A man walks into my consulting room with a bouncing limp. He is tall and upright. He bows slightly and shakes my hand. The familiar courtesies.
I greet him: Salaam Aleikhum.
He responds: Aleikhum Salaam.
We exchange names. His name is Ahmed. He says: “My foot is painful. Please excuse me. I am afraid I must remove my shoe.”
His problem is visible through an opening in his sandal: the left great toe is infected. The flesh of the nail bed is hot and red, a crescent of swollen skin surrounding a sunken island of nail. The skin is shiny, stretched to bursting. A promising eyelet of pus peeps from beneath a corner of the cuticle.
The infected nail bed is about to burst in a flow of laudable pus. The pus will stink, Ahmed will feel better and so will I. Finally, a patient telling me a straightforward story. Finally a patient I can cure.
I treat the infection, dress the toe and ask Ahmed to return tomorrow to renew his dressing.
“I cannot come tomorrow.” His manner is politely regretful. “I will leave here tonight.” He speaks softly, practicality competing with swelling happiness: “I have my visa.”
Ahmed’s smile is a field of waving daffodils.
As it happens I will fly out tonight too. After three weeks of seeing patients here, Ahmed is the only one I meet to win a visa. The remainder reside in trailer parks of hope and despair.
Virgin Flight DJ 2904 is routine, unremarkable, the regular commercial service to the mainland. But to Ahmed who has a visa – A visa! To Australia! – the flight is not routine but the opposite.
Weeks later a dream comes to trouble my sleep.
I am back on the island, heading slowly to my office. I am to be a member of a Tribunal: my work will be painful.
I sit down. My patient sits down. A third person is present, a man from Immigration. We need no interpreter.
The patient’s shoulders are bunched, his face pale. He looks up at the official. No words pass between us. The official hands a piece of paper to my patient. His shoulders subside and his face relaxes. It is over.
Only now does he look at the paper and read the verdict. I cannot read his face.
The man gets up and thanks us. He doesn’t differentiate between us. Immigration and Health are one.
He goes his ways.
The dream weighs heavily upon my rest and wakens me. After a while I fall asleep again. Once there, the dream, its scenes and its mood recur. A story is telling and retelling itself to me; for me to remember, for me to tell it.
Another face. Another one from Detention. Like any of them he is in his thirties, his features older than his years. He looks weary. Resigned, he takes his seat opposite us. The man from Immigration passes him his papers, his first papers since the smuggler threw the old ones overboard. He is official now, a man with documents. A man. No longer a number.
This is the moment of his truth, the end of the games he said we Australians all played.
The detained man looks at his paper. He reads the words and he shakes his head; he looks up again, this time at me alone, his face a question. The answer is on the paper that he holds in his hands, his official paper.
It was not I who wrote those words. But I cannot meet his gaze.
It is a relief to wake up. I have been sweating. Now I’m awake I’ll write it down and I might feel cleaner. But outside it is still dark, morning a distant promise. I will sleep again. I’ll see those faces again and again.
At the Tribunal no-one speaks. The spoken word has no currency here. Here is another man, long detained, another among the many faces; the same official without a face. We all sit down.
Mechanically the official passes the paper. The man scans it but he cannot read the English words. The official points to words written in the man’s own alphabet, but he cannot read these either.
Nonplussed, the official gets to his feet. He looks at the man, sees him for the first time, a man, a person. He does something unofficial: he gives the man the thumbs-up and he smiles. The man stares for a moment, then smiles in return.
He is still smiling when we meet in the line for Virgin Flight DJ2904. He recognizes me and his smile widens. He embraces me, thanks me again and again: shukran, shukran.
But my mind sees the many who remain. I have no smile to give him.
I wrote this vignette two years ago, following a short stint working in the Detention Centre on Christmas Island.
The locum of a couple of weeks was by far the most harrowing work I have encountered in nearly half a century with patients. The people I met and treated haunted me for some time after I returned home to a full and settled family life.
My daughter has a bunch of little boys who imagine themselves to be long distance runners. On October 20 this year, the younger two will run one kilometre in a fundraising event; the senior brother -aged ten – will run 2 kilometres. The three have been training with remarkable determination. During a recent training run, heavy rain, followed by a hailstorm, did not stop them.
They seek sponsorship to raise funds for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, an organization whose extraordinary work I have known for a decade.
If you can spare a little money to help people who got off their boats just a bit more recently than our own, please use the links below.