Maintaining dialogues on the margins
Mark Isaacs has had a busy year since receiving the UTS Community Alumni Award in September 2017.
Since graduating from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in 2011, Mark has concentrated on his combined focus of writing and community work, choosing writing as a way to relay refugee experiences and ‘restore compassion and empathy’.
An intrepid investigator, Mark has gone into a number of conflict zones and detention centres to interact with and gather firsthand accounts from displaced and dispossessed people, leading to two published books (The Undesirables: inside Nauru in 2014 and Nauru burning: an uprising and its aftermath in 2016) on Australia’s offshore detention regime on Nauru, among many other pieces published in print and online.
Building on his work with the Edmund Rice Centre tracking returned asylum seekers in Afghanistan, Mark returned to Kabul in March 2017 to document the lives of a peaceful collective of around 80 youths with the shared goal of bringing about social change in their fractured and volatile country. One sixteen-year-old boy referred to Afghanistan as a ‘graveyard for stories’. Mark seeks to give renewed life to these stories in his third book (with details changed for members’ safety), due for release by Hardie Grant in 2019.
In November 2017 Mark realised another ambition: to go to Manus Island. Commissioned by the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin (International Literature Festival in Berlin), Mark contributed a chapter to Refugees Worldwide II on Australia’s offshore refugee policy playing out on the ground (presented at the festival on 8 September 2018 with publication in English by Ragpicker Press; Mark’s insights from this trip also appear in ).
Mark arrived on Manus nine days after the Australian Government closed their processing centre and suspended its basic services such as food, power and plumbing as well as medical facilities. A number of asylum seekers were holding out in the rapidly disintegrating centre, fearing for their safety in an impoverished and suspicious community with a history of enacting violence towards detainees, and having nowhere else to go.
Several weeks later they were forcibly removed, including Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been reporting to the press and through social media from detention since 2013 and remotely released his book No friend but the mountains: writing from Manus prison in July 2018. As President of the Sydney branch of PEN International, Mark conducted a live phone chat with Behrouz at a booked-out event on 5 September 2018, enabling the detained writer to speak directly to an audience in Australia and encouraging readership of a remarkable text.
Mark is also active in the Sydney Alliance community coalition and has returned to UTS to commence a master’s under the tutelage of Dr Lucy Fiske, who voluntarily assists self-organising communities of and schools for refugees in transit in West Java. Recommencing study at UTS naturally brings Mark’s practical advocacy and influence as well as published work into an academic arena where he can further flourish and contribute.