Archived News Item

Reflecting on the Baxter experience

Sister Kate Conley RSM (Adelaide Congregation) was asked to lead a group of Baxter Detention Centre visitors from the northern regions of South Australia in a day of reflection about their experiences as visitors to Baxter Detention Centre.


Those who gathered were volunteers from across churches, ages and refugee support groups; people, who over the years, in many simple, extraordinary and faithful ways, have provided friendship, advocacy, spiritual care and general support to their friends at Baxter.


Kate wrote:


As people arrived scenes of the life shared with friends at Baxter were moving across a large screen. The focus for the gathering was a white pole surrounded by a beautiful blue silk representing the treacherous oceans crossed by those seeking asylum here. Around this was an ochre cloth to represent the desert soil around Baxter, Woomera and Port Hedland. White cloths with prison bars represented the detention centres.


The white pole reminded all present of the recent memorial in Canberra for the 353 men, women and children who died when their leaking boat sank on their way to Australia. The boat was named the SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel No. 10).


This pole also reminded us of the tragedy of all the asylum seekers who have lost so much: their loved ones left behind; their loss of dignity and worth during years of detention; their loss of confidence and independence. The pole also stood as a reminder of their courage, resilience and love.


Stretching around two walls of the church was a time-line beginning in June 2002 with the arrival of people at Baxter and moving through the months and years to the present. This became a precious piece of history that records some of the main events of this time, and to which people added their own memories of people, times and events. This records a period of Australian history that must not be forgotten.


An empty chair invited those present to recall the names of so many others who had assisted during this time, but were unable to be present.


With the possibility of Baxter closing next year, this day was an opportunity for those gathered to reflect on their experience of supporting friends at Baxter and in the community, to acknowledge the work done, the human cost, how the experience had changed them and to be affirmed by one another in whatever their choices for the time ahead.


Other conversations were around the issues of people now on Temporary Protection Visas as they face the renewed possibility of being deported if the situation in their home country changes. The onus of proof is now on them to prove that their lives are still in danger. For so many, this latest ruling from the court has reopened acute fears and anxiety. We fear for the mental health of many of our friends as they face this terrible uncertainty about their future.


One very moving part of the afternoon was the sharing through stories, symbols, prayers and poetry what this time had meant for them. We shared much laughter, sadness, weariness and warmth of feeling. Symbols, photos, letters and poems were placed around the pole and people were invited to place a candle for someone dear to them.


There was a quiet time also where each person reflected on how they had been changed by this experience and then this was shared with one other person.

Allan Nield and his wife Joan have been regular visitors for many years. Allan has written many poems and shared this memory and poem with us.


Baxter Bread

On a visit to friends held in the notorious Baxter prison, we were served a simple meal by a young Iranian man who had prepared the food for us because we did not have time to eat much between visits. This thoughtful and sensitive man was still traumatised, along with other inmates, by DIMIA’s abduction of three of his friends just a week before and the forcible return to Iran of two of them. (August 31, 2003)

I ate a piece of Baxter bread,
A plain white baker’s roll,
But it became a sacred meal,
And Manna to my soul.


Another precious sharing came from a former officer at Baxter who was unable to be present on the day. This is an excerpt from her reflection.


“I have learned the value of words. Words were all I could give in my role. Words can be so destructive or so empowering. I am more mindful of the words I choose in dealing with all people.”


Music used during the reflection:

“Light a Candle”, Suzette Herft.                                                              

“Stand with Us”, from Scattered People produced by Simon Monsour.

“To everything there is a season”, written by Pete Seeger and sung by Judy Collins.


We closed the afternoon with a blessing of friendship from John O’Donohue.

From: Specific Issues Committee, Asylum Seekers and Refugees (Sisters Sally Bradley, Claudette Cusack, Lorraine Phelan and Mary Quinn)


Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator