caged and coming of age

Stuck in a remote Australian detention centre, a young Somali dreamer wrote herself out of despair with poetry and her own newspaper.

Episode 7 / Hani’s story

Words by Lauren Martin · Photography and video by Amir Kamrani

IN THE LAND OF POETS AND PIRATES, she was a little girl with a pirate’s sass but a poet’s heart, dreaming of epic stories. ‘Just, like, full of story… full of dangerous stories.’ Using a plastic bottle as her mic, she’d stare down the barrel of an imaginary camera and say with all seriousness, ‘Hani Abdile, CNN Baghdad.’ And then she’d burst out laughing.

‘I have no idea why I wanted to go to Baghdad. Looking now, I'm like, “I'm not going near you.”’ She bursts out laughing. Baghdad might be worse even than Somalia. 

Somalia is beautiful, as she remembers it, thinking back to walking her father’s goats and cows to the water and back to their pens. ‘It’s a very good country to live,’ she says, ‘if there was a peace of mind there.’ But the country has been in a civil war for 30 years, longer than she’s been alive. She wanted to stay, she did love her family, but she really wanted an education, and the militant groups were having none of that. Their plan for her future was for her to look after the house, look after the children….

And look after the men? ‘I refused at that point.’  Somali children were suffering rape and forced marriages, among other abuses.  

So at that point, Hani Abdile set out on her own epic journey, across the seas, sometimes literally stowed away, never sure who the pirates were. Inadvertently – she thought she was going to Austria, in Europe – she landed in Australia’s immigration detention system. There, she says she felt like one of her dad’s cows, herded and held in a country where, more than seven years later, she still is not quite free to seize her future. 

‘When I was back home, I was like, “This is getting crazy,”’ Hani says, knowing she had to escape the people who would kill a girl even for going to school. ‘And then I end up in Christmas Island,’ which was its own craziness, she says. ‘Between those moments there was always, you know, a happy day and a bad day. I do believe it is part of life to acknowledge each moment… it's okay to be in limbo, because it won't last forever. It might last for a bit, but, you know, there's always hope on the horizon.

‘I did it. After a long journey, I made it. And I'm still going – the journey is not yet finished. 

‘I don’t know when, but, somehow, I am going to settle. Sometime.’

Act 1

‘Well, then, why should I listen to my heart?’
‘Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet.’
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Hani Abdile’s friends were not around anymore. ‘You just live like a normal child, you know. We just grow up with… war going on. And you just have to survive and do your thing, until they come for you. And then you have to go away.’

Her friends were disappearing into forced marriages – ‘and people were coming for me,’ she says. She wanted to go to school, but girls would be killed for that in Somalia. So, at 16, at the age kids in Australia and the US first learn to drive, Hani had to leave her home and family. ‘There's still people [whom I love] living there ­– but I wouldn't be able to deal with a lot of the injustices, with my big mouth,’’ she says, well aware of the horrific abuses meted out to those who did not fall into line with the militia’s extreme ideology.

‘It was like milking a cow on the sand,’ she says. ‘You’ve heard that expression? You will never get an outcome, it just sinks into the sand.

‘It was so hard for [my parents] to let me go. But they kind of didn't have an option other than to just say, “Spread your wings and fly.”’

Her first escape is to Kenya, where her sister lives. She’s hanging out, helping out. ‘She told me to get something for her from the shops. And over there, northeastern Kenya, it's so hot. It's like western Darwin. It's so hot that your brain melts inside you.

‘And I was walking, and I found this book on the ground. I didn't know what it was about, but the one thing that drove – like, drove me – to the book was, it has a camel picture. And I say, yeah, we have camels. This book has a camel. I'm just going to take it.’

Without much schooling, she can speak some English but can’t read it. She asks her better-educated nephew to tell her about the book. He tells her it is called The Alchemist, and he starts to read it. ‘[My nephew] was really good at explaining things, like, he explained to me that it was about destinies. 

‘Even though I couldn't understand fully… there was something in this book that I could be a part of, which was fighting [for my destiny]. My treasure was the education that I was looking for.’

Act 2

‘Don't give in to your fears. If you do, you won't be able to talk to your heart.
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

When Hani leaves Africa, she takes the book. She takes it on the plane. She keeps it in the dark room in Malaysia where she gets parked for five or six days, and she grabs it when someone arrives suddenly, saying she has to leave.

‘I was like, “Where are we going?” And he was like, “We’re going to Australia.” And I was like, “Where's Australia?” He's like, “That way.”’

When you’re desperate to get something, you’ll believe in anyone, she says. So she goes ‘that way’ with the smuggler. 

