Saturday, November 12, 2011

Villawood November update: A three act play

My friend at Villawood had his birthday on Friday (11/11/11). I couldn't see him then because of work so I decided to drop by on Saturday.

It must be said that the visits I (and may others) make are just as much for our benefit as it is for the asylum seekers'. We end up feeling good about ourselves for just visiting someone. It doesn't actually offer or contribute to any solutions, but I digress.

I call this visit a three act play because of the way it unfolded with new experiences and new people to meet. I felt I should share it.

ACT 1; The evangelists: 

Let me first begin with reciting the mandatory "some of my best friends are Christian" spiel just to clarify that it's not the the religion or the act of evangelizing that I abhor, but the dirty tricks done in their name.

Some of best friends are christian....
moving on..

So I see my friend, he actually looks happy because apparently since yesterday he's been getting lots of calls and visits from different people sending him good wishes. Also his friend had sent him some clothes from Iran, so he looked quite colorful. It was a nice couple of minutes we sat talking and catching up.
Then he tells me that some Egyptian Christians are coming to have a little birthday party for him. I  was a bit skeptical -Adult arab men don't usually celebrate birthdays- but didn't say anything- who was I to call into question the intentions of others.

They come in, they're pretty friendly and smiley and they're bearing food aplenty,  and a cake !
It's what happens afterwards that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
They're singing the birthday song to the birthday boy, happy birthday to you and all that, and then start singing it in Arabic.

In Arabic it should be سنة حلوة يا جميل  which roughly translates to "Have a great year, good looking" I don't know why but that's what's sung in Arabic during birthdays.

They however were singing سنة حلوة مع يسوع which translates to "Have a great year with Jesus"

But I continue sitting eating my cake because it would have been rude to to just get up and walk away.

Then they start asking us to repeat their prayers after them, asking "the Lord" for help and using all churchy songs about Jesus, giving out printed out lyrics to their songs so everyone can sing together.

I wouldn't usually care or even mention Christians congregating at Villawood, I'd seen them a couple of times before so this wasn't the first time.

I was just unhappy that firstly: They're blatantly Evangelizing under the guise of a birthday party, and secondly: That they're taking advantage of the fact that those asylum seekers are jailed, desperate and depressed. Selling them religion, ideology or even socks is very unethical and it's an almost unspoken rule by the other activists that these visits are for the sake of those inside.

Eventually when the singing got too much, we scurried away and pretended to smoke outside, well he smoked for real .


ACT 2; The artists: 

The Refugee Arts project is an amazing initiative by Safdar and Anton, students from Sydney uni and UTS. Those guys (with other brilliant volunteers) visit Villawood on a regular basis with drawing pads, paper and painting and drawing instruments, thus giving the asylum seekers at Villawood an artistic outlet.

(you can hear some of their project details in my Friday Night Live podcast)

The resulting work is exhibited in different halls and galleries at different times. The work pieces range from simple crayon drawings of boats in water to amazing coffee bean illustrations of women (have a look here for some of the work).

So I saw Safdar yesterday with Miri (I think it's Miri, apologies if it's something else) another awesome volunteer in this project. They were there with 7 afghan asylum seekers drawing. Their doodlings were funny shapes and circles (one of them drew a duck looking thing with a massive belly, turns out it was me, lol)

For the time those guys are there visiting there is almost a halo of excitement and happiness around them because they themselves are such good people, and because of the therapeutic effects of art.
As always it was great seeing them and laughing and having a good time. Safdar told me there was a new gallery of the art in Parramatta. I'll post the information once he sends it to me.


ACT 3; The theologians:

So while I was talking to the birthday boy, we met another of his friends (an iranian asylum seeker) and we were trying to hold a friendly conversation in arabic/farsi when all of a sudden the conversation turned serious and fast paced, as fast paced as a multilingual conversation can be. The man believed in a God but was unsure of whether Islam was the right religion for him or not. It was a lively debate with a lot of sensitive no go areas such as the fact that I didn't want to push religion on him- specially since my very recent pushing religion experience-, I didn't want to get into the shia/sunni thing -since I am Sunni and my friend was shia- and I had to leave in 20 minutes.

We all enjoyed ourselves because this discussion was more philosophical than theological and so it was more about the idea of God and the concept of worship and the master plan for the universe. I actually did not want to leave (also I was kicking myself for not speaking farsi).

All in all, yesterday's visit was... different. I was glad to see happiness on my friends' faces, albeit it was in a jail mixed with other stories of explosions, decapitated body parts and unknown futures.


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