It started as just a job but it ends as a beautiful goodbye.
I worked as a support worker, for children in immigration detention. We called them UAMs. Un Accompanied Minors. Any person under the age of 18 who had come to Australia by boat, seeking asylum, without a parent or guardian.
I worked in a small house, full of teenage boys, it had a big yard, and was surrounded by 3 razor wire fences. The boys came from many different countries, spoke many languages and believed in many different things. Some spoke English fluently, others, none at all.
As the weeks passed, we got to know one another. We learnt to communicate, most often with smiles and laughter, but soon enough we could speak small amounts of one anothers languages.
I'm taught to swear in several languages. Occassionally I would shock them with an insult – I'd say - come on goosalah – get to English class. Goosalah is a Persian word for baby cow and the boys thought it hysterical. We laughed a lot. It became my favourite language.
They called us by our roles. Officer. Driver. Teacher. My job was to support them and guide them in place of their parent. So I was called Mummy. It took some getting used to, but before long, I relished it.
I would cajole boys out of bed in the morning. I'd humbug them to eat their vegetables and to have less sugar on their breakfast.
The days passed slowly. They went to afternoon school for 4 hours each week day. They received English and ‘about australia’ lessons each morning. We played pool, we drew, we painted, they would play soccer, or watch movies. We played cards, did jigsaws. They had very limited access to the internet or to phones. I would have to lock mine away each morning before entering the secure facility. The days passed slowly.
We learnt about one another. We spent a lot of time just talking, the boys would translate for one another when necessary. I heard some stories that were desperately sad. I pat their backs, I sat quietly with them. I tell them about my own children and they delight in my stories 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 tell her - I’ll see you tomorrow Ibu.
We walked 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 these feelings.. 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 -16. Language – Farsi. Best thing? You are Mummy, he says and I am overwhelmed, my chin quivers and my tears spill out. No cry Mummy, he says. I smile through my tears. Mummy is a 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. Finally I am 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 connected and who are now so sad to say goodbye. I am heavy hearted,, 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.