Translating Manus and Nauru: Refugee Writing

Translating Manus and Nauru: Refugee Writing

In 2013, when Australia began to detain refugees in off-shore prisons on Manus and Nauru islands, concerned Australians tried to help those held captive get their stories out. One, a recent immigrant from Iran called Moones Mansoubi, recalls that time and the talented writers she was able to help.

From 2014 until 2018, Iranian-Australian translator, Moones Mansoubi, worked with asylum seekers imprisoned in Australia’s “Offshore Processing Centres” on Manus and Nauru islands. The inhumane conditions of detention on Manus and Nauru were documented in official reports (Amnesty International‘s 2016, “Island of Despair,” for example) and in remarkable writings by refugees, such as No Friend But the Mountains, the first-hand account of “Manus Island Prison” by Iranian-Kurdish writer, Behrouz Boochani. Mansoubi was Boochani’s translator for his earliest publications, in Mascara Review, The GuardianThe Sydney Morning Herald, and other newspapers, and worked as a translating consultant for his prize-winning book. As she observes in this essay, “I came to Australia seven years ago, the same as Mary, Ellie, and Behrouz [and] became an Australian citizen last year, solely because…I did not have to risk my life by jumping on a boat.” The same difference held true for the many other refugee writers she worked with. Australia tried to divide people by isolating and punishing those who came by sea, on Manus and Nauru. Mansoubi tells the story of reknitting their human bonds by working together on written accounts that have reached a global audience via the collaboration of refugees and their citizen-supporters.

I am writing on the lands of the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, traditional custodians of this land and I pay my respect to Elders past, present, and emerging.

I never imagined a post on Twitter would lead me along a winding road, thousands of kilometres away from Sydney, where I live, to the “Islands of despair,”1 Manus and Nauru islands. The tweet was the beginning of my work translating letters, poems, and other writings by refugees incarcerated in Australia’s Offshore Processing Centres on Manus and Nauru. It was straightforward, posted in October 2014 by Shane Bazzi, a refugee advocate, asking if anyone could help translating Persian letters from refugees imprisoned in Australia’s “offshore processing centres.” I’d already begun supporting refugees in Sydney, in other roles and capacities, but working with people stuck in offshore detention was another story. Though I was never able to travel to the islands, by translating and assisting them with their writing I’ve felt the inhumane conditions and horrific experiences of many of the refugees. I’ve worked this way for more than six years now. For me, it has been a long and sorrowful journey.

In 2013 and 2014, as part of Australia’s attempt to stop people seeking asylum from reaching Australian shore, hundreds of men, women, and children who arrived by sea were transferred to Manus and Nauru islands and imprisoned in utterly inhumane conditions. The deliberate effect of this remote imprisonment was to scratch the human face from the discourse, and dehumanize and criminalize people seeking asylum coming by boat. The policy and the system of offshore detention were designed to strip people of their identities, threaten their existence, and cultivate a sense of powerlessness in them. For one thing, these people no longer had names, only ID numbers assigned by the “processing centre.” Australia’s deliberate goal was to break these people so they would choose repatriation despite the horrors they had fled. For many, there was no safe place to return to. They were at risk of persecution, violence, rape, torture, and other injuries, stuck between two Hells. The situation created by Australia’s “Stop the Boats” policy was an absolute calamity and a human tragedy.

a group of people kneel with their hands in the air in front of a barbed wire fence. Their blank faces are scratched out with red.

I first moved from Iran to Australia as a student in 2013. I studied for a Master’s degree at the University of New South Wales and chose International Relations as my focus, since this field plays a pivotal role in our everyday lives as Iranians. Sanctions, war, tension, geopolitical confrontations, threats, international diplomacy, and ideological warfare have been central components of living. We grew up with these concepts, and our lives would change overnight because of these realities. To be born Iranian, no matter if you live there or go abroad, is to encounter these concepts every second of your life. Many others around the world are in the same situation, facing conditions that force them to flee, to become stateless, to seek asylum, and many end up becoming refugees.

