I have a social media rule: don’t friend someone on Facebook unless you know them in real life. I made an exception for poet and artist, S. Nagaveeran – or Ravi to those who know him.
I ‘met’ Ravi after his poetry was shared online, and while he was still in immigration detention awaiting the outcome of his visa application. This was, in part, due to the work of Writing Through Fences, which helps detainees find their voices through poetry and art.
Ravi walked free of the wire fences in October 2015, after more than three years in detention, most of which was spent on Nauru. We finally met in person at the launch of his book, From Hell to Hell, a collection of poetry and drawings he had created while on Nauru. I felt as though I was looking into the face of my younger brother.
Since then, Ravi – a gently spoken man with a warm smile that often belies the pain and sadness that sits just below the surface – has kept himself busy.
He initiated the monthly ‘Food for Thought’ gatherings at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge, which celebrates food, culture and the sharing of stories. Tickets sell out within hours of going on sale, with proceeds going to those who are on bridging visas without work rights or are still in detention.
He has organised ‘Hidden Voices’, an evening of poetry by those who have been, or remain, in detention. He has visited with those he calls ‘Real Australians’, continues to write and recently completed a course in aged care.
But much better that I allow Ravi to speak, that you hear his voice rather than mine.
What can you tell us about your story?
I didn’t want to leave my country, my mother or my friends. Why would I come here if I could live a peaceful life back home? I didn’t come here to take anyone’s job or house. I came here hoping for a good and peaceful life. I lost all back home and made the risky journey to save my life and give rest to my broken soul.
You began writing and drawing in detention. Why?
As a victim of injustice and politics, I was forced to face reality, and I needed to find a way to deal with all the emotions I was unable to cope with. I took up writing and art to express my feelings creatively. Poetry and drawing became the tools in which I excelled.
Now I am hoping for a normal life, but I can never forget this past life. To anyone out there who has been through any form of injustice and politics, I want to tell you that the feelings you experience on the way to healing are normal. You’re not alone, your feelings are with you, your eyes are crying out to you, your hands are the wiper of your tears and with time, life will get better.
Also, this nation wants to know how people are existing and coping, while they are helpless in detention. It’s important to know, so I found the way to touch the nation’s heart and mind.
Will you continue to write now you are out of detention? Why?
Good question. Yes, I am continuing my fighting with writing. I still don’t know what will happen within me. “If you’re living in paradise without full freedom, it’s not life.” I couldn’t feel freedom. I am doing mental war with my life, so I am still writing and dealing with my pain. I also hope my writing will help people still in detention. Most of them are tired of being tired, so I am sharing my words on behalf of my friends.
Why did you call your book ‘From Hell to Hell’?
Really, I love this title. What’s hell? Even in our childhood, we know hell is a painful place. For me, hell means suffering, grief, sadness, pain, depression, anxiety, distress, deprivation, anguish, agony. These things are the best poison for killing humans slowly. I faced all these back home, and while I was in the human dumping ground, so my feelings made the name for my book. That’s why I started to call Nauru ‘Hell’.
What other interests do you have?
Mmm … writing and drawing is my best and first enjoyment after cricket. Visiting detention centres, sharing time with friends and travelling around Australia, sharing my experiences with different people and asking for help for my friends in detention. I’ve been organising projects like Food for Thought and Hidden Voices.
Why did you choose to study aged care, and what do you think you can contribute in this area?
Aged care is one of my favourite things. My mum is sick back home, but I can only talk with her; I can’t look after her. So, if I work with aged people, it makes me feel I am caring for my mother and brings me happiness. Also, aged people have good experience with their own lives, so it will help me to be a nice human being. It’s a kind of happiness in my heart to spend time with them and look after them. I can carry my skills with them into the future.
What have you enjoyed or been thankful for since being released from detention?
Living around good friends and touching lots of people’s hearts and minds with my words. Travelling all around Australia, sharing my experience and meeting real Australians. My humble thanks go to those who helped me while I was in detention.
What has been difficult?
I miss my mother and my country. It’s a bit complicated without family.
There are two types of people everywhere: human and inhuman. We need to face inhuman things also, which is difficult.
What would you like people to understand about people seeking asylum?
[Ravi’s response to this question comes in the form of a piece he wrote while still in detention.]
Letter from Nauru
O my nation
We are also human.
We also have family.
We also have kids.
We are like you.
Just one difference; we came from another country to seek asylum and save our life, but we are dying slowly, our blood in your land and in your hands …
What did we do wrong?
What is the difference between me and others who came with us?
Why do you make our lives harder and harder? These are all questions within me …
This is not just a story. This is a real experience of coping with mental torture and spending time with emptiness inside the fences.
I am an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka. I am sorry I have forgotten my name because my name has been changed to a number. I have been over three years in detention.
I cannot describe my suffering. I am tired of being tired. I am dying every single second because of your inhumane treatment. My present is burning here. How can I have a future left? All you give me is extreme pain and grief.
When I came here, I became the victim of your policy and you sent me to an offshore processing centre. Some of the unlucky innocents are still in the hell. We are all the time sorry about our life inside the fence in the dry land. We are coping with emptiness day by day.
Still my friends and their kids are suffering. The world knows, but nothing changes. Just kill us one time; that would be better and we can accept that with a smile.
I am thinking about why I saved my life in the ocean. If I died at sea it would have been wonderful because I can’t cope with the inhuman beings. You took my joy, my hope, my dreams and locked them up inside the fence … I can’t breathe freely … I am awake at night and eat just one meal a day. Many of my friend feel the same way. We can’t share our pain with each other because everyone is in the same boat. Where is the humanity in this country? Where is the kindness?
A page from Ravi’s book, From Hell to Hell. (Photo Credit: Brami Jegan – Tamil Survival Stories. Used with permission.)
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If you would like to hear more of Ravi’s story, as well as the poetry of those who remain in detention, join him and others for Hidden Voices on Friday 11 November from 6 pm to 8.30 pm at Paper Mountain (upstairs, 267 William Street, Northbridge).
I also have several copies of Ravi’s book, From Hell to Hell, for purchase for $20 if you’d like to support him in this way.