Meeting Ranjini: A Day at the Villawood Detention Centre

by Niromi de Soyza

As soon as I step into the reception room which reminded me of a sterile hospital cafeteria, a woman with long dark hair in a black blazer catches my eyes. The epaulettes on her jacket give her small skinny frame an air of authority.

I recognise the young woman easily as Ranjini, she looks exactly like in the pictures splashed across newspapers and news media over the past few weeks – sparkling eyes, a big bright smile and the unmistakable side-parting of hair.

She is not the only Sri Lankan in the room – there’s another pretty woman standing beside her and a few young men milling about. There are a couple of kind elderly ladies with silvery hair and white transparent skin, handing out gifts to the women. I later learn that they are from a charity, ‘trying to help these people who have suffered great injustice’.

The room is well lit with energy-saving fluorescent globes as well as natural light that flood the room through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows. My friend, a Refugee Advocate, introduces me to the group. I smile politely as a man in a blue-checked sarong and a kakhi jacket looks at me and says in Tamil ‘we’re glad you came’. I feel the warmth in his voice.

I am not sure of his age, but his cheery face makes him look late-twenties but he might be older. The others are looking at me intently but with a smile. A third woman walks into the room. On her forehead is a large red pottu and she’s wearing a black dress with orange flower prints. She is followed by a tiny little boy. I find myself in a situation that doesn’t happen to me very often – I’m lost for words. I sit down on my heels and smile at him.

‘How old is he?’ I ask a while later.
‘Fourteen months’ replies the woman in black.

children and Ranjini

She adds that she has two older children, and that there are six children under the age of eight here. And here is Sydney’s Villawood detention centre and these families are among the 50 or so recognised as genuine refugees but considered a threat to Australia’s security.

They cannot know why the Australian Intelligence Agency found adversely against them or appeal against those findings. As genuine refugees, they can’t be sent back to where they came from. So now they are stuck indefinitely in this sufficient but soulless place.

‘My wife and child are on the outside’ the man in sarong speaks again. ‘I see them on the weekends but I’m a visitor than a husband or a father.’ Underneath his upbeat, chatty and intelligent self, I sense deep sorrow.

The group tells me that they are well cared-for and escorted out for essential shopping, religious activities and medical check-ups. The children get taken to the play-ground and the local school. But ‘home’ is this metal-fenced detention centre, and possibly forever.

Niromi de Soyza

Some of the men affectionately play with the little boy as my friend updates them on recent activities. A uniformed Serco officer walks in – it’s time to go for Beading, the bus is waiting. The families say a hurried good-bye. The father of the little boy instructs one of the young men to make the visitors a cuppa as he follows the officer. Ranjini is the only woman to stay back. ‘I don’t feel like beading today’ she says. ‘I have mild nausea because of the pregnancy’ and gestures me to sit down.

I still feel a little spell-bound by Ranjini, like meeting a celebrity in flesh – I watch her as she speaks rapidly but in almost a whisper. She is just as what others have described her – petite, talkative, passionate and honest.

In the short time we speak, she displays a gamut of emotions – laughs when she talks about her children and new husband, smiles gratefully when I tell her about her ‘fans’ organising candle-lit vigils for her and let tears stream down her face as she remembers those who perished in the war. ‘Acca, I don’t know why I was left to live,’ she says as she wipes her tears. I notice that her wrists are slender. ‘Death would’ve been much easier’ she says in a broken voice.

She reminds me of myself. I recognise her survivor guilt. I try to remind her of the obvious – that she needs to stay strong for her children and that there must be a reason why she lives when so many had perished. Perhaps it is her situation that will be instrumental in bringing about change in Australian government policy of indefinite detention. I try not to sound preachy. She looks intently at her fingernails and nods.

Ranjini becomes animated again as she tells me about a man who visits here and gives cigarettes to the young men. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if he brings them books instead?’ she asks. Listening to her speak about fellow detainees, about the people she had to leave behind in her homeland, and the wonderful people she had met in Australia, I understand she is altruistic despite her situation.

Thoughts of others’ welfare seem to occupy her mind more than that of herself. The sarong-clad man brings me and the two elderly women coffee and Ranjini offers us Tim Tams from the bag of goodies I had brought. The detainees’ hospitality surprises me. I had expected hopelessness to have turned them bitter and angry, at least melancholic. But I see resilience and decency, whatever their past may have been.

Ranjini and I chat about this and that. Although she is a decade younger than me, we have a lot in common. We chat about children, cooking and the war we had survived.

Before we leave, I embrace her and tell them all to remain hopeful of their future. As my friend and I walk away from the rising dust, sounds of diggers and bulldozers making way for more buildings, I feel embarrassed that all I could offer these people were words.

A Serco guard smiles and wishes us G’day. I wonder if she enjoys her job and looks forward to coming to work here every day. Her pleasant face and attitude certainly softens the harshness of this place. I think to myself that a few more trees, a vegetable and a flower garden and some children’s play equipment wouldn’t go astray.

As I get back to my life, the faces of the detainees and their guards stay with me. I had expected to meet some miserable people that day; instead, I found those making the best of what life has dished out to them. I had hoped to motivate them, instead, I found myself humbled by their spirit of generosity and resilience.

Beneath their ongoing trauma, these detainees are optimists – they are the ones who in the hope of freedom, took a chance on a stranger with a leaky boat and travelled the treacherous seas to a foreign land. Now they find themselves in a hopeless situation. Ranjini says, ‘Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted was freedom’, but it seems that’s the one thing that remains elusive to her.

Niromi de Soyza the Sydney based author of “Tamil Tigress” wrote this piece about her day trip to Villawood Detention Centre as an exclusive for “iSrilankan”. It is reproduced here with her consent