On the evening of Friday 11 March, there was celebration and heartache as 13 men seeking asylum were released from detention having been held by the Australian government for more than nine years. Nine of the men were released from the Park Hotel in Carlton, one from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation in Broadmeadows and another three from the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation. But there are still many who remain in indefinite detention across Australia and offshore. In this story, Fiona Basile shares how a personal encounter with a young woman from Sydney, led her to the men – fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, husbands – being detained in the Park Hotel and to a deeper understanding of their lives and journey, and ultimately, to compassion and action.

The moment it hit home

In early January I received a message from my friend Mark. He was wondering whether my spare room was free as a friend of his – Claire, from Sydney – was going to be in Melbourne for a few weeks and needed a place to stay. The room was free and so Claire Gomez, a registered nurse, stayed at my place for a week.

Claire arrived in the days leading up to the Australian Open. At the same time, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic was fighting the federal government’s decision to deny his visa to enter the country. Djokovic appealed and while awaiting the outcome was held in detention at the Park Hotel in Carlton. With Djokovic locked up in the building, and his supporters protesting outside in the park, the media spotlight then turned to a group of men who were also detained in the hotel – around 30 refugees who had been held in detention offshore and onshore by the Australian government, for over nine years.

Sadly, at that point, I wasn’t paying too much attention.

That is, until Claire invited me to attend an evening prayer vigil in the park opposite the hotel. The flyer indicated that we’d be praying for ‘refugees and asylum seekers held by the Australian government in detention in PNG, Nauru, the Park Hotel, and other alternate places of detention’. Claire had told me she was Catholic and that her brother Adrian was a deacon in Sydney. He and his wife were joining the prayer vigil via Zoom along with several of the men who were locked up in the hotel.

I parked my car, walked across Lincoln Park in Carlton toward a small group of people, including Claire, that had gathered on the grass. Some were already sitting quietly, eyes closed, hands clasped, and heads bowed. Others were putting the finishing touches on a display of paper lanterns in the shape of a heart – the candles would be lit as the evening light faded. And then there was a person holding up her fingers in the shape of a heart while looking intently toward the hotel.

As I followed her gaze toward the hotel windows on the other side of the street, I noticed several faces looking back at us. Men – younger and older – who were at the windows, holding up their mobile phones, perhaps taking photos of us, waving, and responding to the girl’s gesture with their own fingers held up in the heart shape.

This was the moment that it really hit home that these are the men who I’d seen flashed across TV screens earlier, or in newspaper articles, that had been locked up in detention by our government for so many years. Here they were, in the flesh, looking out at us from locked and secured windows, while we prayed with them and for their release. I didn’t know the facts and figures of their plight at the time (how many there were in the hotel, where they’d come from, or why they’d been locked up for so long, indefinitely) but I did know they wanted the same thing as any of us – a safe home, justice, fairness, compassion and the ability to rebuild their lives.

We huddled around Claire’s computer, joining with others on Zoom from across Australia. We prayed for the men and women still in onshore and offshore detention, for their families and loved ones; we prayed for the thousands who have already been released into the community on temporary visas, but who continue to live in uncertainty. We prayed for our government leaders, that they use their powers to provide safety and care for men and women who are seeking a better life for themselves and their loved ones. And we prayed for each of us gathered, and for all who advocate on behalf of refugees and those seeking asylum.

By the end of the evening, I too was standing up, facing the men at the windows, holding up my arms with my hands and fingers forming a heart shape. I was moved to tears. I had seen their faces, heard their voices, and prayed with and for them. I’ve worked in Catholic media and social services for years and I’ve been involved in prayer vigils, rallies, and marches before, but this experience profoundly moved me.

Inspired by Claire and others

I was moved and inspired by Claire who had demonstrated such deep love, compassion, and commitment to these people. Having friended her on Facebook, I could see how much information she shared and how active she’d been over a long time in advocating for those being detained onshore and offshore. When I later asked her why she does this, or even, how, she explained that these people were her friends.

