Love versus Goliath: our book in the making. With all the excitement and adaptation of my family arriving home, my writing has taken a bit of a back seat.
Now I am back to writing. I am not going to publish all of the book here: if I did that, no-one would need to buy it! I am going to publish select chapters or extracts from time to time.
Back in May, I drafted the first chapter. I've decided to share it first, after some re-drafting. The intention is to set the scene. Feedback ne
The music was loud, as usual. The club was reasonably crowded but had not yet reached the capacity of a peak hour Melbourne train, the wonderful mode of public transport most often referred to as sardine cans by those forced to endure close quarter combat to get to work each day. The club could be just like that. I didn’t go often, but when friends did I tended to tag along. It was usually fun and the play list generally inspired dancing.
A man walked in: tall, shaved head, good-looking. Definitely caught my eye, but sadly he had a date with him. Strike him off the list! I ended up speaking with them when I took my dancing feet to smokers’ exile for a rest. He suggested he had a friend whom I might like.
He asked me, “Do you have anything against Nigerians?”
“No, of course not”, I replied.
It was clear he had learned quickly that Nigeria’s reputation internationally was not exactly what he may have thought!
I was single, had nothing against Nigerians and am a firm believer you meet people through other people. I didn’t give him my number; I gave it to his date. Am I old-fashioned or what! His name was John.
John called and wanted to meet me to talk about his friend. I’m not 18, I smelt a rat. So did my housemate, Arthur. Never under-estimate the ability of a man to interpret another man’s actions or words! I decided to give mystery man the benefit of the doubt, given the language barrier. He was cute, after all. He later told me his initial attraction was driven in part by the fact he had determined I was out “commando”. This was true: it was a slinky dress. There was no danger of my being caught by the paparazzi getting out of a taxi like Britney Spears: the dress was full length.
We met. We talked. John told me his history: not all of it by any means (this was coffee, not a month-long vacation), but enough to enable me to understand his current situation. This adorably cute man was an asylum seeker, waiting for his protection visa to be granted. He had been in my wonderful country for nearly two years. Two years? With no resolution to his situation? I was stunned! The more he told me, the less confident I felt this visa was arriving any time soon. I could see he believed it was coming, but I was not at all convinced. This was my country, my territory: I knew a little more about our culture and our systems that he did at the time.
John had (and now we have) four wonderful, delightful children who he missed terribly. I could see this over the first coffee. I saw the tears during the ensuing months. He was desperate to provide for his family and bring his children together.
I offered to see if I could help him. It all sounded very messy from his description, language barrier or no language barrier. Despite my considerable experience with accents, I was having a terrible time understanding his. I was embarrassed by my constantly asking John to repeat what he said. I had the time available to be able to try to make sense of what I was fast detecting might be a cross between a minefield and a nightmare. While he had a pro-bono migration agent, I knew that the reality of life is a person working pro-bono has limited time to devote to a case. I also felt he needed some cultural education: there were aspects to our culture of individualism he clearly did not comprehend and I could see this was impacting his comprehension of his case.
With hindsight, I don’t think there was any doubt we were attracted to each other from the start. We just chose to live in denial at that point. He did tell me he was not in a relationship with his date from the Friday night and would not be continuing to date her. I understood this perspective; I’ve lost count of how many dates I’ve had over the years that never went further than a few dates. It is what we do, after all. To steal a line from “Sleepless in Seattle”, we try people on for size. That is what dating is all about. Often times the fit isn’t comfortable. It is a bit like buying shoes, really. One pair might fit me perfectly, but pinch another shopper’s toes. Nothing wrong with the shoppers or the shoes; just not a comfortable fit.
John was under strict medical instructions not to form a relationship. There is no doubt being an asylum seeker is an emotionally and psychologically dangerous and damaging place to live. The health professionals were concerned that should he form an emotional attachment and anything went wrong with that relationship, it could be devastating for him psychologically. This was not difficult for me to understand. On top of this, John was dealing with the relatively recent break-down of his marriage; something he had not wanted yet he understood his ex-wife’s position. At this stage, he had not seen her since 2004. This was now January 2010. I could feel both his sense of loss and his resignation and acceptance of the reality. This was a man who had remained faithful to his ex-wife through several over five years, until the point when he knew his marriage had ended.
Rather than jumping into bed, we jumped into a mountain of paperwork. Later, John told me this was something else that attracted him to me: I was different, I made him wait! Cupid was working in mysterious ways.
As I delved into the history of his life I learnt more about John as a man. I was impressed with his integrity, his love for his children and his fervent desire to just live a normal life after over five years of wandering the world trying to find a safe haven. His wandering may seem aimless to the casual observer from an individualistic culture, but knowing him as I do and understanding his culture, I understand how those years happened.
I read the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) Decision Record. Who was this man of which they spoke? It certainly wasn’t the man I was learning about. I started the battle.
Australia Day weekend we went to Anglesea. Anglesea is my favourite beach, just a great place to be. The water was warm, deliciously warm. The sun wasn’t scorching. We played in the water and then lay on the sand in each other’s arms. I will never forget that day. It was the first time I saw who John would be without the worries and stress he faced every moment of each day. His face broke into laughter, his eyes shone. For a few brief hours, there was happiness in his life. I wanted it to be like this forever. He laughed when I insisted he use sunscreen, believing he couldn’t burn. Even those with an ample sufficiency of melanin can burn. There were, I’ll admit, a couple of bemused onlookers: I am sure they wondered why on earth I was lathering sunscreen onto such a dark body.
