As I reflect on the months I spent working in detention on Nauru a number of things have crystallised.
First, the challenges.
There was a disconnect for me between the harshness of the Processing Centres and the beauty of the island. Nauru is your typical tropical island: warm clear seas, relaxed lifestyle, palm trees and friendly people. The detention centres were harsh hot environments in which people lived together very closely and in which uncertainty was the key theme.
As the months went on and government policies became more constrictive the difficulty of keeping a humanitarian outlook developed. The Salvation Army found it harder and harder to maintain its focus of compassionate care in the face of contractual obligations and government restrictions.
Being involved in a project that people disagreed with but which I felt called to was often difficult, especially when I returned home for the final time. Although the situations were qualitatively very different, I and others expressed the sense that we understood how Vietnam vets felt on returning from active duty. Even The Salvation Army seemed to just close the door as if that time and involvement had never existed.
Maintaining a balance between on-island work and home/family/friends was not easy. When I was on-island it was the centre of the universe. Returning home kept me grounded.
And finally, remembering that God has a good purpose in a very difficult situation. I have to remind myself of this now as I see our government taking harsher and more punitive measures against vulnerable people. God has a purpose and these people are not forgotten by me or by Him.
What did I learn?
First that I have an underlying racism from growing up in a largely white community. Racism is based on fear of the unfamiliar and I was confronted with my own latent racism on my very first day in Nauru. Racism exists in all human societies; we need to be aware of it, but not deny it or act on it.
Next, Australia’s isolation can breed arrogance and ignorance. So easily ‘white’ ways of doing things are seen as best. They work for us so why not for everyone else? Probably because not every culture is the same. Australians need a good dose of humility when it comes to interaction with the world. We may be the world’s largest island but we can no longer live as an island unto ourselves.
I learnt that people are people the world over. We all have the same hopes and dreams: love, friendship, fulfilling work, safety, family. Language, culture or faith does not change any of this.
Lastly I learnt that people of faith understand people of faith. It didn’t matter if I was working alongside Muslims or Hindus, that understanding of something bigger than ourselves was a common theme. In fact I had more opposition from atheist white people than I did from anyone from another faith!
My experience on Nauru was rich beyond measure. It was the most significant work I have ever done. It was confronting and challenging. It opened me up to more than I thought I was capable of doing and being.