Copyright © Emily Bartlett Photography

Donna came to Australia as a child with her family by boat from Kurdistan. She was only 13 when they arrived in Australia in 2000. Along with her family, Donna was detained first in Darwin and then at Port Hedland Detention Centre. She is now a non-practicing lawyer living in Melbourne studying a Masters of International Relations at Melbourne University.


Apart from the obvious need to survive, to get a better education and so on, everybody’s story is different. We are also Kurds from Iraq. There was a rumour that Saddam was going to use chemical gas again on the Kurdish people so a lot of people started fearing for their lives again. We took the rumour seriously and when the opportunity arrived we just used all the money we had, not that there was much, and my whole family and I went to Iran, then Malaysia, then Indonesia. I was 12 when we left Iraq, but I turned 13 in Surabaya.

I am the oldest. When we left Iraq, we were only 3 of us siblings. My mother was pregnant with my little brother on the way and he was born when we got to Australia. The boat trip was seven days and seven nights.

We had misconceptions about where we were going and what we were heading towards. People were saying “oh if you go to Australia, you will be given sheep, a farm, and you have to raise cows and do farming” and things like that. I remember my parents saying on the boat “oh doesn’t matter, as long as we are safe and we can feed our families because we are running away from terror”. That’s what I remember them saying. My sister and I were really sad, we were saying we don’t want to go to farms, if we’re running away we want to go to places where there are buildings and it’s clean and there are streets.

Not a lot of children were aware of what was going on, but I was always aware. I was aware of all the political stuff – of our standing, of the fact that we were Kurdish, that we left Iraq and that we were approaching Australia.


We eventually ended up on these shores. It was November 2000. First, we were intercepted by the Australian Navy around Darwin. As soon as we got into Darwin, we were taken to a detention centre where we spent a couple of days. They cleaned us, injected us with all kinds of things. I remember a woman saying, oh this is for measles or malaria, anti-this or anti-that. Nobody knew anything. It was just like, “ok, next”. We were almost stamped.

I became accustomed to being herded into halls with a lot of people. In Darwin there was a lot of argy bargy going on. At some point we were put into a huge hall, like a basketball court, where we were all lined up and we were all crying and they were asking us questions. That huge hall was the scariest thing, I think we slept there overnight and the next day we had to register our names on forms and things like that. My father was speaking in Arabic and he got everybody’s birthdays and things wrong. Not mine though. Everyone was so nervous because of the pressure and trauma.

The detention centre in Darwin in comparison to Port Hedland detention centre was much cleaner. It was much whiter and smaller. It was like a clinic, to be honest. There was a sand patch where I remember playing volleyball with some of the men. We were there for a couple of days. It wasn’t a long time.

I didn’t feel like we were being detained. I thought of it like a welcoming thing – they were helping us out and we were up for better days. I had absolutely no idea we were going to go to another detention centre, in fact we were very confused. I’m not sure if my parents knew to be honest.


I was very happy every time we were told we were going to another place. I got hyped up even if the next place was worse than the last. I was just happy to move places, it felt like progress. They took us on a plane. I thought, we are being treated well, otherwise they would have just sent us by another boat somewhere or something like that. So I thought it was a good sign. I sat by the window looking at green fields and just feeling very excited, not knowing where the hell I was going to go.

I only realised things when we got on a bus and my eyes met hot, sandy plains in Western Australia. That’s what I remember. In my mind I was thinking, what is this country Australia, because it was like the 1960s or 1970s, not that I had lived in that time. Some buildings were worse than Iraq. I was like, what is going on? This is an ugly place! We came here? I felt like, we risked our lives, my mum and sister nearly drowned, we left everything behind and wasted all this energy and money and we came to this ugly place? I realised on the bus we were going to a detention centre. That’s all I saw: country towns and detention centres and steel bars and halls.

I was looking through the window and crying inside. I will never ever forget that moment. I saw barbed wires and the walls of the detention centre. It was very hot.


There was a small TV in the corner of our room at Port Hedland detention centre. There were no chairs or anything so I would look up at this TV in the corner near the ceiling. Every time this show started up, I’d stand there for 30 minutes, just watching like that.