During the early days, despite my suspicions about what might really be happening with his visa, John was still confident that it was coming “soon”. Due to his cultural values and beliefs, he could not enter into a formal relationship until, I quote: “I get my visa, can get a job and feel like a man again. It is very important that I be able to provide.” As my housemate said on numerous occasions, we were kidding ourselves. We were in a relationship; we just didn’t admit it – to ourselves or anyone else! We were also both very conscious of the medical advice. So we just continued to be in the relationship we weren’t in!
Unfortunately, I met John too late in this saga. Unbeknownst to us, Australia was already planning his removal. We became formally aware of this when I became his authorised representative at the Immigration Ombudsman’s office. John had not been advised of the plans to remove him.
I contacted Professor McGorry who is renowned for his work with asylum seekers and refugees and a tireless advocate against mandatory detention. His advice was to “ramp up” legal representation for my husband. Looking back, I should have just hired a lawyer. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I remember at our Migration Review Tribunal (MRT) appeal hearing, the MRT Member asked me if I would have done a certain thing differently if I knew then what I know now. Hiring a lawyer was not the topic of the question, but it was in the forefront of my mind when I answered, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have done many things differently”. One just doesn’t hire lawyers when one is not actually admitting to being in a relationship with the person needing the lawyer! Besides, I was still innocent or naïve enough at the point to believe in our system. I could see where this case had fallen through the cracks; it was as plain as the proverbial nose on my face. I was still confident our bureaucracy would see it too, if they would just look at the work we had done.
While I had considerable experience with migrants, I had no experience with the refugee system. After many phone calls and more contact with Professor McGorry, I finally convinced the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) to consider representing John.
I went with John to a regular Case Manager meeting at the Department of Immigration & Citizenship (DIAC). This was just before Easter of 2010. We explained that the ASRC was in the process of preparing a S417. Both John and I are honest, we can’t help ourselves! Perhaps we should have said nothing! A S417 is a submission directly to the Minister responsible for immigration. I asked would we have time to finalise that submission and specifically asked would John “be snatched away in the middle of the night”. I was assured we had time. This was after I had pushed for confirmation that John was indeed “on a removal pathway” as advised by the Ombudsman’s office. I asked why neither John nor his pro-bono migration agent had been advised of the removal plans as required by the regulations. In my view the answer was not satisfactory. Another meeting was scheduled for April 7, the week after Easter. In a later meeting with the ASRC it was agreed the ASRC would attend that meeting with John. I saw no reason for me to also attend.
When we left the building, John said to me, “That was a good meeting”. I looked at him in sorrow and frustration. When under stress not only did his English expression skills plummet, but also his comprehension skills. People like John, battling with the local nuances of the English language, depend greatly on facial expression and vocal tone to understand the message. Bureaucrats are well-trained to deliver news in a neutral tone with a neutral face. “No”, I replied, “It was a terrible meeting. You are to be removed unless the ASRC can act fast enough”. I knew, but didn’t believe it would happen, that DIAC staff can decide not to put an S417 before the Minister, so I believed the S417 would be our reprieve. We had worked for many, many hours on the details. We had refuted the RRT Decision Record decisively. I had interrogated John for hours to make sure I had everything documented correctly.
I tried to ensure we got some time away from the pressures of the situation. We went to Daylesford to have a mud spa. The mud isn’t really mud, but it turns the spa water almost black. The ingredient is the root of an African tree and a very powerful relaxant. I love it and hoped it might bring my husband a short period of calmness. I discovered that being naked in a bath of bubbling water is not necessarily so relaxing for some people!
Driving home we talked about his ex-wife. Despite how I felt about him, if there was any chance of a reconciliation it would be the best thing for the children. He was adamant. Sad, but adamant. There could be no reconciliation as she was already living with a new man. “She will become pregnant”, he said. He was right. We talked about a future together, as we often did, but even now we kept it to “the plan”. 1) Be granted the visa; 2) get a job; 3) official relationship. Of course, neither of us was in any rush. John had much to resolve about his life. Once he was granted his visa, he then needed to organise bringing his children to be with us. He needed to get a job. I wasn’t in any rush to do anything as I realised this man had an awful lot on his plate. We spent most of our time together anyway and we both knew where we were heading if “things continue to go as well as they are now between us”.
Fast-forward to April 6, 2010. I was working from home. At about 9.30am I received a conference phone call. I was retrenched. I worked for a large, global, American based company; we had the Global Financial Crisis hitting American companies hard. I was just a number and they needed to reduce numbers. I was pretty shaken up. I had given Arthur notice so that John could move in with me. We were about to discuss the practicalities of this with his Red Cross Case Manager. We had been speaking of it for some time. I still believed the removal would be averted. Now, all of a sudden, I had no job!
The next day was the fateful day: April 7. John rang me from outside the DIAC building to tell me the ASRC lawyer was not there. I was sure he would turn up and told John to go upstairs to the meeting. I frantically tried to find the lawyer. I couldn’t. I left messages on voice mails. The first of many tears started to flow. In what was just another bungle in two years of bureaucratic bungles, his legal representation did not turn up. I’ve felt guilty about that ever since, although realistically, what else was I going to do? Hide him in my basement?
John called again. “They are taking me into detention now.” That is what they did. I was now part of the nightmare. Cupid had shot his arrow straight and true.
Now we will go back to the beginning……………..why was John here at all?