Exclusive: A Day at Detention by Niromi de Soyza

Gaya’s intro : A woman who knows the scars of surviving war in Sri Lanka goes to meet another in Sydney Australia. The former came to Australia a long time ago and is now a lawyer, a mother and a famous author. The second however arrived recently and is now in detention with no right of appeal and no time limit. She too is famous albeit for the wrong reasons. Their meeting and conversation takes place in a space that is in stark contrast to the battleground of Sri Lanka. I am delighted to receive this account from Niromi herself and to publish it on iSrilankan in solidarity with women who were affected by the long war in Sri Lanka wherever they live right now.

A Day at Detention


by Niromi de Soyza

As soon as I step into the reception room which reminded me of a sterile hospital cafeteria, a woman with long dark hair in a black blazer catches my eyes. The epaulettes on her jacket give her small skinny frame an air of authority. I recognise the young woman easily as Ranjini, she looks exactly like in the pictures splashed across newspapers and news media over the past few weeks – sparkling eyes, a big bright smile and the unmistakable side-parting of hair.

She is not the only Sri Lankan in the room – there’s another pretty woman standing beside her and a few young men milling about. There are a couple of kind elderly ladies with silvery hair and white transparent skin, handing out gifts to the women. I later learn that they are from a charity, ‘trying to help these people who have suffered great injustice’.

The room is well lit with energy-saving fluorescent globes as well as natural light that flood the room through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows. My friend, a Refugee Advocate, introduces me to the group. I smile politely as a man in a blue-checked sarong and a kakhi jacket looks at me and says in Tamil ‘we’re glad you came’. I feel the warmth in his voice. I am not sure of his age, but his cheery face makes him look late-twenties but he might be older. The others are looking at me intently but with a smile. A third woman walks into the room. On her forehead is a large red pottu and she’s wearing a black dress with orange flower prints. She is followed by a tiny little boy. I find myself in a situation that doesn’t happen to me very often – I’m lost for words. I sit down on my heels and smile at him.

‘How old is he?’ I ask a while later.

‘Fourteen months’ replies the woman in black.

She adds that she has two older children, and that there are six children under the age of eight here. And here is Sydney’s Villawood detention centre and these families are among the 50 or so recognised as genuine refugees but considered a threat to Australia’s security. They cannot know why the Australian Intelligence Agency found adversely against them or appeal against those findings. As genuine refugees, they can’t be sent back to where they came from. So now they are stuck indefinitely in this sufficient but soulless place.

‘My wife and child are on the outside’ the man in sarong speaks again. ‘I see them on the weekends but I’m a visitor than a husband or a father.’ Underneath his upbeat, chatty and intelligent self, I sense deep sorrow.

The group tells me that they are well cared-for and escorted out for essential shopping, religious activities and medical check-ups. The children get taken to the play-ground and the local school. But ‘home’ is this metal-fenced detention centre, and possibly forever.

Some of the men affectionately play with the little boy as my friend updates them on recent activities. A uniformed Serco officer walks in – it’s time to go for Beading, the bus is waiting. The families say a hurried good-bye. The father of the little boy instructs one of the young men to make the visitors a cuppa as he follows the officer. Ranjini is the only woman to stay back. ‘I don’t feel like beading today’ she says. ‘I have mild nausea because of the pregnancy’ and gestures me to sit down.

I still feel a little spell-bound by Ranjini, like meeting a celebrity in flesh – I watch her as she speaks rapidly but in almost a whisper. She is just as what others have described her – petite, talkative, passionate and honest. In the short time we speak, she displays a gamut of emotions – laughs when she talks about her children and new husband, smiles gratefully when I tell her about her ‘fans’ organising candle-lit vigils for her and let tears stream down her face as she remembers those who perished in the war. ‘Acca, I don’t know why I was left to live,’ she says as she wipes her tears. I notice that her wrists are slender. ‘Death would’ve been much easier’ she says in a broken voice.

She reminds me of myself. I recognise her survivor guilt. I try to remind her of the obvious – that she needs to stay strong for her children and that there must be a reason why she lives when so many had perished. Perhaps it is her situation that will be instrumental in bringing about change in Australian government policy of indefinite detention. I try not to sound preachy. She looks intently at her fingernails and nods.

Ranjini becomes animated again as she tells me about a man who visits here and gives cigarettes to the young men. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if he brings them books instead?’ she asks. Listening to her speak about fellow detainees, about the people she had to leave behind in her homeland, and the wonderful people she had met in Australia, I understand she is altruistic despite her situation. Thoughts of others’ welfare seem to occupy her mind more than that of herself. The sarong-clad man brings me and the two elderly women coffee and Ranjini offers us Tim Tams from the bag of goodies I had brought. The detainees’ hospitality surprises me. I had expected hopelessness to have turned them bitter and angry, at least melancholic. But I see resilience and decency, whatever their past may have been.

Ranjini and I chat about this and that. Although she is a decade younger than me, we have a lot in common. We chat about children, cooking and the war we had survived.

