‘I felt ashamed and angry: Every Australian needs to see this’

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For the past four years, Anna Buch has been going out to Sydney’s Villawood detention centre every Thursday to give support to asylum-seekers

Anna Buch spends every Thursday at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, escorting a group of visitors who bring comfort and support to more than 100 asylum-seekers. It’s emotionally exhausting. “Fridays are a write-off for me,” she says. “I just don’t want to speak to anyone on Friday. Shabbat dinners have gone by the wayside.”

Until relatively recently, Buch didn’t spare much of a thought for Australia’s demoralised and desperate asylum detainees. She was absorbed by daily life: cooking for and looking after her family, and running their household in Coogee, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

“I look back and I was naive,” reflects the 57-year-old, speaking in the sitting-room of her spacious home overlooking the ocean. “I was caught up in my own life. Sometimes you need something to wake you up.”

That something was a conversation over coffee with her friend, Bobbie Waterman, on Valentine’s Day, 2013. “Bobbie said, ‘Anna, I’m sick of talking about it [asylum-seekers]. If I organise for us to go out and visit, will you come with me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course.'”

A friend put them in touch with Virginia Walker, who ran a group called Bridge for Asylum Seekers. They accompanied her to Villawood, in the western suburbs, where they met a group of young men from Afghanistan’s persecuted Hazara minority.

That first visit is still imprinted on Buch’s mind. The security, with door after heavy locked door. The X-ray machine. The unsmiling Serco guards. But above all, the detainees.

“We just found them really nice people, very humble and polite, and they were so appreciative, they couldn’t believe we wanted to come in and visit. It really stopped me in my tracks, and made me question everything. I hated that they were locked up. I felt ashamed and angry. I thought, ‘My God, this is not right.'”

Buch and Waterman began going out every week. They met Sri Lankans, Iranians and Iraqis. Six months later, after Walker suffered a serious accident, they took over the organisational side, including the time-consuming visitor paperwork. They founded their own group, Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney (SASS). And they made a decision “to get more Australians out to Villawood, because everyone needs to see this”.

Four years on, scores of their friends and contacts have passed through. Peaking at 35 last year, the visitor group currently numbers about 20, half of those regulars. With each person permitted to see four detainees, and three separate compounds to visit, they sit down with up to half the asylum-seeker population of the Villawood detainees (mostly young men) each week.

The visitors provide more than welcome social contact. They bring food. They equip homes for those released into the community. They accompany people to court. They celebrate birthdays, and have helped to arrange weddings. They organise an annual exhibition of Villawood art. Buch, whose office walls are covered in asylum-seeker artworks, hosts periodic “freedom parties” for former detainees.

Her commitment has come at a cost. For a long time, she was totally consumed by the cause. She would stay up late working. She read voraciously on the subject, and attended talks and marches. Although her husband, Neville, a businessman, and her three children were supportive, at times their patience was tested.

“It was hard on the family. I hadn’t worked for years, so I’d been at their beck and call. All of a sudden, all I wanted to talk about was refugees. Some of my friendships struggled, too. It does take over your life a bit.” More recently, Waterman has stepped back, and Buch has delegated the paperwork to others.

In 2014, the Hazara men were moved to Christmas Island and the Yongah Hill detention centre, in remote Western Australia. “It was devastating for us,” recalls Buch. She flew to WA and spent a week visiting Yongah Hill. Over the years, their group has got to know “maybe 500” asylum-seekers, she estimates.

At Villawood, where self-harm is common, she has witnessed confronting and upsetting scenes. Some people – those deemed a security risk, for instance – have been locked up for years, while others, having exhausted the appeals process, face deportation.

Buch, who was given a Community Fellowship Award by Western Sydney University last year, often wakes up in the night, haunted by people’s stories. “Detention is absolute hell,” she says.

She ascribes her passion to, in part, Jewish history and values. With a long-standing interest in the Holocaust, “in a way, it was a natural progression from there to asylum-seekers”.

However, she has noticed the hurdles between good intentions and commitment. While she has escorted numerous Jewish visitors to Villawood, “and there was no question that they wanted to help and be supportive”, for many, she believes, the experience is complicated by their ambivalence towards Muslims and people from the Middle East.

One of Buch’s most memorable experiences since beginning this work, she says, was meeting a visiting representative from the world’s oldest refugee settlement organisation, the US-based Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Nowadays it assists all refugees.

Looking back at the past four years, she observes: “Sometimes you feel like you’re not achieving much. But many of the detainees have said, particularly after getting out, that it was the visits that kept them sane. They said it made a huge difference, to feel that someone cared about them.

“One psychologist who used to work out there told me he had no doubt that we were saving lives.”

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Kathy Marks

Kathy Marks is an award-winning Sydney-based journalist and author. She was The Independent’s Asia-Pacific Correspondent for 17 years

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