My latest feature in ABC’s The Drum.
Surviving Ramadan in Villawood
Feature: For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside Villawood Detention Centre, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.
It’s iftar time in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre.
Plastic containers bursting with hummus, tabouli, garlic sauce and kebab snake their way through security and are picked up by hungry fasting asylum seekers in the visitor’s centre.
In the open courtyard around 30 asylum seekers, mostly men, gather around tables piled with the food, exhaling plumes of smoke as they rub their hands together for warmth and wait for sundown.
As Muslims around the world sit down to huge feasts at Ramadan surrounded by loved ones, it’s a lonely and fraught affair for asylum seekers inside Villawood.
Asylum seeker Iqbal* says being away from family and friends has been tough. “It is very painful. Nothing is like home when it comes to Ramadan,” he said.
Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims who abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours, with an increased focus on devotion and prayer.
“It is a very holy month for us,” Iqbal said. “People who are not practicing other months, they become practising this month.”
For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.
“It is as important as seeing a mental health counsellor,” Iqbal said. He says many of the men who are reluctant to express themselves will openly cry during prayer.
“This is how we are still coping. That’s what’s keeping us alive, keeping us going, faith and belief in God.”
The asylum seekers are grateful for the delicious food delivered from outside, a welcome relief from the standard issue dinner.
The nightly deliveries facilitated by the Lebanese Muslim Association are funded by a rotation of private donors from the Muslim community.
Earlier in the month, food was not delivered because of limits around amounts allowed in, to be accompanied by a certain amount of visitors, Iqbal said.
“Sometimes we asked why there is no food came today. We found out later they were stopped and refused entry,” he said.
A LMA spokesperson said there were difficulties delivering food to the centre during the first few days of Ramadan.
“By now after all this time they (authorities) should know about this (Ramadan),” he said.
A recent rule change meant food was not allowed to be brought back into the private rooms of asylum seekers from the central visitors area, Iqbal said.
The rule fuelled wastage as fasting asylum seekers struggled to finish their allocation in a short period.
“(The idea being) we’ll let you bring in food but we won’t let you enjoy it,” Iqbal said.
“Little people have a little authority and they are just abusing it.”
In the centre, the men munch the food in the cold before returning to their rooms for solitary prayer.
Iqbal says a petition has been made for a room asylum seekers can gather in for congregational prayer.
“To cope in this situation we need that. When they make us pray alone in our rooms, we feel even more lonely and the toll becomes hard on us,” he said.
“They should provide a good facility because we are not criminals. We are not inmates.”
As night falls in Villawood, food containers are hastily packed as visitors say their final goodbyes and exit the mesh of wire and steel.
For those remaining, there is hope that someone, somewhere is listening, hoping, praying.
“We are the silenced ones. People don’t know about us,” Iqbal said.
A copy obtained of Villawood detention centre general manager Susan Noordink’s response to an official complaint made by fasting asylum seekers says standard conditions are being enforced.
“In regards to Ramadan food from the community, Islamic detainees have been advised that all standard conditions of entry will be in force,” Ms Noordink said.
“All community groups must abide by approved visits policy as provided by management and posted in notification in the Gatehouse and the visits area.”
The statement also said arrangements will be made to facilitate prayer areas for asylum seekers.
*Name has been changed at the request of the asylum seeker
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This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-15/malik-ramadan-in-villawood/6621034).