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Stronger than a Storm or Rock

"Then suddenly, overnight the Safe Haven became a Detention Centre... I went home that night in shock; I could hardly believe I was still in Wodonga."

This is Clare's story:

Hi Jessica, It was lovely to walk with you through the hills into Wodonga on that glorious day. Talking to you reminded me of this extraordinary time in 1999 when Australia opened its arms to refugees for a period, treated them with respect and compassion, and then turned its back on them and sent them back to their war torn land. This was able to happen because Australian legislation had changed while they were here – the beginning of temporary visas. Thank you for asking me to write this for your blog. I have so many memories of this extraordinary time.

In July 1999 I began a job as a teacher in a Safe Haven for refugees from the conflict in Kosovo. It was the biggest experience of my working life and it rippled over into my personal life. I learned an enormous amount. A harrowing and enriching time. I learned an Albanian saying from my students - “A human is stronger than a storm or a rock”. This saying has stayed with me ever since. The people I met during this period had such a strong spirit and zest for life despite their terrible experiences. I am still in touch with many of them; some have become part of my family.

Four thousand people escaping the war in Kosovo were brought to various Safe Havens in Australia – Brighton in Tasmania, East Hills in Sydney, Singleton, Puckapunyal and Bandiana where I worked. The Safe Havens were funded by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA), overseen by the army and the education programs were run by Adult Migrant Education Service (AMES). The Torture Rehabilitation and Network Service ACT (TRANSACT) offered 24 hour counselling.

The four hundred people sent to Bandiana were housed in old army barracks. Bi-lingual Signs of Mireserdhet/Welcome were prominently placed to greet them but the place was unmistakably a barracks - four large buildings standing squarely to attention, a boom gate and watch house. Every person who entered the site signed in at the friendly administration and wore an identity badge. No vehicles were allowed on the base without special permission. Despite the obvious security, processes were friendly. The army personnel were warmly professional and had a can do attitude to help the new arrivals.

And the setting was pleasant - green hills in the background, a well-kept oval, plenty of space and trees. The rows of bedrooms were made homely. Carpet laid, rooms painted, curtains hung. Each bed had bright covers and towels - though nothing could disguise the bleakness. Each room was functional - a hanging space, a chair and the bed. Each floor of the building had a drab common room with two clusters of easy chairs and a table. The Kosovars had to lead very public lives in this place. For privacy and security they had only a bedroom with a lockable door, and every sound could be heard by neighbouring rooms.

The bathrooms were bleaker still; a row of toilet cubicles and two rows of showers - each adorned with a new shower curtain but concrete on the floor with a drain running down the centre. The huge fan to suck out the steam went on automatically when the door opened. It was very cold and public. I heard of a man objecting to the conditions his aged mother was expected to live in – I felt for him, I would not want my old, sick dad living here.

The mess hall was a pleasant room – large and airy. Tables were set with white paper and silver cutlery. A large dried flower arrangement near the salad bar and a cheerful clatter from the kitchen. A huge sign saying Mireserdhet /Welcome hung outside. This place, called the dining room, became the hub of Haven life – resident meetings were held here, people gathered to talk and discuss news over their meals, staff met for informal debriefings, teachers got to know residents and find out needs. Later, emotional farewell ceremonies were held here when some decided to go back to Kosovo ‘with the money’ as it became known. This was funding of $4,000 offered by the Australian Government to those who opted to return.

There was a Resource Information Centre in a portable room, with 20 computers linked to the Internet. The room was open 12 hours a day. Kosovars come here for many reasons; to listen to the news in Albanian, to e-mail, to work on the internet, to learn and practice computing and English skills on-line and above all to use the chat lines. Many were frantically searching for family and friends who were scattered when they had to flee.

There was great joy when one of my students heard from the Red Cross that her mother was alive. She had not known whether her mother was alive or dead for 5 months. The next day she spoke to her mother by phone – you can imagine the relief and happiness.

Classrooms were created in four demountables. My classroom, for the 18 – 25 year olds, was underneath the administration building. It had two entrances. The first was down a steep, dark flight of steps and along a narrow corridor. The door clanked open with an echo, reminding me of a movie scene in a dismal prison cell. The room itself was large but windowless. We worried that a traumatised person who had been in a cell would be afraid in this underground room. Decorating the room with posters and bi-lingual Welcome/Mireserdhet signs softened it. Tables were set up in groups and a coffee urn was ready at the back of the room. When the youth group assigned to this space were shown the room, entering from the alternative entrance through a garage on ground level, they decide the space was suitable for their classroom. Only later still did I learn what difficult situations they’d studied in. Our dungeon, as we tried not to call it, was more than adequate in comparison.

When Kosovars from Bandiana later visited other Safe Havens in Victoria, they remarked that although the facilities at Bandiana could be bettered at other Havens, the atmosphere could not. They put the good atmosphere down to the friendly attitude of the staff, the spaciousness of the environment and the size of the community – 400 people as opposed to 800 at Puckapunyal. Amongst AMES staff who administered all the Safe Havens, Bandiana was known as the Country Club Haven because of its gracious atmosphere.

