A circle of friends

Posted by Katie DeRosa on Sunday, September 16, 2012
The families at Inverbrackie call Sunday "party day." It's the day that volunteers from the Hills Circle of Friends come through the minimum security gates of this detention centre in the Adelaide Hills, bearing food, toys and clothes for the families living in detention. Circle of Friends coordinator Maggie McMahon invited me to join her enthusiastic group. After having my visitor request approved by Serco, the private company that manages the detention centres, I was fortunate enough to share in this beautiful tradition this Sunday. 

The families look forward to it all week. They bring heaping food containers of their traditional food, which they cook themselves in their modest homes, using spices and ingredients from the store located in the hub of the centre. My plate was barely visible beneath curried chicken and flavourful rice when one of the Tamil women loaded it with more. The five covered picnic tables in an open green space were filled with about three dozen families and visitors, laughing, playing cards, doting over children and chatting, some in broken English, some with no English at all but gestures and smiles. 

Some of the Tamil men and women who've bonded with Maggie, 63, and her husband Allan, 60, after many visits call them mom and dad, and have their kids call them grandma and grandpa. "We are mom and dad to so many people," Maggie said. One two-year-old, a curious little Tamil girl with big brown eyes and delicate gold-plated earrings, was quite withdrawn at first, Maggie said, but now is always laughing and saying short sentences in English. Maggie and Allan arrange visits by word of mouth; Visitors have to have the family's name and house number so each week detainees will tell them the names of new arrivals who want friends. Maggie said she would make sure there's a visitor next week for a 22-year-old single mother, a slight Tamil woman with long black hair. Her son is turning six on Sept. 30, which is a Sunday, so Maggie will make sure they can bring cake and balloons have a little birthday party. 

When I arrived, I was promptly greeted by two siblings, a 15-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl, who I had met on Thursday when I visited Oakbank Area School, where many of the Inverbrackie kids attend class. Originally from India, they had made the boat journey a few months ago, were quickly processed through Christmas Island and are now being placed in community detention in Brisbane. You couldn't get the smiles off their faces as they talked about the next stage of their journey. The boy said he wanted to visit Canada someday. 

Maggie purposely keeps the Circle of Friends apolitical, even though she's against mandatory detention. The purpose of the group is to provide friendship and joy to asylum seekers who are at risk of depression the longer they are in detention. 
"They look forward to it all week," Maggie said. "Some of them they want to tell you their story and they wait weeks for that to happen. We never ask. It's just, they enjoy meeting Australians. We're someone from the other side of the fence."

One man, the father of the two-year-old girl, said as we were leaving: "I am so happy today."
So Maggie and her volunteers have achieved their goal, at least for today. 

Tags: "inverbrackie" "mandatory detention" "hills circle of friends" 


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