Africans in my Lounge Room

Trudy ushered them in, the two-and-two-thirds doctors from Africa. Tall, beautiful and young, each greeted us in perfect Hebrew: ‘Shabbat Shalom’, a peaceful Sabbath. Three smiles of perfect teeth lit our room on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

First and oldest was Tom, thirteen years a doctor, eight months in Australia on a Bridging Visa. Next came Afia, with 18 months’ experience in Ethiopian hospitals and I don’t know how much time in refugee camps. She too holds a Bridging Visa. Last and youngest was Oprah, the vulgar fraction: she has completed four years of medical studies in the Congo. Her birth country is Rwanda. I did not prosecute her with enquiry about her double expatriation. Like the other two, Oprah subsists in Australia at the pleasure of the government. That means the kindness of Mister Morrison.

All three understand fully they can be evicted from this land of asylum at which ever moment Mr Morrison’s kindness might run out. As none of the three came by leaky boat they have the right to work. If they can get work. Trudy brought the three to us to help them find work. I had invited two august medical friends, superbly connected senior people in their fields.

We sat down and talked. Tom outlined his situation. In his early thirties, married, experienced in hospital medicine and a recognized expert in immunisation in third world countries, he is permitted to work here as a doctor only under supervision. At present this distinguished professional works as a medical menial, washing incontinent bodies in a place for the aged. Tom makes no complaints about the red tape, he is grateful to be here, willing to go anywhere – to the outback, to the western suburbs – he just wants to use his training. Can we help him find work? This expert in immunisation – he is just back from Geneva, where he was summoned by the WHO to a conference – with his rich experience of tropical disease would be a gift to a hospital or a tropical medical school or an immunisation project or in policy in any of our tropical zones.

Afia, aged twenty-seven, came to Australia by invitation, to attend the recent world AIDS conference. She applied for asylum with her husband, a chemical engineer who is also looking for work. They too will go anywhere. Afia wants to be a GP. I pictured our large communities of people from the Horn of Africa with Afia as the needed human bridge of cultural understanding to bring these many to safety. I saw the many Aboriginal communities crying out for GP’s.

Oprah has been here for a few weeks. Trudy has given her shelter. Oprah wants to become a nurse. In this country nursing is university course and monumentally expensive. However asylum seekers can pursue TAFE studies at no cost. Oprah managed four years of a medical degree; nursing will not be beyond her grasp. She’d be able to train as a State Enrolled Nurse at TAFE and from that platform gain employment and support herself while studying at Uni. I work with numerous African nurses, highly appreciated in the outback, where the barriers between the African and the whitefella are as nought compared to the gulfs all must cross in indigenous health.

There was little talk of the revolutions, the wars, the massacres; there was scarce mention of refugee camps; there was no complaint, no sense of entitlement, no pity of self, no cries for the families left behind. None of the three had met the others until Trudy brought them together on Saturday and coached them in the Hebrew greeting on our doorstep. Afia, Oprah, Tom, three islands in this distant country, three shimmering humans simply happy to be here, eager to work, to stand up, to make their way.

Theirs is an old, old Australian story. I saw the Reffo, the New Australian, the Boat Person, the Gold Rusher, the survivor of the Shoah, the Balt on the Snowy Scheme, the student from Tiananmen Square. I saw my wife’s mother, a child fleeing Danzig in 1938, I saw my Grandpa arriving here alone, aged thirteen, a stowaway escaping the Ottoman police in Palestine.

There we sat – three young Africans, three old Australian doctors and one good citizen. An atmosphere quietly joyful, of welcome guests meeting grateful hosts, a current flowing back and forth of appreciative respect. A meeting, in short, of human people.

The next morning my wife and I happened to have three guests for brunch. One of the three, an old friend, works with survivors of torture; the second is a classmate from medical school whom I knew is a shy blonde, now President of the World Psychiatric association; the third is her husband, a distinguished gastroenterologist, now practising in Addiction Medicine. Our refugee advocate friend, his face ravaged, spoke of the horrendous week just past in which the Minister of All Prerogatives (Mister Morrison) sold the freeing of 103 detained children in exchange for numberless others, both adults and children. These others are offshore, in another country, beyond the borders of Australian conscience.

