A conversation on the train

By Asher Hirsch | 13 Jun 13
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.