Before my migration, I had imagined Australia as a peaceful country where I would not encounter warmongering or human rights violations. Australia would be my utopia, where people and their government respect human rights and care about humane values. Not long after emigrating, I became aware of a major political debate in Australia: the fates of refugees and asylum seekers. In disbelief, I watched a humanitarian concern turn into a political question, used for the sake of political gain. I vividly recalled the human rights violations back home, and once again I was perplexed by brutality and cruelty.

I discovered that in Australia, as elsewhere, politicians try to create imaginary “enemies.” They spread propaganda and fear of others so they can benefit by gaining power. As David Marr, Australian journalist, put it in one of his essays: “The fundamental contest in Australian politics…is about a willingness of Australian leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears… panic is a rallying cry for power.” It’s the same approach that Theodore Adorno described, in his analysis of totalitarianism, as the use of “in group-out group differentiation.” In this context, refugees and asylum seekers are categorized as an “out group,” others, a threat to Australia’s sovereignty. “They” are criminals, queue jumpers, thieves of taxpayers’ money, or so say the politicians. In 2013 the new approach to asylum seekers, “Operation Sovereign Borders,” was passed into law, creating the offshore prisons of Manus and Nauru islands. Mesmerized by politicians, and feeling their own fears of the unknown and of the refugees, the majority of Australians supported the new policy.

A politician stands behind a podium pointing. Speech bubbles read "It's us against THEM! And them! And them! And them!

The policy was offshore detention of people neither charged nor convicted of any crimes….During the long and gloomy nights on Manus and Nauru islands, an eerie silence was the only sound; or, more clearly, the groans of a slow but deliberate strangulation could be heard. Men, women, and children were imprisoned and deprived of basic rights including the right to speak with the outside world, the right to be heard, the right to be seen, even the right, simply, to have a mobile phone.

It’s easy to see how writing could become a means for these refugees to reclaim their identity, escape invisibility, fight injustice, and end their isolation. Many of them smuggled mobile phones into the centres, and eventually the rules changed to allow that. The phones became narrow windows through which they could shout, share, and bring about transformative change. The fact that their words—in Persian or Arabic, any language other than English—meant nothing to most Australians, opened the space in which translation (my skill) could give legibility to these otherwise invisible people. By collaborating and translating I was able to stand side-by-side with them in an asymmetrical war.

Australia, the country I had chosen as my new, bright and sunny home, took me into one of the darkest and most twisted passages in its history. I used translation as an act of speaking up, speaking out, and speaking back against this humanitarian catastrophe. As Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educational theorist, wrote: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” I first encountered Paulo Freire’s work in Iran, when I was doing my bachelors degree in English Teaching (TESOL). His concept of a “culture of silence,” and the ways that it passively impacts the self-image of oppressed individuals, gave me new insight. In addition, his anti-colonial theory explicating how politics can surround and control education, our voices and our thoughts, rang true to me. I related Freire’s concepts to the refugee experience by asking how it is that politics can silence the voices of the oppressed, tarnish their self-image, and control public opinion about refugees. With my translation skills, I’ve tried to correct the distorted image of refugees held by many Australians and to help them recognize that the refugees have power that has been stolen.

In 2013 and 2014 I joined a trusted network of refugee advocates, writers, and translators who shared common concerns and values. We encouraged refugees held on Manus and Nauru to write for a number of reasons. First, writing can be a healing process. At the very least, writing can alleviate suffering inside an inhumane system. As Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Mary was one of the refugees that I’d been in touch with frequently. She had a creative and sensitive personality, and the harsh situation on Nauru was unbearable for her. She lived with her three-year old daughter, Sara. As a mother, Mary kept blaming herself for putting Sara in this dreadful environment. She had no other choice. She’d left everything behind to escape from domestic violence. If she hadn’t left, they would have been killed.

