I visited a friend in Curtin detention centre in December of 2013. I flew into Broome from Perth and rented a car. I drove that car halfway from Broome to Derby and camped overnight in what was insufferable heat in the middle of the bush. I drove an hour through the gateway into the Kimberley until I reached Curtin Detention Centre – one of the most remote and inaccessible detention centres in Australia.

I visited a man there who emanated an air of gentility and humility that still resonates within me so many months afterwards. He had been brutally tortured in Sri Lanka several times before finally fleeing. He sought asylum in Australia coming here by boat. He arrived in September 2012 and was then sent to Nauru Detention Centre where he witnessed rioting, abuse, self-harm and suicide. He was then transferred to Curtin Detention Centre where he was left to wait for months, and months, and months.

What is the point of this story?  I got a phone call last week to say that after 16 months in detention, after surviving torture at the hands of a brutal regime in Sri Lanka, incarceration in Australia and abuse on Nauru, he would be getting released from detention next week.

When I told him that I had received the call we had both been waiting for, he was so happy. Even after 16 months in detention and everything that he had been through, he told me that his dreams and his future were coming “so soon.”

When he was in detention, I asked him if he’d like to study something when he got out. And he said, “Yes, I want to become a magician. Is there a university for magicians in Perth?” He wanted to make children laugh. That is the type of person he is. I could now be at peace, knowing that if he still wished to do so, he was free to pursue his dream of becoming a magician.

Through all of the horror stories I have heard about people’s particular stories – news of his release struck a particular chord within me and I realized it was because I have a profound faith and belief that people can overcome their suffering.

That no matter how dark the night, the sun can rise again upon a new day – with each one, suffering growing further and further away on the horizon.

That no matter what this man had been through or how long he had been subjected to arbitrary detention without charge or trial that he would get out one day and he could overcome his suffering.

He could rebuild his life, to take what had been awful and wrought with hardship and tribulations. We could say, from now on, your life will be great. That whatever has happened to you before – you are safe – you have gotten through it and we will transform that suffering into happiness.

The most profound thing that Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott have taken from us, and from Reza Berati this week – was not only his life – but the opportunity to overcome his suffering.

The sun would not rise upon a new day for Reza Berati, he would be forever immersed in darkness. He would be brutally denied any chance of overcoming what had been a life of suffering.

We had taken our place beside Reza’s oppressors and indeed in this instance, we had exceeded their cruelty.

The asylum seekers on Manus Island were brutally beaten. They tried to lock themselves in rooms, but they were pulled out and beaten. They tried to hide under their beds, but they were pulled out and beaten. They tried to hide in cupboards, but they were pulled out and beaten.

We created a nightmare. A living nightmare reminiscent only of the nightmarish regimes they were fleeing from. One they thought had been left behind at the beginning of their journey.

Reza Berati’s loved ones would not ever receive a phone call to say that he was going to be released the following week.

Reza Berati will never be hugged by his mother again or be able to tell her that he loved her.

Reza Berati will never passionately fall in love with someone and spend the rest of his days with them.

Reza Berati’s father did not know that when they last said goodbye, it would be the last time they saw each other. He would not have the opportunity to say ever again, “Reza, I love you.”

Reza Berati would have no end to his suffering except in death – and I do not accept that as any acceptable end at all.

Reza Berati, who was born stateless, would die stateless.

The last home he would know would be a desolate Australian prison camp on a foreign island where he was caged by fences and monitored by guards. Where he was led to believe that he was in a country that did not want him.

His last human contact – instead of being in the arms or the embrace of a friend, a family member, or a lover – was the sole of the boot of a guard who stomped his skull until he died.

Upon hearing how Reza Berati died, I was haunted every time I closed my eyes by images of the faces of the men I visit seeing them as the heads beneath that boot.

The manner in which Reza Berati died perfectly depicted and symbolised a culmination of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers for the past 14 years.

From the soil his blood was spilt on will grow a legacy, a legacy of the politicians of Australia’s callous cruelty, their disgusting disdain for human life and Australia’s silence in the face of people being brutally attacked, physically, emotionally, mentally and ideologically.

That legacy will grow from blood. But I ask you here tonight to start with me a new legacy. A legacy to be grown out of the synchronised passion of those who feel sickened by injustice and cruelty.  And let that passion become the new rhetoric around asylum seekers.

On Friday night I echoed a sentiment to a crowd of 300 people equally distraught by the news of Reza’s death, and it is a sentiment I will echo again to you tonight.

To you Reza Berati, I say that I will not give you my sympathy. I don’t think you would want my sympathy. And I do not think that sympathy would have saved you, nor does it do you justice. I will not treat you nor speak of you as if you were some poor defenseless refugee. For you are not that nor were you ever.

You are a man that struggled for freedom and for survival. And you died in the middle of fighting for that freedom. Not incidentally, but because you were embroiled in a systematic institution of oppression that has killed six people before you. These people instead of being stomped to death by guards, were murdered by a government that imprisoned them for so long that they took their own lives.

I will instead of sympathy give you something else. I will give you a promise.

I promise you that instead of offering you sympathy I will fight for freedom just as you fought for your freedom.

I promise you that as many times as it takes I will tell people over and over again until it resonates to the steps of parliament that is not illegal to seek asylum.

I promise you that I will fight until every barbed wire adorned fence that caged you until your last moments of life, are torn apart. And that every junction of these fences that are forged by party politics, racism and xenophobia are ripped clean from their soldering.

I promise you that I will fight until every asylum seeker is called by their name and not by a number.

And I promise to fight for you until every asylum seeker can see the sunrise and the sunset without seeing them through a prison fence silhouette.

I ask all of you here today to join with me. Do not offer the sympathy that lays placid and immobile at the foot of the fences. Join with me and promise every asylum seeker currently in immigration detention that you will fight for their freedom, to end this awful system and to bring justice to Reza Berati. Free the refugees.

Sarah Ross

Refugee Rights Action Network

#Lightthedark 24-2-14


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