Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Crying chairs' cold comfort for refugees


'Crying chair' by Chris Johnston. Huddled sad and cold in the They say a week is a long time in politics, but in a day the political landscape regarding desperate refugees known as boat people encountered a politically induced ship wreck.

Only the day before Kevin Rudd's version of Howard's 'we will decide' speech, the prospects for refugees released on bridging visas had seemed bad. Now they have become even worse.

A few days before the announcement of the PNG solution I had watched my 'crying chairs' disappear into the truck. It had been time to leave my counselling office, so I surrendered my sturdy armchairs for a greater good. Many people over the years had nestled in one of those voluminous, enfolding armchairs and wept, whispered, or shouted their rage, sorrow and despair. I had sat opposite in an identical chair, feeling a range of similar emotions including empathy, hope and helplessness.

My emptying office, a former one-bedroom apartment, now began to resemble a desolate house; quite like the bare houses set aside for refugees, offered under the former Gillard Government's 'no advantage' rules to those of whom it wished to make an example for not waiting in the invisible asylum queue. This has now been superseded by the even more disadvantaging policy announced by Rudd. The rules have changed for those fleeing war, death and persecution. Now no people arriving in Australia by boat without a visa will ever be settled in Australia.

It had seemed no major sacrifice to offer my discarded material items to destitute refugees. Similar objects can be seen on their way to provide landfill across Australia. Many lie on nature strips, rotting in the rain, awaiting collection as unburnable rubbish. Our citizens are drowning in stuff, frequently disposing of it as garbage, because mere things are so easily replaced. Except when you are a refugee released on a bridging visa, who has nothing.

Prompted by my distaste for society's throwaway mindset, and by my awareness of refugees needs, I googled and found a number to call. It turned out to be the number of Mary, of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Progect. Yes, I was told, they would gratefully receive my office furniture and some appliances provided they were not broken. 'We can't really fix things and we don't have much storage space,' Mary added. I asked if blankets were needed, as I have some spare at home. 'Yes we really need bedding, it's very cold.'

At 9am on Sunday morning the torrential rain had changed to a misty drizzle when the man and woman with the truck arrived. Georgina and Hakim were volunteers and they refused my offer to contribute to the cost of the truck that they had hired at their own expense. Both were cheerful as we chatted about the politics of treating refugees badly. 'Oh I think Rudd understands the plight of the refugees,'Hakim had said. 'It's just politics for the election but Rudd understands their situation.' At the time I had agreed. Oh what a difference a day can make.

Georgina enthused that my red armchairs with printed cushions would go well with a red couch that had already been donated. We wondered what the children of another family would play with. 'I got them a soccer ball,' said Hakim. We decided not to send the portable grill. 'It looks complicated and they are worried about using too much electricity,' Georgina said. But the 'microwave would be brilliant for the father and son'. Iranian men rarely cook, Hakim confided. I imagine a dark eyed man making a cup of tea with water boiled in my donated electric kettle.

It was then that I recalled sitting in one of the many tiny huts that housed the detainees at the Woomera Detention Centre, drinking tea with an Iranian man and his sad wife. 'We long for freedom,' they told me. I remembered my feeling of helplessness as a psychologist at the centre who had little more than the power to soothe or listen. At least now I could send blankets and furniture.

My father was a dark eyed man who fled the looming Nazi holocaust in Europe, arriving in Australia with nothing. Along with his brother, he was turned out into the cold after one night spent in the home of an uncharitable uncle. 'We went to Mildura to pick fruit,' he recalled. 'We had somewhere to sleep then.' Did you have blankets? I had asked him. He laughed at me, as adults do at the innocence of a child's questions. 'The ants were our blankets.' Some words and feelings remain for a lifetime.

Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Follow her on Twitter @Lynestel 

'Crying chair' illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, asylum seekers, refugees



submit a comment

Existing comments

And Mark Dreyfus is the child of an unaccompanied young refugee who got sent to Melbourne by his dreadful parents who wanted to save his life. Today Mark's grand parents would be vilified for their dangerous, selfish behaviour.

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

Abbot andCo beat Rudd about the head with "Stop the boats".60 Mil damage at Nauru,and Refugees in Indonesia stating we have no money...then..we may take the boats when the rough seas abide...no money????.

john m costigan | 24 July 2013  

Having worked with Lyn as a volunteer in the 90's, I do hope this article gets correctly attributed! showing as it does her care and concern within and beyond any professional boundaries.

Julia | 24 July 2013  

Many thanks for this (and other) articles Lyn.

Pam | 26 July 2013  

Good on you Lyn for caring about asylum seekers. Do you care about your fellow country people like myself - in my 4th year of homelessness? actually sleeping rough. I would like to hear your opinion on our plight. Thankyou. You will have to excuse me for not feeling supportive of asylum seekers who are at least given housing. I have lost hope of ever receiving the same. Thanks for listening. I guess I won't be hearing from you.

Susie | 20 April 2014  

Similar Articles

PNG solution at odds with international law

  • Justin Glyn
  • 23 July 2013

The PNG solution includes permanent exclusion from Australia in a small, poor and violent country already unable to accommodate the refugees from West Papua whom it hosts. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus claims it complies with international law. A quick glance at the much put-upon Refugee Convention suggests this is may be a rather optimistic assessment.


How Labor lost its moral edge

  • Tony Kevin
  • 21 July 2013

We will now tell damaged, fearful people who try to come here: Go to PNG. Wait in fever-ridden tent camps for years to be processed. We have used our economic power over a small impoverished and fairly unstable country to say to its political class: we will bribe your country to accept as future citizens groups of people who have no affinity with or respect for you, and for whom you have no affinity or respect.