Among the most traumatic and devastating experiences for Mary, at Nauru, was mealtime. Three times a day, they had to go to the canteen at a specific time. Sometimes Sara, her three-year old, was sleeping or refused to eat when the time came, like many children. Mary wanted to take some food back to her, but the system, the officers, refused. She wasn’t permitted to take even a small piece of bread out of the canteen to feed Sara when she was hungry. The goal was clear: they should suffer. In addition to all of the psychological torture, abuse, and deliberate cruelty that she and others had to endure, the sensation of guilt as a mother hurt Mary the most. Meal-time was a heartfelt pain for Mary. She was begging Sara to eat, and begging officers to let her take food to Sara. If Sara didn’t agree, both mother and daughter would be in flood of tears the whole day: Sara out of hunger, Mary out of hatred—hatred of herself; hatred of the detention system; hatred of the destiny that had forced them to flee; hatred of being powerless, unable to fulfil her motherly duties, her only reason to live. Mary didn’t speak about it on Nauru; this problem, and worse, were so common. She never revealed her situation to her family back home. I encouraged her to write, and eventually she found solace there. Writing was a respite. She also expressed her feelings in her paintings. Here was a way to have agency in that inhumane situation, by depicting her emotions and her horrendous suffering in writing and in art.

A woman holding a child looks at the viewer. A speech bubble reads "Listen" and inside her open mouth is a map of the island of Nauru.

Second, in close collaboration with refugees themselves, we worked to amplify their voices—the voices of those who were marginalized and excluded from public discourse. The “Operation Sovereign Borders” policy tried to put them out of sight and out of mind. But the combined efforts of many different people, most of them volunteers, led to articles being published in the global media, including in The Guardian, and reports by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, which issued their report, called “Island of Despair.”

Mary was just one of dozens of refugee writers. Another, Ellie, was a young woman with an independent personality who could not stay passive. I helped by translating her texts about the inhumane situation on Nauru, and these became primary source material for media reporters. Writing is a kind of “self-representation activism” for people whose suffering has been made invisible, a form of resistance against forgetfulness, against the demand to remain quiet.

Another Manus refugee that I worked with was Behrouz Boochani. He reclaimed his identity as a journalist and a writer through the texts that he sent us via WhatsApp, which led to his receiving the most prestigious literary award in Australia, the Victorian Prize for his book, No Friend But the Mountains. Behrouz is among the leading figures in self-representation activism, fighting against invisibility and the false images propagated by the government and mainstream media. For five years, I worked closely with Behrouz, as the first person to translate his pieces for The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper and other media channels, as well as his daily Facebook and Twitter posts documenting the horrifying incidents on Manus, such as self-harm, violence, murder, medical neglect, and the aggressive tactics by guards in response to peaceful protests.

My main contact in this network was Janet Galbraith, who founded and coordinates a group called Writing Through Fences.2 Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers developed their writing with help from Writing Through Fences. Janet was receiving poems and other writing from refugees, and helped find translators to bring them into English and edit their work. As Janet explained it, “Most of the [writers] are, or have been, incarcerated in Australia’s immigration detention regime.  A small group of non-refugee artists and writers resident in the stolen lands now called Australia, are involved in collaborative amplification and resourcing roles.” Many of the collaborators are volunteers, as is Janet herself.

Back when I started, Janet used to travel to Sydney more frequently, and we spent long hours in beautiful cafes working on poems and other writing from people incarcerated in offshore detention. It was an exquisite agony, full of paradoxical feelings—the fact that I was sitting in front of spectacular Darling Harbour, reading and translating the emotions, despair, and suffering of people in detention. I felt unbearably tormented, facing unanswerable questions: “does this all work?” or “am I just trapped into a spiral of futility?” Janet was my first point of contact for most of the refugees I worked with. We both received text messages any time of the day and any day of a week, whenever they wrote and were able to send it through. On many occasions, she would email me and I’d translate the writing on-the-spot without even asking what are you going to do with this or who’s written this? Promising these distressed people that their writing would be translated and heard helped give them a temporary respite. Janet’s selfless support created a reading-and-writing cycle that kept people motivated to write and read. We sometimes sent books to people on Manus and Nauru or “topped up” people’s mobile phone accounts to enable them to keep reading, writing, and engaging.