Five years ago, she’d been following the stories of the Australian government’s ‘horrendous treatment’ of refugees and people seeking asylum. When the government attempted to take away their mobile phones – a move which failed in the courts and parliament – Claire realised that those being detained would probably be on social media.

She did some research, found them on Facebook and Twitter and started making contact. Over time, she became friends with several of the men, and eventually, when some of them were moved to Melbourne from detention centres on Nairu or PNG for medical treatment, she was among a cohort of people who’d visit. She now considers some of the men her ‘brothers’ and ‘family’. One of them, Ramsiyar, refers to her own parents as ‘mum and dad’ due to the love and support shown over the years, and which continues to this day.

At Claire’s invitation, I attended a second rally in the park and continued to learn more about these mens’ lives and situations. At the rally, I was introduced to Mohammed ‘Joy’ Miah, a 41-year-old refugee from Bangladesh via FaceTime on Claire’s phone. Though held in detention for more than nine years, Joy had the biggest smile and was so warm and friendly. He was one of the nine men released, as was 30-year-old refugee from Somalia, Ismail Hussein, who spoke through his mobile phone at the rally.

Further moved by this encounter and all the people who had gathered in the park to show their support, I started asking more questions and taking active steps to find out more. I attended the Set Them Free campaign launch by multifaith leaders and spoke to long-time – and fierce – refugee advocate, Sr Brigid Arthur csb, of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project. I then wrote about the grassroots campaign, The Freedom Cage, where people from all walks of life stand in a cage outside the hotel in solidarity with those being detained. The message is so clear – set them free, now.

They are ordinary people, like us

I started sharing Claire’s story, and the information I was learning from covering these other stories with family and friends. I had a personal connection now. I had been in the park, I’d seen the men, I’d spoken to one of the men, and I understood more deeply how the Australian government could in one moment, set these people free. There was no rhyme or reason why they continued to be locked up indefinitely. One boy, Mehdi Ali, has been detained since he was 15 years old. He’s now 24 years old. He was released unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago and has been flown to the USA where he’ll resettle. This is wonderful news.

But there is still much to be done. There are around 60 who remain in detention in Australia and thousands who live in the community on temporary visas, living in limbo and who rely heavily on the support of generous and big-hearted community members, agencies and charities.

My prayer is that I can now be ‘a Claire’ to others. That I can engage in personal conversations about the desire of men and women, children, and families to be treated fairly and justly. To communicate with confidence their desire for a safe home in a welcoming country where they can work, play, flourish and contribute to society. These are values we all share.

Following this, I’ve signed up to host a Feast for Freedom, to help raise funds for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). The motto for the dinner is, “celebrate what unites us”. As we come to know and understand their stories, we realise that there is indeed more that unites us, than divides us.

There are many ways to provide practical support. Look up the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project, which helps those who’ve been released into the community. Perhaps you can help with food, furniture, household or money donations, travel cards and phone cards, or opportunities for work and meaningful connection. The Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA) has a range of resources for schools, parishes, and communities. And we can keep up to date with gatherings outside the Park Hotel via the Refugee Action Collective Facebook page. Perhaps you too can make some time to stand in the park opposite the hotel, holding up a sign of support, your arms outstretched, and hands cupped in the symbol of a heart.

I was so struck by Claire’s story and her personal commitment to taking a stand for those in detention. Perhaps it’s because she’s an ‘ordinary person’ like me, a woman of faith and of a similar age, who’s decided to devote her energy to speaking out and doing what she can with what she has. Thank you, Claire, and to all who have inspired me to do the same. I stand with you and all who are committed to advocating on behalf of refugees and those seeking asylum to do what I can, too. I stand with you in saying to those in detention: We see you, we love you, you are not forgotten. You are welcome and we will continue to fight and speak up until every one of you is free.

All are invited to join the Palm Sunday March for Justice for Refugees on 10 April, at the Victorian State Library, corner Swanston and La Trobe Streets, Melbourne, at 2pm.