She takes the book onto the boat that will get her nearer ‘that way’, into Indonesia. It’s a small fishing boat. She has to lie down on the hull, side by side, head to toe with the others, as men lay a false wooden floor on top of them. The effect is that of constructing a coffin. ‘I know that one day I'm gonna be inside a coffin,’ she nods. ‘But like, right now, this is the worst one. I have a small nose. I can't live without breathing. And sometimes… I struggled breathing. And it was like, for three hours.’

She holds onto the book when the fake floor comes up for them all to climb out onto a beach. And when the police show up, and when the ‘fisherman’ whispers, ‘Those cops can’t run, but you can, so – go!’ 

‘I feel like he just assumed we could run because we were all Africans. And I was like… Man, if I meet you again, I'm gonna teach you more about Africa. Mate, Kenyans can run. But Somalis, we can do nothing.’ She bursts out laughing.

She keeps the book as the group is squeezed into a public toilet block to wait in the stink. When she finally gets to the big boat, where she has to shed most of her few possessions to make room, she wraps the book in three plastic bags, and hangs it on her waist. 

It stays there through the nights, when she wakes up with water sloshing in her ears. And through the days, when someone next to her is vomiting and someone else, heavily pregnant, is begging to give birth as the vessel tosses. Day after day.

The book is still hanging there when, about 10 o’clock on the seventh or eighth night, the boat breaks apart, ‘like a glass like thrown from a high mountain’. When she’s clinging to a piece of wooden hull, because she can’t swim.

‘I have this special relationship with the ocean now,’ she says. ‘Because at that moment, you know, he could swallow me up… but he decided to give me another chance.’

When the Australian Navy arrives, Hani recalls its ship’s floodlights shining so bright ‘you could pick up a needle at the bottom of the sea’.

A seaman finally pulls her out of the water, but baulks at the bag on her hip. Red flag. ‘He was like, “I'm not opening that. You have to do the opening, because, like, I've no idea what is in there.”’ She is shaking her head, still. ‘I say, “Man, it’s a book.” And he's like, “You do it.” And they just, like, surrounded me, and they put some gloves on, and they were waiting for, like, I don't know…’

She opens the bag and pulls out The Alchemist. ‘I'm like, “Yeah, told you that. And trust me. God.”

‘And then at the end, he says, “Can you read it?” 

‘“No, but I'm going to learn the English, and I'm going to read it.”’

She marks the moment of that rescue as ‘when my new life began’.

Her copy of the book is now ‘devastated’, she says. It no longer has its cover, with the camel picture. ‘I’ve read it like 10 to 20 times… The main character, Santiago, is looking for a treasure, hidden treasure.’

Act 3

‘It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.’
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Christmas Island, Hani wants you to know, is quite beautiful. Few Australians have been there, but they know its exotic name as the distant territory where people seeking asylum are detained, out of sight and out of mind. Few of the mainlanders know about the crabs that migrate from Christmas Island’s forests to the coast each year. ‘The crabs go back to the sea, and the refugees come out of the sea,’ Hani says. She bursts out laughing. ‘You can get fined, like $500, if you kill a crab on Christmas Island roads.’

It was, as she calls it, her first home in Australia. ‘But it’s kind of inhumane.’

The UN Human Rights Committee broadly agreed. In 2013, it found that, in some cases, Australia’s indefinite detention regime constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and failed to treat people who were detained with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity.

Mandatory immigration detention and the legacy caseload
On average, detainees spend around 550 days in immigration detention (source)

The asylum seekers who form part of the legacy caseload all arrived in Australia without a visa. This means that they have all spent time in Australia’s mandatory immigration detention system.

Australia’s Migration Act says that all non-citizens who arrive in the country without a visa must be detained. A person must remain in detention until they are either granted a visa or they leave Australia. A detainee may choose to leave Australia at any time, or be removed by force when their options to apply for a visa options have been exhausted.

On average, detainees spend around 550 days in immigration detention, although for asylum seekers who arrived by boat this may be far longer.

For more information, see the Kaldor Centre’s factsheet on Immigration Detention in Australia.

In their 2014 book Refugees: Why seeking asylum is legal and Australia’s policies are not, Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong wrote that ‘Australia was the first country in the world to enshrine mandatory detention and is one of very few democratic countries to pursue it.’ The updated edition, Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs: A frank, up-to-date guide by experts, acknowledged that by 2019 the policy was no longer so unique, though Australia’s version was still arguably the most restrictive in the world. People were held on average for more than a year at the time (a duration that grows). And it was expensive, contracted out to the multinational company Serco on a contract valued at $3 billion over five years to December 2014.

Hani suggests Serco stands for “Serving rice and chicken only”. ‘The Serco workers take you for activities; basketball gets you two points, English class gets you two points. You can use the points at the canteen.’ Some of the Serco people are nice. ‘My case manager, you know, she never wanted to say’ – Hani adopts a booming mock-political voice –“You will never settle in Australia.”

