Refugee Stories: An island of hope, a home away from home

The following interview was done by Sr. Daisy Anne Lisania, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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The crisis of people who happen to have nowhere to live, people who have no other way, no remedy but to risk their lives and seek asylum in other nations — this has become the reality of some people’s life.

I recently interviewed a man who wished to remain anonymous. In this interview, he shares his life experience as a refugee who has found haven in the comforts of a small island of Manus province in Papua New Guinea where he seeks refuge.

“The torturous system of Manus prison sometimes throws a person into distant and stunning places. Following Papua New Guinea’s high court decision regarding the illegality of the detention of refugees on Manus Island, we have gained some freedom although limited in time and scope,” he said.

He said that during the past nine months, this partial liberty, where he had the freedom of having a place to sleep, eat and wake up each day, has become part of his life.

He added that whenever the tension intensifies in the prison, he takes refuge in the jungle, the sea, and in some far-flung villages of Manus Island.

His journey of finding a safe place began when Sudanese refugee Faysal Ishak Ahmed lost his life on Christmas Eve, and later on New Year’s Eve when two Iranian refugees were beaten badly by immigration authorities and local police at the detention centre. He took refuge then in nature. The violence and injustices of these incidents cut deep.

‘‘I put some bottles of water in my backpack, grabbed my cigarettes, caught the morning bus and followed the jungle road. After 40 minutes, I arrived at Lorengau, the main town of Manus Island. I went out to the sea in a small boat, heading for Mendirlin Island,’’ he said.

He described the journey as foggy but the ocean was calm and smooth. The route took him past other small islands; first Rara Islet, 500 meters from the main island, then Hauwei, twin to the famous Hawaii of the United States, of which locals tell that American soldiers gave this name to the island during World War II due to the resemblance to America’s Hawaii.

He added that after an hour he arrived on a small, green island in the middle of the ocean. The island is called Mendirlin. It is the size of a soccer field and covered in dense jungle. Its economy is dependent on nature. It is a small island, in all its beauty and innocence, a centre of gravity for many complex matters at the heart of our global crisis: war, environmental pollution, climate change and the refugee crisis.

The story of his life is as incredible as the beauty of Mendirlin Island. He and his family of 35 people live there. He is a strong, muscular man with a heart of gold. He lost one of his hands on a fishing trip, due to a dynamite blast.

He became the victim of a war that occurred 70 years ago, a war in which Manus and its surrounding waters were transformed into a battlefield. There are dozens of signs marking the bitter history of colonization and war all over Manus and its tiny islands.

During the past 100 years, Manus has been a theatre of war in two separate conflicts. The only lasting outcomes of those wars for the people of Manus are about 800 shipwrecks left around the island, along with explosives and toxic materials. Those materials not only pollute and harm the environment, but also the economy of an island that is completely dependent on nature and seafood. People of the island occasionally fall victim to the harmful impact of the leftover materials.

When the Japanese and Americans fought against each other in the jungles of Manus and its surrounding waters, it was the people of Manus who were slaughtered without even being aware of the reasons for the conflict.

People of an island at the furthest part of the globe have become victims of a battle between the world’s superpowers. It appears as if nowhere on this planet is there a place that has not yet been affected by war and the competition between superpowers.

However, the life of this anonymous outsider and his family presents us with a very different story. He has made a small shelter for refugees out of leaves and wood on the shore of this small island to allow people to take a rest from their ordeal.

I was curious to know why he helps refugees. He smiles and says, “One day, when I was in Lorengau, I saw a few Iranian refugees wandering aimlessly around town. Something flashed across my mind about them. I realized they have no father, no mother and relatives; they are like aliens here. I felt they were afraid of being in Lorengau. I told them that you are my brothers and introduced my island to them. I invited them over and asked them to come and visit me whenever they liked and to spend some time with my family.”

He has a poetic way of seeing things. He placed a small notebook under the shelter he had built for refugees. When refugees are about to leave Mendirlin, he asks them to write something about their motherland and about the feeling they experience on his small island.

He said that when he was browsing the notebook, he found many notes written by refugees about war, homelessness and their dreams of a peaceful world.

He added that there were lovely words about him and his family and the island that reflected how deeply impressed the refugees were by his kindness. Many said they would never forget being there.

I asked about the notebook and he replies, ‘‘I like to hear about the experiences of people who have been exiled from distant lands, because I learn from them. I’d also like to know their thoughts about my island as I plan to have many tourists visit my island in the future.’’

A strategic question about the future comes to my mind and I ask if he knows anything about climate change and the possibility that his small island may go under water. He replies and says, ‘‘Yes, it is a reality that my island may go under water one day and I’ll become extremely depressed; however, I’ll still believe in nature and I’m confident that nature will allow me time to gradually transfer my family to a safe place.’’

It is not difficult to imagine that in the future people like him and his family who have welcomed refugees to their island may need to seek asylum in other countries.

He said that after a few years he returned to Manus Island and its prison. On the way, he was thinking about the images and questions parading in his head. Question such as: what happens to our world when a tiny island such as Mendirlin embraces refugees with open arms while a huge continent such as Australia throws them thousands of kilometres out into the middle of the ocean?

He added that two years ago there were only a couple of flights a week to faraway Manus province. Today aircraft sweep in everyday over the Bismarck Sea, crossing 370km of open water from the Papua New Guinea mainland to bump down on a strip carved into the jungle by Japanese soldiers 72 years ago.

‘‘It’s here, since November 2012, that more than 1,659 asylum seekers who once tried to sail to a new life in Australia have instead found themselves unloaded on to PNG soil,’’ he said.

He added by naming a few problems that have aroused the nearby villages due to the detention centre and goes on to say that kids are not being fed because there is no one to cook for them. Many marriages are fracturing under the stresses and jealousies of seismic change. The respect that the family had in the village system is becoming loose and today some villages near the detention centre are almost deserted when the contractor Transfield’s staff shuttle buses pull out.

He holds forth on these problems for half an hour; then, just as I’m folding up my notebook, he declares that despite it all, the detention centre is a blessing for Manus — at least it could be.

He added that the Australian government has given opportunities in school, health and building roads; now it is up to our leaders, mandated by the people, to act for them, to manage the social fallout and to sustain the wealth when the centre closes.

“We are only a tiny island surrounded by a huge sea. The resources are there but they are in the sea, not on the land. Our timber is slowly going and our agriculture is nothing. People will want to kill themselves, they will be confused. They haven’t seen money before, now they’ve seen it,” he said.

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Sr. Daisy Anne Lisania is a Catholic  nun for 15 years in the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus of Hiltrup. She is currently working in the Communications Office of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.

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