By Remedios Varga-Taylor,

Being a teenager is a volatile time with awkwardness and an emergent independence making life confusing. Hani Abdile was 16 when her parents gave her to a family friend, who was also a people smuggler.

Hani, now 18, lives in a quiet Sydney suburb. It’s a very different life to her family’s nomadic tribal life in Somalia. Her small apartment is behind a school so she can hear the children playing. Her room is sparsely furnished. There is a bed and shelf covered with awards and photos of the friends and people who helped her create a new life in Australia.

Desperate times: Somali refugees dream of a better future. Image courtesy of UNHCR

Desperate times: Somali refugees dream of a better future. Image courtesy of UNHCR

She’s vivacious and connects with people immediately. Hani studies at Bankstown Intensive English College, a branch of Bankstown Senior College. The school takes in children formally held in offshore detention. Many schools won’t. Classes take place in a small room, separate to the main school. On the walls, pictures of the students stare out at you.

Geraldine Lonnon, a counsellor at the college, says Hani’s bright resilience has made her more successful than other students in recovering from immigration detention. “Sometimes you can physically see the effects of detention, marks from self harm and cutting,” she says. “The frustration of feeling hopeless and helpless, the psychic pain is very great.”

Hani is one of many unaccompanied minors who make the dangerous journey to Australia by boat. For her family, it was the constant threats resulting from perpetual civil war and the lack of opportunity and safety for women. Her journey took her from Somalia to Kenya, then Malaysia, Indonesia and finally Australia. It would have been a terrifying journey for anyone, much less someone on the cusp of adulthood.

Her journey took eight days and nine nights. Before reaching Australia, her boat fell apart. Hani, having spent her life in rural Somalia, couldn’t swim. “I remember thinking I was dead,” she says. “Then a coastguard grabbed me and told me to swim. I couldn’t.” In the dark night and rolling waves, the Australian Coast Guard collected the desperate people.

Child psychiatrist Dr Sarah Mares visited Christmas Island while Hani was detained there. She says that while the physical necessities may be taken care of, the mental stress of offshore detention is extremely harmful to children. “They are exposed to a lot of things that in Australia we protect children from, like distressed adults, people harming themselves and violence,” she says.

Hani remembers vividly her experience of offshore detention. She describes the dank atmosphere that engulfed the centre, and the futility and despondency of people waiting indefinitely. Every morning she would wake up and take part in activities like sport or English classes. Detainees can participate in activities to earn credits for things like international phone cards to call their families.

She describes the centre as a blur of grey concrete, locked fences and 24-hour guards. “I call Christmas Island the grave cave of the world,” she says. For Hani, the worst part was the uncertainty of whether she would be released or sent back. Hani was strengthened by the promise of a better future. “You think, ‘I can do this because if I want to die I can go home where people die easily’.”

Geraldine Lonnon says for many of her students, the trauma continues to pervade their lives. “Some of the students have trouble with memory, and intrusive thoughts of their trauma,” she says. “Sometimes they will be walking down the street and have a panic attack.”

The impact on the mental health of people detained in immigration detention is well documented. Dr Mares says the longer people are detained, their mental health worsens. Rates of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder increase. “Very often children regress in their development,” she says. “They become more disturbed.”\

Gaby Judd is the founder of the Sydney faction of Grandmas Against the Detention of Refugee Children (GADRC). She and fellow grandma protestors organise vigils, write letters and try and change the hearts and minds of citizens and policymakers. She says her experience as a grandmother led her to her activism. “It’s heartbreaking because I have grandchildren and their basic human rights as children are recognised. Why can’t these kids have such freedom when they’ve done nothing wrong?”

At GADRC’s monthly marches from the Uniting Church in Pitt Street, the grandmas wear purple shirts and hold placards, demanding the release of children held in immigration detention. They march through the city singing songs about freedom and hope. A few people come up and tell them they’re brave. A few people come up and tell them they’re stupid.

Australia’s Migration Act 1958 requires all people who are not Australian citizens without valid visas to be detained until they are granted a visa or leave the country. There is no time limit on immigration detention. Under the current law, a person can be detained indefinitely or until the Australian Government grants them a visa or they agree to leave the country.

In 2011, the Australian Government began expanding its use of temporary bridging visas. Under the TPV, people who have passed initial health, identity and security checks can be given the visa to live in the community while their applications are processed. Hani remembers the day she was granted a TPV. Guards came into her room at daylight, shook her and told her to get her things. She was released into community detention in Sydney.

Under the TPV, asylum seekers are given access to Medicare and provided with a basic allowance, the equivalent of 89 per cent of the Centrelink special benefit. They are not given access to housing and, until 2014, were not allowed to work. Rachael Miles volunteers at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and helps refugees apply for residency. “The Government didn’t allow them to work under the TPV because they didn’t want them to form relationships in Australia, they don’t want them to get comfortable here.”

Parliament on King is a café with a specific business model – it provides hospitality training and jobs to refugees. The café is stuffed with records, ornaments and velvet couches. Owner Ravi Prasad intended the café to be a gateway for refugees into Australia. He is careful to emphasise that refugees are people who need to be allowed opportunity. “Hani came through the training and she made us happier,” he says. Hani works at the cafe on Sundays, making coffee and serving customers. Working there has been a good introduction to Australian culture, and a way for her to meet people outside the usual activities afforded to refugees.

Hani is doing well. She lives independently, studies and works. She’s even gained recognition for her poetry through her involvement with the refugee poet group, Writing Through Fences. While it’s hard for her to be so far from her family, she has made many friends and is not alone. What she really wants is to make the most of the opportunities she has here that do not exist in Somalia. “I wish for myself to be better than yesterday because there is nothing to be worried about in the past,” she says.