There was a really, really handsome Australian actor. He was with this girl, his girlfriend. She had dreads and was always riding her bike and I was like wow!

I dreamt about him, fantasised about him.

The girl was wearing shorts, and I used to say to myself whenever I get out I’m going to wear shorts for the first time in my life. And then, I used to be like, I’m going to have a blond boyfriend too. I don’t care if my mum doesn’t allow it, I’m going to have a blond boyfriend. I imagine writing to him today as a joke, “by the way, when I was in detention centre, I used to have a crush on you!” The only problem is I still cannot find the name of the TV series.

I don’t care if my mum doesn’t allow it, I’m going to have a blond boyfriend. Click To Tweet

I would also dream of the streets. When I was a child, I always wanted a bike and then I saw her riding her bike on these Australian streets. I was like, whoa, could this be Australia? I knew what Australia looked like on the map but that was the first time I saw Australia in my entire life – through the TV screen.


People were very, very mean. Everybody was doing things for themselves. It was like every man for himself, kind of thing.

Like if you said hello to a girl and her mother saw that, she would spank that child and say don’t say hello to so-and-so’s daughter again, I told you not to say hello to anybody. Things like that make you heart broken. You would decide to just be quiet and not speak to anyone. Then sometimes random people would speak to you, it was confusing. Once I had a conversation with two Sri Lankan guys who were strangers. They were in the playground and were very nice and we talked about where we were from. I spoke little English since I had a phrase book that I was using on the boat. That was the only time I managed to have a conversation with people at the Detention Centre, but I kept thinking, shouldn’t we unite, since we survived?

In that situation, especially if you are not used to speaking to one another culturally about your feelings, it is very difficult. Everybody just keeps things to themselves. There is no exception, man to wife, woman to woman, no. In fact, because of that silence you can feel like you’re enemies with everyone, even your family. That’s not to say that families won’t protect one another, but you have some sort of thorns between you.

It was as if everyone blamed the other people in the detention centre for their problems. Like they were thinking “I fled my country but why are you here too? Why are you taking my place?”

There was almost like a competition about who had been there the longest. At that time, our family was the most recent. My mum would ask questions about how long people had been in detention. People would tell us and my mum would ask “are you sure? I mean, if you’ve been here for three and a half years, then we should just give up looking forward to getting out.” I remember thinking that this is worse than having been through war.

People were also kind of jealous of other people who had their family with them. It’s like they felt self-righteous. They all hated our family for some reason. They were like, you sit down, don’t even have any hope, like that. I was like, what is this? Three more years in this shit? With a TV that small?

There was a rawness from the things we were all fleeing. When you’ve had war, when you’ve had people against people, and then you end up in the same jail, there are cultural clashes between people. It is almost absurd. Imagine people of different walks of life, different religious, political and cultural backgrounds, face to face with each other, not knowing what to say, what to do. The silence is sometimes is unbearable. Supposedly we’re all fleeing for our lives but still Kurdish people would think why are the Arabs or the Iranis fleeing? And the Arabs would think why are these people fleeing? And so on and so forth. This is the internal war that you have to grapple with.


I realised that Port Hedland detention centre wasn’t small, it was like a freakin’ community, and it was even scarier.

We all called it jail. I would fall asleep, and wake up the next day, so hopeless and even more helpless. I almost missed the streets of Kurdistan, running around the rubble. I even missed the ugliness. As soon as I’d exit the main hall or the dormitory I would feel the limits around me. I can see the walls, barbed wire. I knew I couldn’t get out of there. But I still dreamt of freedom.

One time there was a woman who was helping people. I thought oh wow, this person is an angel. I remember chasing a man and asking him questions so that I could communicate with that lady. I thought in my mind that I could get my family out by speaking to her. I remember, waiting for this man to come back to me, to see if she was available to speak with me, just a 13-year-old girl. I wanted to surprise them one day and say “guess what, we’re going out because of me!” It was my dream then.

I would think, “oh Donna your dream of going abroad?” and here I was abroad but in jail. I used to remember my cousin who told me be careful what you wish for. I actually thought that the reason why we made it to Australia was because of me. I always felt I had some sort of intuitive magical power that if I wanted anything the universe would grant me it. So when I was in the detention centre I blamed it on myself. I thought I made the wrong wish and now everybody is going to suffer because of me.

