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What I Learned About Love and Writing in Refugee Detention

As Australia’s offshore detention center on Manus nears closure, 22-year-old Imran Mohammad describes his four years there, where he learned English and fell in love with writing, while confronting a future without his first love – his childhood sweetheart in Myanmar.

Written by Imran Mohammad Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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A group of asylum seekers hold up their identity cards after landing in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, Aug. 2, 2013. Eoin Blackwell/AAP Image, via AP, File

Born in Myanmar, Imran Mohammad faced persecution as a member of the Rohingya minority and took perilous boat journeys to Malaysia and Indonesia as a teenager. Facing continued dangers and an uncertain future, he eventually tried to reach Australia by boat. Australia intercepts refugee and migrant boats and prevents their passengers from ever settling in the country, instead sending them to offshore detention centers it operates on Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Mohammad has been held on PNG’s Manus Island since 2013.

After PNG’s supreme court declared the facility unconstitutional, it is now set to close by November and its inhabitants face an uncertain future despite an Obama-era deal for resettlement in the U.S. Now 22 years old, Mohammad learned English in detention and now writes for the Australian student newspaper Honi Soit. In this excerpt fromThey Cannot Take the Sky,” he tells his story to the book’s editor Michael Green, who traveled to Manus to interview Mohammad in 2016, and Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and refugee currently held in detention with Imran.

In our garden, there were many trees: fruit trees, flowering trees, trees with colorful leaves. My mother didn’t let me go out because it wasn’t safe for the Rohingyan boys, especially the ones who are young. So I would spend my evenings with my mother in our garden, and we always talked about her family.

We were born in Myanmar, and our parents and our grandparents were born in Myanmar. But in Myanmar, they don’t accept us as their own citizens.

When I was 16 I had to flee my country. I left my village during the night. I caught a boat with my friend. We spent around 20 days in Bangladesh before taking another boat to Malaysia. I was on that boat for 15 days. After four days things started to get harder and harder because we were running out of water, food. After nine days people started to die.

I wanted to come to Australia because I heard that Australia was a country in which I would receive my fundamental human rights. I was 19 when I arrived on Manus Island in 2013.

It was a horrible experience. There were many people in my compound; it was really crowded, people were very depressed and they didn’t know what they were doing or what they were saying, but I didn’t lose my mind.

I made up my mind that I needed to get something out of this place, which will help me in the future. I started thinking: How can I improve my knowledge?

So every morning I woke up at 4 a.m., because it was quiet and everyone was sleeping. I used to sit in front of my room and I started teaching myself English. I had no dictionary, no nothing. I just got some English papers and I taught myself.

After two weeks, I went to a class. There was a teacher whose name was Judith. She told me to write. “If you write something every day it will help you. It will improve your English and also it will help you to cope in this environment, because you are not keeping your anger in your heart, you are letting it out,” she said.

The first piece I wrote about my mother. And I wrote about my girlfriend. I had no notebooks, so I grabbed a request form from the guardhouse. I wrote eight lines on the back of this form. There were 24 mistakes.

I used to write 14 hours a day. It’s crazy, really – 14 hours a day. I didn’t have any privacy. There was a table in front of my room, so I was writing on one side and there were other people who were playing cards at the same time. They always interrupted my writing or reading. But you know what? The noise was really annoying, but it helped me to write more, because I was getting angry, then I was putting all my anger on the paper.

I started writing, but I had no idea what to write. There were no novels that I could read to help myself. I woke up every morning thinking: What can I write today?

I have written a lot of things. I have written 23 chapters – it’s a complete book. This place is so strange. You can explain things about this place for years and years and it will never end.

The other day you asked me, “Do I fear death or not?” I don’t fear death because I have experienced death many times in my young life. I have been tortured and I have been loved. By experiencing both things I have learned something else: I know how to count my blessings.

We have been traumatized for the past three years. We have forgotten so many things, we don’t know how to live normally. This is a place that was set up intentionally to torture vulnerable people, but I was blessed with an angel. One of them was Rebecca, my caseworker for a long time. She was not allowed to give me anything. However, she got me blank paper every day, and gave me pens and pencils. One day she gave me a dictionary. Oh, it was so amazing! I felt like I had been given the whole world, because I needed a dictionary so much. I cried for a dictionary.

When I was back home I had a girlfriend, but I didn’t know it was love. My girlfriend’s house was next to my house and she used to come over with her mother, because her mother and my mother were friends. It was like … family. I spent a lot of time with her, but we didn’t know we loved each other. Because we were too young, we were just friends. As soon as I left my country I realized: Oh … It is love. Because I was missing her all the time. She was my first love.

Since I left my country I talked to her a couple of times, and we knew that we loved each other. I didn’t talk to her after I came to the Manus prison, because it was becoming harder and harder for her, and for me too. In our culture, women can’t wait for a man for long, so I didn’t want to ruin her life. I loved her – love means let someone live their life, not keep them for yourself.

So, I told her: “Forgive me and just live your life, because my life is stuck in a political limbo and I don’t know what will happen in the future. And I’m a person who is stateless and I can’t go back to our country, so you’ll never see me again. There is no point waiting for me.”

I don’t talk to her on the phone because I don’t want to ruin her life, but I can talk to myself. And people ask me, “Hey, are you crazy? Why are you laughing by yourself?” I say, “I’m not crazy. I’m talking to myself, but I have someone in front of me who you can’t see, because she is not here.”

I try to find a peaceful place where I can be myself. I sit on the ground so that I can feel the earth. I place my hands on my chest and bend my legs and keep them close to my chest. I look up at the sky and then recall the memories.

This is an edited excerpt from “They Cannot Take the Sky,” an oral history book made up of the stories of 35 people in Australian immigration detention collected by the Behind the Wire project and collaboratively edited into first-person narratives. The Behind the Wire project also includes a podcast called The Messenger and an exhibition at the Melbourne Immigration Museum.

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