Celebrating Mass Among the Unwelcome19 Jan 2017
A Christmas day celebration at a detention centre provides an insight into the difficult lives of asylum seekers in Australia.
We are running late. There are strict instructions from security: ‘You have 1 hour: 3 to 4pm.’
But we are late. At the reception desk it takes time to process visitors. One of the group has her name missing from the authorised list.
The manager comes out from his office. ‘Her name is not on the list, see for yourself.’
The manager calms down once he sees an email from my phone with the name on the list that was given to them.
‘That’s alright. Now, what about the food?’ he asks.
‘Yes, there it is on the bench’, I say.
‘But, there is no permission for you to bring it in.’
‘It’s Christmas day and we are visiting our friends, how could we come without food?’
‘Alright, just this once you can bring it in’, he says. ‘Remember you have to be finished by 4pm.’
Sitting behind the reception desk is a very tall man. He is in riot gear, and it wouldn’t surprise us if he is wearing a gun. My thought: Surely he’s not here to be our security officer? As it turns out, he is.
Wherever we go, he comes along, finally sitting behind the tiny group of Christians celebrating the Mass on Christmas Day. Is it to intimidate us? There is, as well, another officer, who stands by the door, making sure only those whose names that are on his list come in. Are we such a subversive group that we need this kind of supervision? Not even in prison is there such surveillance.
There aren’t many residents at the Mass. It is celebrated in a classroom because there is no room anywhere else. Just like the Gospel story. The symbolism is not lost on us.
Aren’t there more to come?’ I ask the guard at the door.
‘Yes’, he says, ‘but they decided not to come.’
I decide not to believe him. It’s happened before and I know from other occasions that those waiting to come wait in vain for an officer to escort them to the Mass.
We tell the story of the birth of Jesus in English, Vietnamese, Tamil. For those in this place of detention it is a message of hope. Mass ends, the visitors set out the generous supply of food. The young ones have made sure that the food is what the residents like. They had travelled far to buy food appropriate for those who come.
The tall guard sidles up to me. ‘You have 5 minutes’, he says.
I repeat the message to the gathering knowing that 5 minutes will be more like 15 by the time the food is shared.
The tall man is not finished. ‘This place has to have discipline or all falls apart and if it is a 4pm finish then it is a 4pm finish. The place has to run on rules and those rules have to be enforced. And there are good reasons for this policy. You’ – meaning me and my small number of helpers – ‘have no idea of what really happens here.’
I think he is trying to justify the policy of treating the residents as criminals when none have been charged by the law enforcement people.
No one is concerned about the time it takes to eat the meal of hospitality, except the tall man and his offsider. There is a pregnant detainee among us, and she is determined to have her share of the food, which is the kind she really likes. I remind the guards, again, that it is Christmas day, a most special time for the Christian people.
We are not allowed to leave gifts and food. What is left over has to be taken away. A Sister of Charity leaves before Mass ends, because she feels so put upon by the officers.
We are hustled out of the room and led over to the visitors’ space from where we are to make our exit. As we arrive in the room a few of the residents get up from their seats and come over. We greet each other as it is Christmas day and we have concluded the ritual of mystery and now we want to share our joy with the world. The door of exit remains open, held by an officer, impatient to get us out of there.
Apart from me the others in our group are young. One has only arrived in Melbourne from the UK a few days earlier. I see tears in her eyes, shocked and saddened by the experience.
The Church loves to sing ‘Joy to the world’ at this time of year. But those words are difficult to hear in this place of the scattered peoples of the earth.