Some Serco people wake and take people from their beds, at 3am, most often on Thursday, to be transferred to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. It’s ugly.

Isobel McGarity, now a senior solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), says, ’this has been a constant since I've been at RACS, since 2013, that people have been moved between detention centres without any prior warning, no prior warning to their lawyers. It's really arbitrary, really frightening. People would get herded in a group in the middle of the night.’ No one knows if they are being deported, or moved to another detention centre in Australia, or sent to Australia’s ‘processing centres’ on Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Remembering the commonplace killings in her war-torn home, Hani says, ‘Back in Somalia, there was like, you know, physical stress – you're like, “Oh, if I take that lane where, maybe I’ll get shot.” But over here,’ she says of the conditions in detention camps at the time, ‘there was a mental shot – like, people were killing you mentally’. 

Hani decides not to sleep at night. ‘There was so much destruction during the day… I just didn't want to like to see things that upset me.’ Instead, as the weeks turn into months, she starts working on her dream.

‘Every time I met my case manager, like the second sentence of our chat would be like, “I want to be a journalist.” I wouldn't be able to talk about [other] things.’

All day it was hard to get time on the computers, and the internet was slow. But at night, if she got special permission, Hani could use them to write.  So she said to her case manager, ‘“If I'm not getting out of here, then should I just maybe start doing some journalism thing?” And she was like, “Maybe. If it will keep you busy and out of my office.”

‘I slept all day and stayed awake all night because I had my own newspaper, The CC Weekly.’ CC? Construction Camp was the name of one of the compounds, she explains – but CC sounds snappier. ‘And that kept me busy at night… Every week I would interview someone from the camp – someone who wasn’t eating their food, a nurse, a Serco officer.

‘I would write it, and then my Serco friends help me edit it… because my English wasn’t good. Then I’d print them, and I pull out quotes. I just, like, make people smile, you know, put in funny things. Oh, man, I had like more audience than The Sydney Morning Herald, I promise.’ She bursts out laughing.

Favourite story? ‘Oh, my God, the one that made them to take the whole thing away.’

The CC Weekly published an exclusive story about Hani Abdile flying to Australia’s capital city, Canberra, to interview the Prime Minister about a $40 million deal he’d made to send refugees now in Australia’s system to the Kingdom of Cambodia. The deal was real; the interview was satire.

‘At that time, the government were like, “We're going to take everyone in Christmas Island to Cambodia.”

‘I started looking into Cambodia, and I'm like, you guys need to actually help Cambodia. Because there’s a lot of problems going on there… poverty… poor education….’

That week, like every week, Immigration Department officials had to approve Hani’s newspaper. ‘Mm-hmm,’ she says. ‘And then they were like, “No, you're crossing the line now.”’

She laughs sheepishly. ‘I know ­– troublemaker.’

Act 4

‘Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. You've got to find the treasure, so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense.’
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Hani says she writes funny stories, and sad poems. After the demise of The CC Weekly, she wrote poems.

‘I always say, even if there was 1,000 people in the world, there will be 500 who will create a problem and 500 will strive to solve it.’ There will always be people searching for ways to make someone miserable, she shrugs. ‘So when they stopped [The CC Weekly]… It meant a lot to me. I had something I was working on, I had people to interview. I was busy. And they, and then they just, like, they take that away. And I say, okay. I think, it's all right. I still got my bed. So I guess I just, like, you know, slept all day.

‘We live in containers.’

The nights were more difficult now. She would sit outside, to reflect and write. ’I write to express the things that actually I can't express to people like face to face, but I can put it on a piece of paper. No one needs to look at it, it's just for my sake.’

One night outside, she was lamenting to a Serco worker that it had been 11 months and she was stuck. There wasn’t much he could do to help. He suggested she write about it. The poem she wrote that night is called Crying on My Pillow.

The next morning came a knock on her door. Instructions to pack. Confusion. Resistance. Flying to Darwin for a medical? But she wasn’t sick. Hani’s case manager smiled and told her, firmly, to go; she was being transferred to from the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island to community detention. While she’d still technically be in detention, and subject to government restrictions, she would be able to live in community-based accommodation and move about more freely. All Hani could think was that she was getting out. Unstuck. She packed The Alchemist.

Community detention

People in community detention are able to…

People in community detention are unable to…

  • Work
  • Sleep outside their designated place of residence
  • Move around unrestricted – they must abide by curfews and reporting requirements

‘And then, you know, we fly out. That was weird. I was happy. And then I was sad because I left behind a lot of people. We lived together for, like, a year. And, you know, they become like more like good friends, you know, the people who work there…’

Also, community detention did not deliver the freedom she’d hoped for. ‘We didn't have study rights, or working rights. It was, like, “You just stay.” 