Before we leave, I embrace her and tell them all to remain hopeful of their future. As my friend and I walk away from the rising dust, sounds of diggers and bulldozers making way for more buildings, I feel embarrassed that all I could offer these people were words. A Serco guard smiles and wishes us G’day. I wonder if she enjoys her job and looks forward to coming to work here every day. Her pleasant face and attitude certainly softens the harshness of this place. I think to myself that a few more trees, a vegetable and a flower garden and some children’s play equipment wouldn’t go astray.

As I get back to my life, the faces of the detainees and their guards stay with me. I had expected to meet some miserable people that day; instead, I found those making the best of what life has dished out to them. I had hoped to motivate them, instead, I found myself humbled by their spirit of generosity and resilience. Beneath their ongoing trauma, these detainees are optimists – they are the ones who in the hope of freedom, took a chance on a stranger with a leaky boat and travelled the treacherous seas to a foreign land. Now they find themselves in a hopeless situation. Ranjini says, ‘Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted was freedom’, but it seems that’s the one thing that remains elusive to her.
About Niromi

Footprints is a series which brings you stories and features from and about Sri Lankans who live away from home. iSrilankan follows the story of their lives to see how the Srilankan footprint has travelled and how diverse is the imprint they leave on the Planet, in communities and cultures that differ from their ancestors. 


  1. Lesley Walker says:

    Thank you Niromi for giving us news of our friend Ranjini & the boys. Your experience of the graciousness of Ranjini & other women & men in detention is familiar to me. I have visited such places regularly for years & always leave with immense respect for those who are prevented from walking out the gates with me. Your book gave me insight into Sri Lankan culture & values as well as the awful facts of oppression & conflict. In Inverbrackie Detention Centre (SA) where I met Ranjini & the boys, there are fathers, mothers, widows & teenagers whose shrapnel wounds, burns & amputations are painfully enduring reminders of the violence they have experienced. All carry grief for the deaths of loved ones – brothers, sisters, parents & children – & of separation from children left with relatives. And my Govt punishes them for seeking asylum & safety in our peaceful place. May the lawyers & barristers persuade the High Court to protect refugees from unjust adverse ASIO assessments.

  2. jagan sriram says:

    niromi i am currently reading your book tamil tigress.started reading and just cruising through jaffna.it is noteworthy that you have started your literary career with a book and continue to write on contremprory issues.it is really painfull to read refugee’s life in an alien land.last week 120 srilankan tamils were detained in the city of kollam in kerala for attempting to sail to australia.unfortunately this is not going to be the last one many more will try to do so.only way to staunch such ill fated attempts is to provide equal rights to tamils in srilankan north and east.if tamils in north and east gain the confidence to lead a life which is shorn of insecurity and fear automatically niromi i guess you will not need to visit detention centres.

  3. Jagan, I am just adding a note to the above as I do not wish to painfully retort to every comment. Comments such as yours are respectful, insightful and can only stimulate discussion. You raise diverse issues in your comment. Some thoughts: Australia has experienced post-war refugees esp European after WWII displaced in Europe by the war. They welcomed the IRO refugees who fled Eastern Europe1945-1988 cos the refugees were anti-communist and cos the USA was doing the shipping ( and they were Catholic 😉 Read more if interested). “with the increasing intake of Vietnamese refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Australia experienced the largest intake of Asian immigrants since the arrival of the Chinese gold miners..in 1850s.” Now things have changed. This is just to contextualise ‘post-war migration’ as a phenomenon of countries that do not recover overnight from war and ours a 30 year war in a developing country devastated also by a Tsunamis. Another interesting issue: Ranjini’s counterparts if they were notlabelled ‘high security threats’ have been released into the community in Sri Lanka with policing every month. The life they have been released into with rehab and vocational training is a very desolate one from which Ranjini and many others attempt to flee. We need a host of factors to improve the North ( There is no north and east anymore but Northern Prov and Eastern Prov after the de-merger) and East and all those other areas in Sri Lanka suffering from poverty from which Sinhalese flee to Italy and other countries. HOWEVER, The main issue is that ASIO’s policies in Australia have placed Ranjini in indefinite detention and without appeal and that is now challenged by lawyers and civil society. Yes, Niromi gave her the immense comfort of a visit and community of someone who actually knew where she came from and knew the terrible hopeless scars of war. Nothing is straightforward or simple – just my thoughts.

  4. kuberendra J says:

    i have no words to say… very good job niromi and gayathri akki

  5. Sharone says:

    Thank you for this beautiful article Niromi de Soyza, and Gaya Fernando. It’s great to see that two women of different backgrounds coming together to support another woman, all because you see each other as sisters, daughters of one country.
    All those who talk of reconciliation and peace, just take a look at these beautiful ladies and take to heart the example they are setting!
    Keep up the good work ladies, because of you, I still believe in humanity.

    • Thank you Sharon for your beautifully-worded sentiment. We are daughters of one country and there are many others who are working very hard in Sri Lanka to put aside the blah blah, to ignore their own hardships in this developing country and to work with the ‘other’ community in a rare spirit of friendship and brother-sisterhood. Am hoping to introduce em as we go along this journey and Niromi Acca is a rare and wonderful human being.

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