I work on a mental health crisis team in a major city and have the privilege of being able to go out and assess people who are in crisis, right where they are. It is much more effective than the usual practice, which would have them waiting for assessment in an overcrowded, loud, chaotic Emergency Department. They would also usually have been transported to Emergency in the back of a police van, which would almost certainly be overwhelming, embarrassing and downright scary, especially for someone already in a state of heightened distress.
Tonight I, also, am experiencing a certain amount of distress, although it is nothing in comparison to that of the young man I assessed earlier this evening. It is well after midnight and I am unable to sleep. His story is playing on my mind and it is not a fun game, so I have decided to do something practical with my personal anguish, by putting fingers to keyboard to share his story with you. It is a story I believe needs to be told. I have, of course, changed his name….
Peter was found lying on the railway tracks waiting for a train to come and end his life. Fortunately someone saw him and called the police. As a result, all the trains on that line were stopped and police, ambulance and the mental health crisis team I work on were called in to assess him.
Peter is in his late twenties, from “another country.” Some might call him “just another refugee,” but his story is very different to those that you see on mainstream media, as are the stories of so many others, no doubt.
He was a boy, merely eight or nine years old, when his parents decided to flee the deadly conflict in their homeland. The family was relatively wealthy but no amount of money made life safe or enjoyable; in fact, their money brought them unwanted attention from both government and other not so savoury people, so fleeing seemed the best hope for their future, particularly for their children, for whom they hoped to establish a better future.
Somehow, in the chaos and fighting, death and destruction, young Peter was separated from his family. At this tender age he found himself alone in a massive refugee camp, with no family, no friends, no-one even vaguely familiar to him. Here he would stay for almost sixteen years before being finally shipped off to Australia. The whole time he was in this camp he was unable to locate anyone from his family. It was a lonely place. He was just another kid amongst the masses, with no birth certificate or identification documents of any sort. Articulate, quiet and extremely shy, he kept to himself.
Once settled in Australia, he was given a new name and allocated a random birth date. He has no idea when he was actually born. He can’t tell you his age other than what he was “allocated” on arrival. For confidentiality reasons I can’t tell you his real name, but I’d like to know who chose it, because it’s offensive, really offensive, and a small part of me can’t help but wonder if some racist, pen-pushing bureaucrat thought it was funny. And if not, if he naively chose it himself, why didn’t anyone tell him that the surname he “chose” or “made up” was actually a really offensive and derogatory word. Never mind, that’s a whole other story.
Peter has tried hard since arriving in Australia. The only work he was able to get, due to his lack of education and poor English, was factory line work or collecting shopping trolleys in supermarket car parks. He did not receive any government benefits, let alone “more than your average pensioner” as those spam emails would have us believe, and he worked hard to not only pay his own way, but to send every spare cent he could back to his family.
Yes, that’s right, his family. Not long after arriving in Australia he was able to track his family down, still living in their homeland. By this stage most of their money had been stolen or swindled from them by corrupt people and the government. Life turned out to be just as bad as they had imagined it would be when they tried to flee the conflict.
Peter struggled to find people in Australia who spoke his language, let alone understood what he had been through, so he lived with a deep sense of isolation. Somewhere along the line, his mind broke. You might say he had a “nervous breakdown” or that he “lost the plot” but whatever you might call it, in Western terms he attracted the diagnosis of schizophrenia. His description of his symptoms when it all becomes too much and he “loses touch with reality” is akin to what one might imagine as a normal response to such pain, grief and loss.
Regardless of whether he truly has schizophrenia or whether his mind is just “broken” after all he has been through, the medication that he was given has left him so sedated and so affected that he simply can not work. So one day, on his behalf, his Case Manager from the Mental Health Team helped him to apply for a Disability Pension so that he could at least have some money coming in to help him feed himself and cover his private rent (yes that’s right, he’s not in public housing paying minimal rent).
Most days, Peter sits in the library reading and trying to better educate himself. He still applies for work and almost always gets knocked back, either because of his poor English or because he is transparent enough to admit he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Perhaps it is just because of his skin colour or his race. When he does manage to land a job, he usually gets fired within the week because his mind and body are so slow from his daily anti-psychotic medication that he can’t learn fast enough, let alone keep up when it comes to productivity.
Before his mind “broke” and Peter was on a regular income, an organisation approached him and offered him a loan. He was so excited and felt so blessed at the way people cared for each other in Australia, so he took them up on their offer and borrowed the money, not to buy a new car or take a holiday, but to send money to his family. It turns out that the “generous organisation” was a high interest loan company who have been milking him for thousands of dollars on a loan that, unless he has a windfall, he will probably never be able to repay.
Today Peter spoke to his brother on the phone, his twin brother. His brother was crying and talking about how they have no money for food this week and they just don’t know what to do. His brother begged Peter to try and find some money to send over to help them. Well this was the last straw for Peter. He feels overwhelmed by the incredible burden of being the only family member who managed to flee the conflict and he feels terribly obligated to provide for his family back there, but he just can’t. He feels like he has failed his entire family and the burden is just too much to bear.
He told me that he has tried to go back to his country of origin, preferring to live in the poverty and conflict, just so he can be with his family, but he does not have the money or the means to pay for the expensive flights. Also, due to the fact that he fled his homeland, albeit as a young boy, he is not allowed to return anyway. The chance of him ever being able to bring his own family here to Australia is almost impossible, given the ongoing conflict and their poverty, which makes them powerless to change their circumstances.
So, after saying goodbye to his family on the phone, Peter went and lay on the railway tracks, waiting for a train to come and end his life.
He will most likely never see his family again.
He has little prospect for work.
He takes medication that makes everyday life an enormous challenge.
He remains isolated and extremely lonely.
Is his story without hope? I really, really want to believe that he has a wonderful future ahead of him, that things will get better; however, I’m not naïve enough to blindly state that it’s a likely scenario.
In spite of what you think you might know about refugees and asylum seekers they are NOT all the same. Politicians, social media and main stream media feed us a steady diet of propaganda which has us believing that most of them hit “easy street” once they arrive and that many of them come here for economic reasons rather than a genuine need for asylum.
Most asylum seekers, just like Peter, have stories of unimaginable pain and suffering. The least we can do is show some kindness and compassion as they journey along a path that we simply cannot begin to fully comprehend.
So please, I beg you, next time you find yourself about to blurt out an ignorant comment about another “bloody refugee,” please think of Peter. Next time you find yourself about to forward an email informing others that refugees and asylum seekers get paid twice as much in government benefits as your average pensioner, find out if it’s true before sharing the propaganda. Next time you see a cleaner, or someone collecting trolleys in your local supermarket car park, take the time to smile and thank them.
You just might be the ray of hope that gives them the strength to face another day, rather than the lights of an oncoming train.