understand.

I understand the sleepless nights, the blackness doing nothing to make the horrors invisible. The nightmares that leave you waking up more exhausted than before, your teeth and jaw aching, your palms indented with burning crescents.

I understand why you never open the curtains anymore, why your neighbours haven't seen you for days on end. I know that they are wanting words from you in a situation where your voice has been choked from the first day — both in your throat and in your world. I hope you don't have neighbours like mine, who are so beautifully generous that they frequently come bearing gifts, which finds you hiding in your bedroom until they've given up knocking.

I understand why you don't bother to use balm to soothe your cracked lips, choosing instead to gnaw at them endlessly, peeling away the layers of yourself from the outside, reflecting your erosion from the inside.

I understand why you throw yourself into your work, staying late into the night, starting early in the morning, refusing to take days off, until that day when you find yourself sitting in front of your doctor with visibly shaking hands, sobbing uncontrollably, unable to meet his eyes. That isn't the worst he'll see you. The day when you gaze at him expressionless, wordless, unblinking, is when he'll really start to worry.

I understand why you don't brush your hair, or paint your nails. I understand why you can't bring yourself to do the laundry until you run out of clothes you've already worn twice. I understand that the heat of the shower water no longer soothes your muscles and why sunshine doesn't warm your skin. I know you're cold all the time now, shivering even in front of the fire, your fingers and toes permanently icy to touch.

I understand why you're afraid of your phone, scared to check your email. Every call, every message, has the potential to be the inevitable one that rips your world apart forever. It's okay to switch it off completely. I'm sorry that when someone else has the same ringtone as yours, you jump out of your skin with fright. It's best to avoid busy places, for now. I know you're doing that already.

I understand why you can't watch TV, or movies. Life as reflected there seems utterly unreachable to you; every smiling family scene, every home renovation, every game show, is a cruel reminder of how far from those your world is now and how mountainous the climb back there will be, if it ever happens. I know you used to love reading, but haven't touched a book in a very long time. I know that the contents of magazines you used to relish seems obscene to you now, every minute you stand in line at the grocery store checkout is a slap in the face and you can't bring yourself to look at them.

I understand that your relationship with food has changed, that sometimes even speaking about it causes the bile to rise in your throat. I understand why sometimes it's impossible for you to eat for days on end, why you have lost the instinct to nourish your body and mind, why your clothes no longer fit but you can't find even the faintest desire to shop for new ones.

I understand how incomprehensible this situation is to those around you and possibly even your lawyer. I know how much research you've done, the horrors you've uncovered and what it's like to feel that one day, your story will be amongst them. I know it already should be.

I understand that if you've seen a psychologist or counsellor to help you cope with your situation, you probably didn't return after they suggested that meditation would help. I'm sorry if they called your loved-one a "boat person", or an "illegal". It isn't their fault that they've been conditioned to dehumanise people with this terminology, along with the rest of the country. It is their fault, however, for them not realising that until you pointed it out to them. I know that upon realising that even psychologists are being psychologically manipulated, your stomach dropped and suddenly you saw your predicament through a wide-angle lens. I wish I could tell you that if your situation improves, your vision will return to normal. It won't. You understand now how it came to this.

I understand the helplessness of knowing, that at any moment, on any day (or night), your loved one could be at the mercy of over a dozen armed Australian Border Force officers and that your life no longer belongs to you. You cannot plan for next week, next month, or next year. While other people discuss holiday destinations or plan weddings, for you, your life is suspended indefinitely. 

I understand that you feel utterly alone in what now seems to be an incredibly large world.

I promise that you are one of thousands of people feeling this way, day in, day out, in an endless cycle with no perceptible conclusion.

And I understand that, for the first time in your life, you just realised that not being alone can be absolutely terrifying.

Sarah Smith is a refugee advocate for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

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