Gradually residents settled into some semblance of life in the Safe Haven. These people came from many places in Kosovo and from different walks of life. They were not an instant community but leaders emerged, friendships were made. A community started to form. Children went to school in the Haven. Adult classes were offered in English, computing, forklift driving and carpentry. There was even a session on dealing with land mines where people were taught to recognise the possible danger points – trees in orchards, front door steps, bread bins – where mines may have been left to kill returning home owners. There were outings to local places and some friendships made with local people. A few people managed to get work. They were free to come and go out of the Safe Haven but most lived inside because they needed the accommodation and food that was provided. In October there was a double wedding – two brothers married their gorgeous young brides. A local wedding boutique donated beautiful dresses and the whole Safe Haven celebrated the event. As 1999 ended, the new millennium was celebrated.

However, under the semblance of normal life was the impenetrable process of applying for refugee status. The Temporary Safe Haven Visas Bill had been passed in which Australia granted to itself the right to offer people temporary safety. John Howard had in mind 3 months for the Kosovars, after which people would be returned to Kosovo. Most Kosovars had little understanding of the process. They thought that since they had been brought from refugee camps to the safety of Australia they were automatically classed as refugees. It was a terrible shock to discover that the Safe Haven was offered temporarily. In early 2000 interviews were conducted by DIMA. People were asked to write letters to explain why they could not return. I recall letters where people wrote of their gratitude to the Australian Government for bringing them to safety when they had lost everything in Kosovo - completely inadequate for the refugee application. They did not understand the need to fit into a category to be classed as a refugee – needing to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. As teachers we were forbidden to become involved in the process. The best I could do was to organise an information session with DIMA for my class.

A few people were granted refugee status and left the Haven to start their new lives. But most were told that they would be sent home where winter was set in – many would be living in makeshift tents because houses had been destroyed. People whose mental health had been improving fell back into difficulty. The atmosphere in the Safe Haven became tense and anxious. They felt strong pressure to return. And there was constant change in the Haven. In the other Safe Havens the same process was underway. As Kosovars left and numbers were reduced the remaining people were brought to Bandiana. Eventually it was the last Safe Haven open.

The teaching staff, who by now knew their students well, were familiar with many sad and terrible stories of the war were devastated at what was happening. There were meetings between representatives of the Kosovars and the Government. A possible option emerged for some – if they agreed to return to Kosovo their application to return to Australia be would be fast tracked provided they had Australian citizens as sponsors. There would be forms to complete, health checks and interviews. It was hard for these people to trust the offer when they knew that in Kosovo life was very difficult. Electricity services were intermittent, access to the internet was unlikely and the ability to lodge an application very remote. Pressure inside the Safe Haven mounted.

Then suddenly, overnight the Safe Haven became a Detention Centre. We teachers arrived at work be met by new security staff from Australian Correctional Management (ACM). These staff worked in prison for a set of shifts, and then for the next work period they were in a detention centre. It is not surprising that they carried the culture of prison to the detention centre with them. They escorted us to our classrooms, past orange tape sectioning off parts of the grounds. Our students were behind the tape and we were told that we could not talk to them. We were given 6 hours to clear our classrooms, after which we could not return. I went home that night in shock; I could hardly believe I was still in Wodonga.

Some of us local people decided to take a stand. We formed a lose group which we called the Australian Kosovar Support Network (AKSN). We organised public meetings, held rallies and wrote and talked to politicians to stop the unfair process. We kept in touch with the Kosovars in Bandiana to plan. Mobile phones and email were relatively new then but were a godsend. We had to work quickly because the deadline was so tight. We went to Canberra on two occasions, firstly to have meetings with politicians. We worked in pairs and met with 4 politicians per pair, we took notes at each meeting and followed up with emails reminding them what they had agreed to do. The second time we went to Parliament House we took a brightly painted caravan and served soup on the front lawn – making the point that people were being returned to live through a winter in a tent where soup would be a luxury. (This sort of action would not be possible now with the security measures in place at Parliament House) We tried to be everywhere networking to let the Australian public know what was happening right here in Bandiana.

If my memory is correct it was only a few weeks before Kosovars were being taken off on buses to be flown home. We then began the frantic process of making sure people who wanted to be ‘fast tracked’ back had the correct forms to complete and tried to make sure that everyone had a sponsor. Meanwhile, a very few Kosovars from the Safe Haven were granted temporary visas and were settled into the community. We helped them to settle and at the same time worked to persuade the government to make their visas permanent. It was a hectic and troubling time. Even writing about it now all these years later makes me tense. I know that the process refugees have to go through are not fair, they are arbitrary and opaque. When I think about the people held in Nauru and Manaus I can feel utterly bleak but at the same time I know how resilient the human spirit is – “Humans are stronger than a storm or a rock.”

Thank you again to Clare for sharing her story.

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