I thought I made the wrong wish and now everybody is going to suffer because of me. Click To Tweet

Just everything broke down in my heart. I couldn’t point to a thing and say my heart is broken because of this. I wasn’t sure why we were detained. I don’t think other people understood either, to be honest. We thought that Australia would accept us because we’re fleeing. To get through this time, I would rely on my imagination. I used to always make stories up in my mind, like that a hero was coming to save me and if I could imagine that someone was coming to save me, I always had hope.


They had long tables in the dining area and we all lined up to go in. Then on a cold white table, they put the food in front of us. During the dinner times, oh my god, I hated my mum because we always had to give her our fruit. I missed fruit so much. Mum was pregnant and she craved for citrus, for lemons and oranges. Every time we had any oranges my father would take all of our fruit off our plate because he couldn’t get anything extra for mum.

One time, somebody asked for more food. I remember it vividly. There was almost a war inside that place. So that night they didn’t give us any food. Because mum was pregnant, my father begged someone for food for my mum and he got some. Us children were all looking at my mum thinking “she gets food but what about us?”


I think we had classes everyday for a couple of hours. It wasn’t compulsory but I remember my mum telling us to “go to the classes and learn ABC!” My mum is obsessed with education , so she’s always like, oh everybody must learn, all of you must become number 1. And she didn’t care what it was at, she just said, study study study. So we three of us, my siblings and I, would go. But there weren’t a lot of kids there because some other people’s kids wouldn’t go. Adults came as well, we were all in the same class.

My English teachers taught us Jingle Bells. It was in November, so it must have been because Christmas was coming on. At the time, I didn’t know what a Christmas carol was. We were learning dialogues back in Iraq, like “Hello Mr Brown, how do you do?”, things like that. But at the detention centre I don’t remember learning about such things. Now, when I hear Jingle Bells every Christmas, I feel ambivalent about it.

The thing is my siblings, and my brother in particular, doesn’t remember anything from detention. My sister doesn’t remember anything at all. I’m like, how can you not remember this? She goes, I honestly cannot. She says she wishes she could remember. But I remember a lot of things vividly that I can’t even describe.


We were in Port Hedland for nearly three weeks, but the thing is, we’re not sure how or why we were let out. It didn’t make sense when one afternoon someone came into the room and they were like, Sherwani’s family, everybody out. You’re leaving. Was it because of us children or because my mother was pregnant? Was it because my father was nice to somebody? I felt a different weird of happiness. I felt scared at the same time, I was like, what if we go somewhere else?

When they said you’re going out, I kept thinking that’s so unfair! I remember it almost like in a movie, when the actor has thought and bubbles go up into the air and I was like, but, so-and-so’s family has been here for three and a half years, it doesn’t make sense, why are we going out after three weeks?

When I left I was crying on the bus. I left with a heavy heart, especially for the people who had to stay in detention. I was very confused, but nevertheless I was very happy. It was the first happiest day of my life. For nearly 13 years of my life I didn’t have a happy memory like that.


We were taken by a bus again to Perth. I remember there was air con on the bus. We just knew that we were going and we had absolutely no idea where we were going next. A couple of hours later we ended up somewhere else and met a woman from a church organisation. She took us to a house in Midland. It was a massive, very old house.

The church brought us food: bread, cereal, spices, different kinds of meat, and all that. My mother cooked a lot of things. It was as if we had never eaten. I put jam on everything. I even put jam on meat! I like the sweets. Chocolate, oh my god! We just ate and ate and ate, all of us. We wondered why is Australia so kind to us all of a sudden.

We always talk about that time, we’re like “do you remember when we put on so much weight because in one week we ate everything?” But we as a family never sat down to talk about detention, until recently. My parents still don’t talk about it. We never ever talk about such matters.

My parents still don’t talk about it. We never ever talk about such matters. Click To Tweet

Donna told her story to Dana Affleck. Photograph by Emily Bartlett.

© Emily Bartlett Photography