My wife and I told our brunch friends of the Africans in our loungeroom. Five Australians, all thoroughly unexceptional in our impulse, in our wish to help, spoke with eager seriousness of people, places, organisations, of contacts, of opportunities and of need. Nothing new, nothing unusual transpired. Five Old Australians, descended from New Australians, animated by memory and self recognition, each saw ‘mon frère, mon semblable’. I read in Sunday’s paper of the endless tides of Libyans escaping likely death, arriving in Italy where the locals, quite overwhelmed, yet see what our Morrisons and Abbotts and Gillards and Shortens will not: they see the human face and they give the arrivals succour.

In the few days since this human weekend I have tried to reach beyond my customary postures of anger and self-righteousness, to grope for understanding of my hard Government, of my soft Opposition, of my fearful fellow citizens in the electorate. I can only surmise that, somehow, at some time, my representatives and my fellow citizens have lost something they used to see – the image of the self in the face of the other.

An afternoon in the loungeroom with guests like mine might change everything.

After Uluru

‘… There’s been a death.’

I am in my small house in Yulara, cooking for shabbat on a Friday in December 2006, when the phone ringImages. A male voice speaks: ‘It’s Sergeant Benjamin, Doctor, of the Mutitjulu Police … I’m sorry to trouble you … there’s been a death.’

A pause.

The voice resumes: ‘It was a hanging. We need someone to certify the death. The nurses here can’t do it; it has to be a doctor. I am sorry, Doctor.’

The voice is careful, it is feeling its way. I don’t know the officer. The voice I hear is sober – sobered almost to a halt by the news of a death.

I ask the officer to bring the body to the clinic. We arrange to meet in twenty minutes’ time.

It is early evening – 1830 hours in official language – when they pull up at the clinic. Even at that hour the heat is relentless. The sky is painted blue. There are two vehicles, a police car followed by an ambulance in its familiar livery of white slashed with red. A large oblong man steps out of a police car of such startling blueness that the sky pales behind it. The officer’s face is deeply creased.

We shake hands.

His offsider gets out and straightens. She dwarfs her sergeant. Apart from the odd post-adolescent pimple, her face is smooth. She walks over to the ambulance and commences a laughing conversation with the nurses who have driven the body.

After a time the nurses are free to attend to my questions. I address the older of the two, the one I know from the clinic: ‘When was she found?’

She turns to her associate. For a moment, both are silent, then she says, ‘I’m not really sure. The family called us an hour ago – when they felt ready to let us take the body, I guess. Someone found her before that and called the family. We don’t know when …’

We release the latches and the heavy door of the ambulance clunks open, revealing a large white bag resting on a collapsed stretcher. Warm air flows from the interior.

The nurses step backward. Fumbling, I try to pull the stretcher a distance from the vehicle’s dark interior. The nurses step forward and help, then again retreat. I pull on the zipper and the bag falls open, exposing the head and upper body of a human.

I pause. No sound, no movement.

There is a moment of reverent peacefulness. The skin of the person whom I stand and regard is brown, the same brown that glows from the earth and the many heads of rock in the early sunshine during my early morning run. That colour has penetrated me, claiming me like a mother.

I place the back of my gloved hand against the brown skin. It is still warm. Just as shocking, the face is very small.

I straighten and ask the nurses, ‘Do you have a date of birth?’

One shows me a file. She points upper left, where I read, ‘19 November, 1991’.

I look again at the small face. There are a couple of blotches of acne. The child has buckteeth. The body is short and slender, the body of a girl who has scarcely begun the journey to womanhood.

I have no doubt, I feel no hope, but I rest my fingers lightly over her carotid artery. It is still.

I check her eyes. Dull now, pupils wide, fixed and unresponsive to the light – those are pearls that were her eyes.

I apply my stethoscope to her chest. The silence of death is drowned in a distracting chorus of inanimate rustling and chafing sounds. These are the artefacts of my examination. I hear no heartbeat. No air moves in or out of the chest.

This is the body of a fifteen-year old girl whose life is extinct.

No motion has she now, no force; 

She neither hears nor sees; 

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, 

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

I have another question for the nurses: ‘What do you know of her health before today?’

‘Six months back she was sniffing, but not since then; there’s been no sniffable petrol in the community since then … There were some family problems. She had been seen by Mental Health …’

The answer is unsatisfactory. Any possible answer would be unsatisfactory. It all boils down to one thing: we do not know.

On an afterthought I lean forward again, peering past the fine cheekbones and the slender jaw, peering at the soft tissues beyond. There, on her throat I see what had to be seen, a bracelet patterned in her flesh, a curvilinear design that is unexpectedly graceful. It is the embossing in her skin of the fatal rope.

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