‘And then I say, “I'm not staying anywhere, I'm going to go and find a school.”’

She would not take no for an answer.  Eventually she was able to enrol in an intensive English class, and then she completed Year 11 and 12. She also got a lawyer. ‘The legal language is not… you know, you learn English, and then you have to learn the language of those papers [to be recognised as a refugee]. Filling those forms, understanding them … the whole thing is so complicated.’ 

Sarah Dale, Centre Director and Principal Solicitor at RACS, describes the application for refugee protection as ‘a giant physical document that you can either do by paper form or online. It's about a 40-page form with questions ranging from who is your mother, who is your father, to list every address you've ever lived, list all the jobs you've ever had, every border you've ever crossed.’

But Hani did it. In December 2018, Hani Abdile got the news that Australia recognised her as a refugee.

Act 5

‘You now lock me in detention 
and damage my hopes 
but it's like dust 
and one day I will rise.’

― Hani Abdile, ‘I Will Rise’
(tribute to Maya Angelou)

Hani has a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa. A ‘SHEV’, as it’s known, is a legal innovation the Australian government has developed in the years since Hani arrived at age 17. It’s a temporary protection visa. With restrictions on where she can live and work and  travel, it’s good for five years. Then she'll have to make her case again. 

‘We give you five years of uncertainty, and now we're going to give you another five years of we don't give a... ’ Hani says. ‘When you have a temporary visa, that means you own a temporary, everyday life.  

‘You plan something, you think, yeah, that would be great, but… the uncertainty of living in limbo is the worst.’

‘It’s political football, where there are a lot of games going on; you're like, I'm confused in all this. You come to the community, and you think, “I'm going well now.” And then like, next week, they change the law. It's like, oh, great. You know, that's the terrible thing that everyone has to navigate, a process that's constantly changing, seemingly every day.’

When Hani arrived in Australia, Australia had a different refugee regime but it was on pause while parliament scrambled to legislate harsher policies. The definition of a refugee, the visas available, and the process of assessment all changed after she arrived, but still, the new law applied to her.

The legacy caseload vs other boat arrivals

Since 1992, Australian law has required the mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrive by boat without a visa.

Up until 2012, asylum seekers who had arrived by boat were able to lodge an application for permanent protection, from detention. If recognised as refugees, they would become Australian permanent residents.

From 2014 onwards, refugees who arrive by boat generally have not come to Australia at all: Australian law says that they must be transferred to Papua New Guinea or Nauru for regional processing. This law is applied in conjunction with a policy to monitor the Australia coastline and ‘turn back’ boats before they reach Australia.

The members of the legacy caseload occupy a middle-ground. They can apply for protection in Australia, and at present they are the only boat arrivals who are allowed to do so.  However, they face significant limitations compared to other people who seek asylum in Australia.

Professor Jane McAdam, Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney, says that retrospective lawmaking, unusual in other areas, happens a lot in Australian refugee law. ‘So it's absolutely shifting the goalposts for people. In a democracy that’s subject to the rule of law, you really wouldn't anticipate that, and I think many of us just wouldn't tolerate that if it were applied to us.’

Dale agrees. ‘I mean, if we were to go today and say, “Right. Anyone who has been charged with driving 14 kilometres over the speed limit, we've now decided we're going to give you 10 demerit points, even though five years ago you only got five. We changed the law, and anyone who's been speeding over that time, in the past five years, this is what's gonna happen to you.” There would be utter chaos. The community would revolt. But we have sat idly by while we do that to people seeking asylum. And it's just unfathomable to me that those laws and policies are able to exist.’

Hani tries to stay focused on her destiny. ‘I had a dream to be able to be who I really wanted to be, to study what I love, which I thought would be the most powerful weapon that I can use [to ensure] justice for people facing injustice.’

She is now studying journalism at university, on a scholarship. She works in a cafe, at a pub, and teaching poetry to high school students through a schools program. ‘I'm grateful in many ways that, you know, I kind of figured out the things that I want. It’s an important part of me to find a sense of belonging in our society... I study, I work, like, you know, just a normal person, like any other person. 

‘You’re doing the normal things, you got to work, you finish, you go to uni, you finish, you go like, you know, grocery shopping, you come back, you clean the house, and, you're like, “This is so great. But will this last for long?”’

Podcast episode 7: Does Australia’s asylum seeker policy actually work?

With Operation Sovereign Borders, the Australian government in 2013 began a war on people-smugglers, and people seeing asylum, that is still going. Host Sisonke Msimang hears how Hani got caught in the middle.

Hear Hani’s story