Living in hope
Journalism and law student Massilia Aili visits refugees detained at Sydney’s Villawood Detention and Immigration Centre. Despite the grim setting and often tragic histories, Massilia discovered people with strength, humility and hope.
‘Dangerous’ is the term often used to describe detention centres in Australia. At least that’s what journalism and law student Massilia Aili thought before she stepped inside Sydney’s Villawood Detention and Immigration Centre. Massilia explains what it’s really like behind those wire fences and how transformative it can be getting to know some of Australia’s refugees.
The most prominent memory I have of my first visit to Villawood Detention Centre was driving up to the precinct and seeing a seemingly endless stream of barbed wire fencing. It was followed by a throng of security guards who scanned and drug tested each of us and our food. I had never been more scared or nervous about what I was getting myself into.
I’d first heard about the ‘Villawood visits’ in July 2016. I was a budding first-year student who was determined to change the world and become the next notable ‘social justice warrior’. At the time, I was already volunteering as a refugee mentor, attending fundraising events and humanitarian rallies. That’s where I heard about a group of students from Sydney who visited Villawood Detention Centre during Ramadan to provide dinners to the fasting detainees.
I told my big sister Samira, who was also at UTS at the time and a budding social justice warrior herself (clearly it runs in the family), and we decided to go together. So, we completed the application process, put our names down to visit the centre on certain days and joined the volunteer group.
On the day of our first visit, I spent two hours rehearsing in my mind how I would interact with the refugees because I had never met ‘one of them’ before. When we walked into the visiting area, I remember seeing a long row of tables with chairs laid out for us, with all the detainees standing around it. They waited until we were all seated before they sat. They served us the food we brought for them before serving themselves and when we started talking, most were more interested in hearing about our lives rather than talking about themselves.
From the minute I sat down, I realised just how wrong my assumptions were and how much I actually had to learn from the detainees about strength, optimism and humility. From that point onwards, we were hooked. The irony of how such a dark and ominous place harboured some of the brightest and most wonderful personalities fascinated us and we couldn’t get enough of their energy.
The irony of how such a dark and ominous place harboured some of the brightest and most wonderful personalities fascinated us and we couldn’t get enough of their energy.
Journalism and Law student, UTS
Even as we started to develop closer friendships with them and they would share their stories about being beaten until they were deaf or escaping drug gangs or watching loved ones get killed, it was always followed by an ‘It could’ve been worse’ and ‘I am grateful to be alive’. A lot of them haven’t seen their family or friends in years so being able to have someone on the outside they can speak to and connect with means a lot to them.
It’s now been three years since that first visit. And I still go back. Almost every Saturday. The main reason — their inimitable sense of humility.
For Samira, it’s more about seeing their journey and appreciating their strength and resilience. Regardless of how long they’ve been detained, they’re always hopeful.
And yet, with every visit there’s always an ingrained sense of helplessness we feel when we go home and leave them inside. Something many people don’t realise is just how much it takes out of you when you hear their stories and all of the terrible things that have happened to them and the best you can do is give them a hug and hope things start to turn around.
I always feel an overwhelming sense of guilt that I can choose to leave the centre and go home to my family and my comfy bed, knowing that’s a choice that they’ve never had.
But what I’ve come to realise, after three years, is that guilt only channels feelings of pity which these people have been experiencing their entire lives. Instead, what they need is support and confidence in knowing that there are people in the world who want to help make their lives better.
The way Samira puts it, is to be “open-minded, compassionate and understanding, and also boost their morale whilst not being able to help them in any way”.
One question that I’ve asked the detainees time and time again is what keeps them going, having experienced so much hardship and having no guaranteed secure future. The unanimous response I always get is that hope is one of the most powerful things in the world and you can achieve just about anything if you have enough hope.
Massilia Aili is a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) Bachelor of Laws student at UTS.
Samira Aili graduated from UTS with a PhD in toxicology in 2018. She is currently the Director of the organisation, Refugees in Mind.