A conversation on the train

By Asher Hirsch
Black and white photo of asylum seekers on Melbourne train

By Asher Hirsch This article is part of our April and May focus on Art and Human Rights

Sometimes, when I have the courage and my camera with me, I ask people on the train if I can take their photo. Usually this doesn’t turn out to be so interesting, and often I never use the photos. However this time was different.

I was on the train from the city to Dandenong on my way to work. I sat across from a couple with a small child. They seemed friendly and an interesting break from the university students usually on the train this time of the day. I gathered up the courage and asked them if I could take their photo. The father seemed very enthusiastic and happily let me take a couple of shots of his small family. I asked him where he was going and he said he was visiting friends in Dandenong. For those who don’t know, Dandenong is Melbourne’s capital for newly arrived migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. With a huge variety of Indian, Sri Lankan and Afghan shops, it’s like traveling around the world without leaving Melbourne.

I wondered where they were from and took a guess at Sri Lanka. The father nodded and tried to explain the name of his town, but I couldn’t quite catch it.

I work with people who are asylum seekers and refugees and I seem to come in contact with many other asylums seekers whenever I walk down the street. I often feel frustrated and helpless about their situation, knowing that many of them will have to wait for five years to be accepted as refugees. They have no work rights and live on 89 per cent of what an Australian would receive through Centrelink. Many are struggling to keep up – often living on $30 a week after rent. Often when I meet someone who is in this situation I try giving them information about places that provide support, such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or RISE. Yet I know these places are also over capacity and struggling to keep up with the hundreds of asylum seekers asking for just a little extra help.

I wondered to myself if this family were also asylum seekers, knowing that many Sri Lankans come to Australia to seek asylum from the ongoing persecution in their home country – even though the civil war has officially ended. Of course, that’s not the kind of thing you can bring up in a conversation on the train, especially in broken English.

I asked him if he wanted me to send him the photos, and if he had an email address. He didn’t have any email, but gave me a piece of paper with his address on it. This paper was a letter from AMES – the largest settlement and English education provider in Melbourne. It said he was studying English in the community detention program. From this I realised that this family were indeed asylum seekers. The English classes they can attend are only for six weeks, after which they are not allowed to do any further education.

We talked for a while and the father told me they had been in Melbourne for two months. I tried to ask some other questions about Sri Lanka and when they came to Australia. He tried to answer but we struggled with the language barrier. As we talked I noticed him get quieter. I am very aware of asking too many questions, especially as a stranger on the train. I don’t want to make them relive the gruelling Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) interviews asylum seekers are put through when they first apply for asylum. There is also their natural caution in speaking with a stranger, as they are worried something might get back to DIAC which would affect their asylum application.

I told them I am very happy they are in Australia and welcomed them to Melbourne. I said how great it is that lots of people from around the world live in Australia. I hope they understood. While I still feel helpless against the “no advantage” policy, the least I can do is try and offer a friendly smile.

The young child jumped around the empty carriage and looked outside curiously. I took a few more photos of him and thought about his family’s experiences. What had they been through for them to seek asylum in Australia? Did they catch the infamous boat here? How long had they spent in detention? How long will they wait for a refugee visa – or will they ever get one?

The train arrived at my stop and I said goodbye to the family. I wished them well and hoped they would be able to find their way through this political black hole. While the rhetoric gets harsher and more inhumane, I can only hope the Australian public can meet the actual people affected by these policies. All it takes is a conversation on the train.

Black and white photo of asylum seekers on Melbourne train

Black and white photo of asylum seekers on Melbourne train

Black and white photo of asylum seekers on Melbourne train

Black and white photo of asylum seekers on Melbourne train

Asher currently works at the Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY). Any views and opinions reflected in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily that of any associated organisations including CMY.



Blackout (poem)

By Bänoo Zan

Bänoo Zan’s poem was written in the aftermath of countrywide protests against sudden steep rise in fuel price in Iran on November 15. Authorities shot down the Internet of the whole country and embarked on a horrific killing spree. Amnesty International has so far verified 208 deaths in less than a week.

  • Anna McCracken

    This is a beautiful read Asher. I read it first and then looked for who wrote it, i saw it was you and realised you are in my trafficking unit at uni! I work with Asylum seekers and in particular Sri Lankan Tamils. I think the way we can start the movement to recognition of their human rights in Australia is through conversation with anyone and everyone to spread the word. The right word, not the one of the media. If only the Human right movement in Australia was moving forward as fast as the carriage on the train where your beautiful photos were taken.

  • Christine

    The photos are beautiful Asher. It would be wonderful if you could visit us again in SA – bring your camera with please!! Much love always XXXXX

  • EvilPundit

    There is no “human right” to be granted residence in Australia.

    Sri Lankan refugees, if genuine, could go to Tamil Nadu a few dozen kilometres away. Those who bypass that safe destination to enter Australia via boat are opportunists who are not entitled to our support.

    • Hi,

      The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 8, asserts that ‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’

      Furthermore, the Refugees Convention requires that Australia not return a refugee to any country where they would be subject to persecution, among other rights.

      I have already pointed out the ongoing persecution faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka.

      As for going to Tamil Nadu in India, India is not a party to the Refugees Convention and is not obliged to provide protection to refugees.

      • Mercury

        It is every persons right to keep their life, to preserve that life, to be free from harm, and to remain safe from the oppressors hand.
        I would recommend the safe way, the lawful way, the “right” way however, as is often the case, the “right” (by whose standards?) way is not always the safe or workable way.
        We all need to not forget, that people donot just up and leave their homelands because they decide another country takes precedent. Rather, many people are forced at the hand if their homeland to flee literally for their lives, so they can do what we do every moment of the day with little gracious thought to how blessed we are, ie, breathe.
        Australia welcomes asylum seekers.
        May this be your place of refuge, your shelter and your home.
        May you be free from abuses of every kind.

  • Barry

    Ash you had me engaged in this story from the get go which is so well written. Not only only engaged in the story which has now got me thinking what can I do to help even one of these people who seek Asylum in Australia. I try and live by the mantra “do unto others what you would want done to you.” Thank you for Thank you for having the courage to speak out about this issue.

  • Mercury

    I love this story. The photographs are a powerful witness to the obvious joy of new beginnings for a wonderful family. Just to see them, a family which has taken such a leap of faith, humbles me.
    All the very best.
    (Perhaps there could be a follow up story?)