Local grans fight for Nauru kids

Local grandmothers (from left), Gael Walker, Martha Mollison, Anni Totakatlian, Helen Esmond, Jill Udy, Margaret McDonald and group founder Gaby Judd at a protest.
Local grandmothers (from left), Gael Walker, Martha Mollison, Anni Totakatlian, Helen Esmond, Jill Udy, Margaret McDonald and group founder Gaby Judd at a protest.
Jenny Barlass

Local grandmothers are getting together regularly to do something about the abhorrent practice of unnecessary detention of children in Nauru

It’s a cold Monday morning and we’d all rather be inside with a warming shot of caffeine. But a bunch of women whose average age is probably 70, choose to stand out in freezing temperatures waving placards and calling out slogans.

Far from being derided as a bunch of do-gooding oldies, these women from Berowra and Hornsby Heights, Mt Colah, Pennant Hills and West Pennant Hills are following in a long line of powerful older women making their voices heard and changing both attitudes and public policy.

Think of the silver-haired anti-Cruise Missile warriors who kept the Greenham Common women’s peace camp in the UK going for two decades, or the powerful US female peace activists in the sixties who shaped the Vietnam debate. And not forgetting the suffragettes, many who carried on fighting for the right to vote well into their 80s.

“We aim to be a thorn in the side of the government,” says Gael Walker, a former university professor, from the 20-strong Berowra branch of the Australian movement Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children (GADRC NSW). “Just because we’re grandmothers doesn’t make us invisible.”

The group, a smart, informed cohort which includes a retired teacher, psychologist and research pathologist, works in close collaboration with other GADRC groups across Australia to lobby politicians in Canberra, hold monthly vigils at the QVB in Sydney involving leaflet handing out, conversations with passers-by and slogan shouting, and they show films that demonstrate the appalling plight of detainees on Manus and Nauru.

“No-one has been arrested yet,” says Gaby Judd who started the local group. “We aim for a peaceful protest. Most people don’t know what’s being done to innocent children on Nauru so we see it as a big part of what we’re doing, to let people know. If we’ve educated people about what’s going on, we’ve done our job.”

So what is going on? On Nauru’s Offshore Processing Centre, Rohingya, Tamil, Syrian, Hazara, Iraqi and Iranian refugees fleeing war-torn and brutalist regimes are being held in camps while their refugee status is assessed. “They’ve said there are no more kids in detention, but in fact around 36 are currently still in camps and about 124 are in the community – in great danger,” explains Gaby.

It’s a living hell with reports that even inside detention centres women would rather pee in their beds than go to the bathroom at night for fear of being raped by a guard. There’s also alleged abuse of children.

“But refugees are not welcome by most of the Nauruan community either as it has become a dumping ground for refugees. Unemployment is sky high and there aren’t enough facilities – hospitals, housing or education – so they get attacked and persecuted. The Nauruan Government has said they will never settle these people permanently here.

“We just want families to be re-settled to another country, either Australia or elsewhere where the resources and opportunities are similar to those our grandchildren receive in Australia, somewhere safe so they can start new lives and begin to contribute to society again.

“We believe that locking up asylum seekers, refugees and their children is unjust and discriminatory treatment of people legally entitled to seek safety and freedom in Australia.”

 Sometimes their efforts are met with derision – when met with comments from members of the public about the high cost to the Aussie taxpayer of supporting refugees, Gael interjects with: “The real scandal is the $450,000 annual cost of keeping one person in detention on Nauru.”

“Of course there are always people who find this all too hard to do anything about,” she adds.  “But there’s a large group of people in Australia aware of refugee issues, but need encouragement to do something to help. That’s who we’re trying to inform.”

What have they achieved in the four years the group has been going? “Passersby stop and look to see what a bunch of women are doing in the street and in some ways it’s impossible to quantify our achievements,” says Gaby Judd.

“Since 2014 all children have been released from mainland detention centres into the Australian community on Bridging Visas whilst their claim for refugee status is conducted. The most they can hope for is a five year temporary protection visa, with the threat that they could be deported at any time back to the country they fled from.

“Our focus now is on the approximately 160 refugee children still in detention on Nauru, or living in a state of limbo in the Nauruan community. We will not stop campaigning and being a voice for these children until they’re all resettled to safety.

“We can only say with any certainty, that without our public protests, and those of other like-minded groups, the situation would be worse for refugees. Groups like ours provide a public conscience that’s a deterrent for even more draconian treatment of refugees.”

But what can the average Joe do? Jill Udy, a retired teacher, puts it succinctly when she says: “We’ve all had careers, so we’re not going to sit at home and knit. I can’t go to Nauru myself, but instead of helplessly looking on, I can write letters to my local member, hand around a petition, speak to my circle of contacts about these issues, send letters of support to refugees, wave a banner and attend a vigil.

“Everyone’s small effort together will hopefully make a difference and help raise the public’s awareness of the human rights violations being perpetrated by our government’s present border protection policy.”

For more, go to: www.http://gadrc.org which lists forthcoming events. Local members have organised an afternoon coffee session to give other grandmothers and friends concerned about the situation of refugee children a chance to talk about this vital issue. Meet on April 7 after 3pm at Café Patina, 64 Coonanbarra Rd, Wahroonga. Women without children or grandchildren are also welcome to join, and men are welcomed as the support team. For further details contact Gael Walker at gaelwalker@bigpond.com.

Leave a Reply