While sitting in a café, once in 2015, Janet and I were working on a piece of writing from Behrouz Boochani, without having any idea where it might be published. Later, with Janet’s support, it appeared in Mascara Literary Magazine,3 which led to the acceptance of his book by a publisher in Australia, in 2017. This was a huge achievement and we celebrated with tears and smiles. If I am not mistaken, that was Behrouz’s first piece published under his real name. Mine too. I was still on a temporary visa back then, and Behrouz was in detention. The fear of being punished plagued us both and was a normal part of our lives. Janet and our other friends were very concerned, but our deep commitment helped us remain brave and determined on the path we’d chosen. Night came, the café was surrounded by darkness, our coffee got cold, and we still had a lot to work on, to speak about, and to be worried by.

A half man, half fox stands near a fence. The word "Behrouz" is at the top of the image.

On Manus and Nauru those first few years, prison guards would sometimes invade people’s rooms, ripping up papers, confiscating their belongings, including their mobile phones, and vandalizing whatever was there. Imagine the distress, fear, and pressure on these people in detention, and the toll on those outside who were in contact with them. I’ll never forget those traumatic moments, when I was receiving pieces of writing from Behrouz and all of a sudden the connection was cut for hours on end; I couldn’t be sure if it was an Internet issue or some other invasion. One time, the search lasted almost five hours. Early in the morning, in June 2015, a group of officers raided one of the compounds on Manus. Refugees’ rooms were turned inside-out, their personal goods and bedding were thrown to the ground. The search wasn’t limited to rooms; guards demanded personal searches. One forced a strip search, asking a refugee to remove his underwear in front of everyone else. The impact of the incident was long-lasting and devastating; it took days, weeks, even months, for those who had been violated to recover from this invasion. Behrouz managed to hide his phone in his mattress, but during that search 13 other mobile phones were confiscated.

At that time, in 2015, the Australian government announced that anyone disclosing the conditions of offshore detention could be sentenced to up to two years in jail. Working closely with Behrouz, every day and every night, was an urgent response to a horrendous policy that aimed to suffocate refugee voices and keep the Australian public unaware of the cruelty of offshore detention, imposed in their name. Behrouz was writing his book then, No Friend But the Mountains, using WhatsApp, and sending the messages immediately. I’d read them as they came and was amazed by the power of his pen. His words allowed me to clearly imagine the situation, engaging all of my senses. I could hear birdsong, smell the stink from the filthy toilets, and be choked with rage, filled by sorrow, then burst into tears in silence. While he was writing his book, he was sometimes only able to write two sentences, while at other times he’d write a full page. I would save all his messages on my laptop and whenever a chapter concluded, I exported them to a PDF. This gave him the assurance that his writings were in a safe place and they wouldn’t be lost. I also kept encouraging him by giving positive feedback. It was clear that one day his book would become an influential and important piece of literature, and that has turned out to be true.

When Omid Tofighian started translating the book in 2017, I sent all the PDFs to him. In that process, Sajad Kabgani and I worked as Omid’s translation consultants. We met up in cafés, going through the Persian original and the English text that Omid had translated. The book led the three of us to engage in far-reaching conversations about politics, the system, refugees and migration, injustice, racism, and borders. Every time, during the gloomy winter evenings, I would leave the café with a lump in my throat, and many unanswered questions: What is the use of International laws, treaties, and conventions? Who makes governments accountable for their human rights violations? Who is responsible for the lifelong damage the government caused for these men, women, and children? Why should people suffer? When will it all end?

Omid worked hard to accurately render Behrouz’s descriptions of the situation in English, and I think he was completely successful. Every word of the book was carefully chosen by both Behrouz and Omid, and there are many hidden messages that a clever reader can uncover. Not only has the book become a seedbed for researchers in many universities around the world, it is now taught in some Australian high schools and will certainly change the viewpoint of the next generation about refugees and people seeking asylum.

These writings make a difference. They’re not only acts of resilience or ways to reclaim the identity of incarcerated people, but also, by making them broadly legible, the conditions in offshore detention have seen some improvement and the government has become somewhat more accountable for its actions. While the policies and lifelong damage remain—and many women, men, and children still live under the policy’s dictates in Australia, Papua New Guinea (where Manus is located), and Nauru—the process of writing and the actions of making it public have birthed a political agency, a kind of polity that was built by hearing and reading those who stand against systematic oppression and human rights violations, no matter if they are detained or not. Together, we have a collective purpose and shared concerns.

