It begins as a job and ends in a beautiful goodbye.
I’m a support worker, for children in immigration detention. We call them UAMs. Un Accompanied Minors. Any person under the age of 18 who has come to Australia by boat, seeking asylum, without a parent or guardian.
I work in a house, full of teenage boys, with a big yard, surrounded by 3 razor wire fences. They come from many different countries, speak many languages and believe many different things. Some speak English fluently, others, none at all.
As the weeks pass, we get to know one another. We learn to communicate, most often with smiles and laughter, but soon we can speak small amounts of one anothers languages.
I learn to swear in several languages. Occassionally I shock them with an insult – come on goosalah – get to English class. Goosalah is a Persian word for baby cow and the boys find it hysterical. We laugh a lot. It becomes my favourite language.
They call us by our roles. Officer. Driver. Teacher. My job is to support them and guide them in place of their parent. So I am called Mummy. It takes some getting used to, but before long, I relish it.
I drag boys out of bed in the morning. I humbug them to eat their vegetables and to have less sugar on their breakfast.
The days pass slowly. They attend afternoon school for 4 hours each week day. They receive English and ‘about australia’ lessons each morning. We play pool, draw, paint, play soccer, watch movies. We play cards, or do jigsaws.
We learn about one another. We spend a lot of time just talking. I hear some stories that are desperately sad. I pat their backs, sit quietly with them. I tell them about my own children and they delight in my photos and ask me every morning – how is your family mummy?
We spend a lot of time playing ping pong. I often win and for a time I think that possibly I’m quite good at this sport. Soon enough it dawns on me the boys are too polite to let me lose. I’m annoyed, but also touched.
Everyday I look forward to work, always, I am sad to leave them.
They have many things. Just not family. Just not freedom.
There are constant goodbyes. Boys turn 18 and are moved quickly to ‘big camp’. Sometimes they are just transferred to another centre. A few lucky ones get released to community detention. Everybody is just waiting, for news, for visas, for freedom.
3 months in, one Friday afternoon the boys are called to a meeting. They will be transferred the next day to a larger centre, in Tasmania. They have time to pack, to call their families & let them know.
My colleague, the wonderful Ibu, an Indonesian grandma who has worked this job for much longer than me calls to tell me the news.
Ibu, I say, I am too sad. I don’t want to say goodbye. I know I will cry and I don’t want to upset them.
She growls me. What do you think will upset them more? Mummy Clare crying to say goodbye, or Mummy Clare not there at all.
I am ashamed. I’ll see you tomorrow Ibu.
We walk in together a few hours before they are due to leave. They look shell shocked, confused, vulnerable. But so very happy to see us. We speak mostly with our eyes, our gestures. I am free to touch more than ever before, so I rub backs, ruffle hair, hold onto forearms. My stomach is hollow and I feel a deep sense of loss – we were just starting to know one another. We were just beginning to trust.
One boy won’t leave his bed and another sits forlornly on a chair, with tears rolling down his face. I am finally, legitimately a bleeding heart, wounded by this emotional pain. We help the boys to fill in exit surveys. Age. Language. Best thing/worst thing about our service. One of my favourites sits with me. Age -17. Language – Farsi. Best thing? You are Mummy, he says and I am overwhelmed, my chin is quivering and my tears spill out. No cry Mummy, he says. I smile through my tears. Mummy baby today, I say, and as always, we laugh together. Delam Barat Tang Mishe Pesaram, I tell him. He knows the English words. I will miss you my son.
All too soon the bus is ready and we say our final goodbyes. I’m delighted to finally be able to wrap these boys up in my Mummy arms, to comfort them like their own Mothers would. Everywhere people are hugging, crying, showing love. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Athiests. We are people who have connected and who are now so sad to say goodbye. I am terribly sad, but oh so humbled to be a part of this.
My heart breaks, for myself, for these boys, but most of all for the parents of these kids, who were brave enough to let them go. I cannot imagine, but can only hope that if one day, my own children are far from me, may they always have someone who will care for them, who will cry with them and who of course, will laugh with them.