February 2017: the second year of my incarceration in Pontianak prison camp, Indonesia. The camp was run by Indonesian Immigration and funded by the Australian government through IOM (International Organization for Migration). Over two-hundred-and-fifty refugees from sixteen-year-old boys to sixty-five-year-old men were packed in boxy cells alongside me.
Every minute passed like an hour; every hour became a year. I could feel our dreams becoming old as new lines appeared on our faces. Even our hair colour changed, fading like autumn leaves.
Most mornings I’d stand at the window, looking through the bars at the high grey walls topped with razor wire. I’d try to picture myself sitting in a lush green park, but when I opened my eyes of course I was still behind the window, the walls looking even more forbidding and the outside world more unreachable. There was just me, my scattered thoughts and the camp crammed with weary people.
I hated spending my days standing there, hoping for good news, trying to imagine freedom through the bars. Gradually I became aware of a powerful inner feeling challenging me to do more than just think and dream about a better future.
I developed a passion for writing. I began by painting my own suffering in words. As I continued practicing writing as therapy, I realized it was an effective way to connect with the wider world. I shared my writing on social media. I described the hardships and injustice that we refugees faced due to the barbaric incompetence of those responsible for running the detention system.
Lindy Banks was the very first few people who started reading my writing that I shared on Facebook. Every time I would share a post about the dire living conditions of refugees detained in Indonesian prison camps, she constantly encouraged me to continue writing and raising awareness. Her words would fill my turbulent head with hope and warmed my heart with a gentle feeling that I could share my problems, without any fear. I used this chance instantly and befriended her on Facebook. She accepted my friend request, and I told her my story. We became friends. Relentless, extreme stress claimed the refugees’ minds throughout those bleak prison nights. Lindy was there. She wouldn’t go to bed until she was certain nothing was making me too stressed to sleep. I don’t remember a single night when I messaged her and she didn’t respond straight away.
Lindy Banks was born and raised in Australia. She is a retired social worker. Several months later—after we first connected on social media – I learned that she spent years of her life fighting against the barbaric former Australian government policies that detained the refugees in concentration camps on Manus and Nauru Islands. She helps refugees with fundraising, providing social and emotional support, and finding sponsors for them in countries like Canada. As a human rights activist and refugee advocate, she is not indifferent about the suffering and struggle of marginalized communities like refugees who struggle for survival each day.
Due to cultural differences, the toughest part of talking to her was calling her by her given name. I learned it was not considered disrespectful to call her Lindy. This surprising information made me remember a particular day during harvest season in my homeland.
I saw my mother sitting on the shed roof, hugging herself, immersed in deep thought. She hadn’t noticed her green headscarf had slipped onto her shoulder. I’d just returned home from tending the sheep and goats, expecting her to prepare black tea for me. Nearing the shed, I was shocked to see her eyes were spilling so many tears she couldn’t speak. I had never seen her so sad. I stood and watched her crying, secretly annoyed that she couldn’t make my tea. I hadn’t taken even a few seconds to pause and wonder why she was so sad.
Later Gull-Chaman told me that she missed being called by her name. She’d been remembering the last time her father called her Gull-Chaman before he died, and reflecting that once she became a mother all the village women called her by the name of her oldest child.
It was her humble dream to be addressed by her own name. She had no birth certificate. In Afghanistan it is considered shockingly impolite and disrespectful to call parents by their given names. Equally, it would be shameful if my classmates knew my mother’s name. My mother felt these oppressive cultural strictures stole both her name and her very identity. When I was first enrolled in school the headmaster asked for my father’s and grandfathers’ names. Nobody asked for my mother’s name.
In 2014 I had to flee my homeland. When I went to UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) in Jakarta to register as an asylum seeker, the officer asked for my mother’s name. I stared at him. I had never heard anyone ask for my mother’s name. He was serious. I said I didn’t know my mother’s real name. His expression changed, and I could tell he was annoyed. So I took a chance, and gave him a random name. He wrote it down.
Five years later, Mum Lindy came to Indonesia to visit me and her other refugee friends. We booked her into the KTM resort in Batam, overlooking the Singapore skyline.
During her visit I’d cook food in the shelter then deliver it to her. Mum Lindy prefers to eat at home and save money to help people who go to bed hungry. But one night she said, “Tonight we’re going to the resort restaurant. I want you to have a different experience.” I’d never been to a fancy restaurant before.
We sat on comfy chairs by the pool. A waiter brought a lamp for our table. I could see ferries heading towards Singapore, and small boats with men wearing head-torches, catching fish. The moon was bright. Gentle background music played. Mum Lindy looked happy to see me enjoying this experience. She would smile everytime I would close my eyes, breathe in the fresh air and breathe out the heavy pain that was trapped on the inside for years. The happy expression on her face was proof of her humanity and care about me.
After dinner we lingered in our chairs till late. Mum Lindy said, “You’re not my son by blood, but you are like a real son to me. You’ve gone through shocking experiences. If your mother were in a position to help a stranger fleeing war and fighting a battle between survival and death every day of his life, she would certainly do the same as I do for you.”
Back at the shelter, I called my uncle to ask for my mother’s real name – Gull-Chaman. She lived an invisible life, robbed of her individual identity. I wish I’d called her Gull-Chaman at least once.
I am forever grateful to Mum Lindy. She’s brought joy and meaning to my life and given me loving motherly care when I desperately needed it. She constantly encourages me to write about the culture that brutally denies women their identity.
Erfan Dana is a Hazara writer from Afghanistan. He is an activist, volunteer and interpreter for refugees in Indonesia. He has lived in constant uncertainty in Indonesia after being compelled to flee Afghanistan since 2015.