Working with people in offshore detention and attending to their suffering has taken a heavy toll on me. It filled me with mixed emotions: rage, desolation, powerlessness, sadness, and many more. My close friend in Sydney, Alicia Rodriguez, has always been there to lend a sympathetic ear, and I could never have carried all that pain without her. Reza and Abtin Montazeri, my partner and my son, have also been my patient companions along this path. These three shining stars, who always put humanity first, never left me feeling alone in this dark and twisted passage. Their kindness, compassion, friendship and understanding have paved the way for me. Anyone undertaking this kind of collective work needs such support.

…they wear many hidden scars as a result of the pain and suffering offshore detention inflicted on them, but creativity and art blossom in them every day.

Nowadays, I mostly work with people from refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds, and local community at the Community Refugee Welcome Centre4 in Sydney Inner West. The Centre was initiated in 2017 by the Inner West Council and its partners to welcome refugees. It’s a great model for how local government can step in to act differently from the federal government and welcome those who might otherwise be intentionally excluded or marginalized. I’ve served as the coordinator of the Centre since its inception. Many refugees and people seeking asylum from across Sydney come to the Welcome Centre to share, to engage, to create, to socialize, to exchange, and to build new lives. It’s significant that an abandoned old building along a busy bayside walk, can be transformed into an inclusive space full of life and innovation by our incredible participants. The focus here is on wellbeing and community arts, and cultural development. I try to change the power relations by encouraging asylum seekers and refugees to co-design and co-lead our projects, rather than enlisting well-established community members to design offerings for the newcomers. People who are mostly marginalized in the society, in fact, successfully run our workshops for the locals. They design public events, run the projects, and share their wisdom and culture with everyone. By asking them to actively participate—to lead—the Welcome Centre facilitates their journey towards rebuilding their lives, restoring their confidence and self-esteem, developing skills and knowledge, overcoming their isolation, and reviving their belief in themselves. Some of them had been detained on Nauru; they wear many hidden scars as a result of the pain and suffering offshore detention inflicted on them, but creativity and art blossom in them every day. Among the various activities at the Centre, my colleagues and I work with a group of people on a community-based storytelling project called: “On being.” In this project we “evolved an approach that delivers a different kind of literary project that is empathetically against othering, a practice that is dominant in how stories by and about refugees are [usually] formulated, understood and received, guaranteeing a readership, and satisfying a market hungry for tales of misery, suffering and redemption.”5

Ordinary Powerful Hands (2020) by Azarmidokht.s

I came to Australia seven years ago, the same as Mary, Ellie, and Behrouz.  I became an Australian citizen last year, solely because my life was not in danger back home and I did not have to risk my life by jumping on a boat. Mary was transferred to Australia, with Sara, 2 years ago, after which she fell into a severe depression. With the high risk of self harm, doctors requested her evacuation from Nauru Island and brought her to Australia to receive medical care. She’s in community detention at the moment, still living in limbo with no right to study or to work. Sara goes to school in Sydney, and Mary voluntarily runs art workshops at the Welcome Centre, sharing her tremendous talents and remarkable skills with the wider community. Ellie permanently resettled in the US, with a job as a community worker, amplifying the voices of those who are marginalized. Behrouz is waiting for his asylum claim in New Zealand, continuing his profession as an author, criticizing the authoritarian regime and its oppressive behavior.

Thirteen people lost their lives under the offshore policy, so far.6 There are still hundreds of people stuck in this system, and, as of June 2020, there are 26 million refugees and 79.5 million forcibly-displaced people worldwide. There’s still so much to do. Writing and reading is one way to restore the human face of the refugee condition, to document this history, to bring about transformative change, and to help reclaim an identity for those who had no choice but to exercise their legal right to seek asylum. The leaders of this movement are no one—only the people seeking asylum and the refugees themselves. The path we’re on is long and twisted, and every small step we take brings us one step closer to a brighter future.

1 “Island of despair” is the name of Amnesty International’s report on Nauru.




5  From a paper by Dr Paula Abood and Moones Mansoubi, presented in UNSW conference: “New Australian Modernities: Antigone Kefala and Australian Migrant Aesthetics”, ASAL 2019.


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