Elma Smajic, Zoha Mazrooei and Anna Morandi, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) field workers, share their reflections on providing mental health care to refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru, following the forced exit of MSF from the island.
“We have no chance. . . nobody cares about us.”
Elma Smajic was the supply, logistics, administration and finance coordinator on Nauru.
“The consistent message that refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru shared with me was that they had lost all hope, all sense of future, and any ability to feel sadness and happiness.
When we first started working on Nauru, self-harming and critical cases were a weekly matter. Soon they became a daily matter. It was alarming how quickly people were getting sick; their physical transformation was startling.
“The only difference between us and the dead is that we are still breathing,” one refugee told me. It felt like the asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru were decomposing in front of our eyes.
“I used to daydream about seeing people flying out of Nauru. I still do.”
A refugee described to me feeling like captive cattle, used to earn money: “The same people deciding our fate do not see us as human beings.” Another man told me his fear that he and his wife will never be able to leave Nauru. When I asked him why, he said, “We have no chance – we do not even have children, nobody cares about us.”
It was a tremendous feeling to stand at the airport in Nauru and see refugees, after all those years, walk the few steps from the airport building to the airplane and fly off the island. I used to daydream about seeing people flying out of Nauru. I still do.”
“The world needs to know about every one of them.”
Zoha Mazrooei was the cultural mediator with the MSF team.
“When MSF was forced to exit Nauru, I left the island with a heavy soul. I got onto the plane asking myself, how long could these people continue like this?
I feel a burden on my shoulders, and I know it is my responsibility to do as much as I can to empower the voices of those who have trusted me. The world needs to know what I have witnessed. So, I pick up the pen.
Should I write about the children without any spark in their eyes, any words on their lips, any desire on their mind except death? Or should I write about the teenagers I met, who have lost their youth waiting for a better day when they can go to school, parks, the cinema . . . and now, after more than five years, they are too tired to talk, to eat and drink, to continue this meaningless life.
No, perhaps it’s better if I write about the single women I met who were around my own age – about how their eyes seemed already dead, staring right through you.
“I should not forget to write about the families who have been torn apart – how cruelly separation has broken them. How they stopped communicating with their family members as they were unable to carry on with the weight of the pain.”
Or maybe I should write about the single men still living in tents after five years, since being a single man dooms you to be considered the least vulnerable when it comes to protection and basic rights and needs.
Maybe it's better to write about all those honourable couples who are too hopeless and destroyed to chase any dreams for their future, because they have been waiting for so long that by now all they want is to sleep and never wake up.
But I should not forget to write about the families who have been torn apart – how cruelly separation has broken them. How they stopped communicating with their family members as they were unable to carry on with the weight of the pain.
No, it is impossible to choose – the world needs to know about every one of them. Many left their home country with nothing more than hope to one day live the kind of life that all humans deserve. Now, after five years, they have lost even that.”
Hope for humanity, even when humanity seems to lose itself
Anna Morandi was the health promotion supervisor on Nauru.
“It is not human to bring people to an island with no rights, no opportunities to work and no chance to be cured from the most severe illnesses. It’s not human to be forced to think that the only way to have freedom back is to die. It is not human when people attempt to set themselves on fire, cut themselves, or swallow many pills, trying to put an end to their lives.
There were people I met on Nauru, among them kids of nine years old, who confessed to me they’d rather die because they don’t see any future for them and their families. It is hard to find the words to explain these things to the world.
“A prison is not just a fence. A prison is also when people are trapped – with the body and the mind.”
“We are the new phosphates, so I cannot understand why they hate us so much,” a young refugee girl told me. Refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru are considered the “new phosphates”, meaning the new main source of income for the island. They are also considered objects, not human beings.
It is easy to say that these people are free to move around the island – yet there is nowhere to move under the burning sun. It is easy to say children can go to school on Nauru – without acknowledging that refugee students are often the victims of bullying.
A prison is not just a fence. A prison is also when people are trapped – with the body and the mind.
I believe Australia still has a chance to show it is a country that defends human rights, by ending offshore processing on Nauru and giving these people the opportunity to regain hope in a more human world. After five years, it is time.”