Living In Leonora

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Leonora Alternative Place of Detention opened in June 2010 in a disused mining camp. It is now a collection of dongas with small courtyards, a dining room, medical clinic, children’s room and a recreation centre with computers, telephones, a television and table tennis. Outside there is an Astroturf five-a-side soccer pitch.

On 27 January 2011, when I visited, 203 asylum seekers were detained at Leonora. While the Department does not provide figures on a centre by centre basis, nationally there are 1039 minors in detention, including 464 unaccompanied children.

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Richard Evans, leader of the Koara people, was born in Leonora 57 years ago. He went south to Kalgoorlie for high school and work, then returned home two decades later. Like the Hazara in Afghanistan, many of whom are housed in the detention centre, the Koara people were once made to feel like unwanted intruders in their own land, but times have changed and so has the town.

"We were not accepted in the community. We were isolated. We had our own houses to stay in, when we would go down the streets there the police would come hunt us and get us home, say ‘you can’t come here, get off’. It’s a lot different now because the old brigade has all gone, the new influx of people have a different kind of mindset to those people back then. You can sit down and have a yarn with them."

Evans isn’t opposed to some form of mandatory detention, arguing that security checks are needed for asylum seekers, but, he adds, "not like this" and points towards the detention centre — which is almost in his backyard. "They can’t even go for a walk … It’s degrading to a human being."

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The CEO of Leonora Shire, Jim Epis says Leonora has a long history of welcoming people from diverse and often strife-riven backgrounds.

"In the 1950s, Gwalia and Leonora offered a haven to those European men and women who were picking up the pieces of their war-shattered lives. The majority of people living in Leonora today are aware of its history and possibly consider the arrivals of the refugees as no different to the arrival of the Europeans in the 1950s."

He added that the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Leonora live and interact in harmony. "Australia is a nation of diverse peoples where diversity should be celebrated within a unified whole."

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Terry Demasson has lived in Leonora for 54 years. He works for the Leonora Painting Service and believes the centre has been of significant economic benefit to the town, but his acceptance of the centre stems from a deeper philosophical standpoint.

"I’ve lived in Leonora since 1957, but I can’t say I’m not a boat person — who isn’t a boat person?"

A fourth generation Australian with French Canadian roots, he argues that those who don’t welcome asylum seekers in their town need to take a closer look at their own history.

"They’ve only got to go to the Leonora Cemetery — who got this place going? Afghans. They were very pleased to use them then for camel trading or carting their stuff around, they were very pleased to use the Italians and the Slavs underground, they were very pleased to bring English here, now all of a sudden everyone’s a ‘boat person’ — and they’re not even boat people, they’re plane people — they fly in to Leonora [he laughs], and I mean plain people — P L A I N, just normal plain people."

Demasson believes some of the fearful reactions in Northam and Inverbrackie featured heavily in news broadcasts is "f**king over the top".

"They’re not going to come out and rape and pillage and burn the place down — give me a break."

Damesson supports mandatory detention and is critical of the protest, but believes Australia has an obligation to process and protect refugees.

"You have to have a detention centre because otherwise everybody would go ‘right-o let’s go to Australia’ … But once they get to Australia you got to look after them, you can’t say ‘get back on the boat and go home’. So what do you do once they are here? You got to look after them, and that’s what we have been doing."

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Susan Johnson and her husband have owned and operated the White House Hotel since 1996. She’s lived in Leonora for 33 years, moving from Kalgoorlie to her husband’s town when it was home to about 600 people. The small, close-knit community made her feel at home.

"I’ve got four kids … I am glad that I’ve lived here with them growing up. It’s a quiet, safe place."

Johnson says the town is about 2000-strong now, augmented by a population of mine workers. They’re predominantly fly-in fly-out but get along well with the permanent residents. She says that when the detention centre first began operating, some locals were aggrieved by a lack of consultation or even notice.

"Well some of us were not happy at the start because we were told nothing until the planes land and then ‘they’re here and that’s it’. Now, I live right next door to them and, other than at 12 o’clock at night playing bongo drums which pisses me off, they’re very quiet."

Apart from the disquiet around the establishment of the centre which quickly dissipated, Johnson hasn’t seen it make any significant difference to the town.

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Shire CEO Jim Epis said "before the Department decided to relocate the refugees to Leonora, they asked Council to obtain views from the community. Aboriginal leaders and others in the community responded positively."

He said that when the first plane arrived there were "a few issues from a minority group of onlookers not happy with the new arrivals" but that had "settled down now".

The most high profile example of an "issue" in Leonora occurred on 7 June, 2010. Local volunteer ambulance officer Jo Ruprecht had been at the airport on unrelated business when 86 asylum seekers from Christmas Island were arriving. Ruprecht, still in her St John’s uniform at the end of a shift, was interviewed by a Channel Seven reporter and said she would not attend a call from the detention centre. She subsequently stood down after conversations with St John’s.

Alan Churchill, the Goldfields regional manager for St John Ambulance, said at the time, "A volunteer saying there’s someone in the community that they wouldn’t go and attend — there’s no room for us to move on that. There are some things that are not negotiable with the organisation and choosing who we go to is certainly of them."

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Jim Epis describes the detention centre as a "boon" economically.

"The Shire receives airport taxes paid by the airline every time the aircraft land … Payment for recreational facilities and other services all help the local economy. Hire of vehicles appears to be a lucrative business. The Department and its contractors prefer to buy from local retailers … There are 60-70 support staff who now live here, spending money in hotels, restaurants, retail outlets and tourism attractions."

He said the "newcomers seem to have been well accepted by the locals".

"In the first week the refugees were here, the local residents, including Aboriginal people, asked when they could help by taking families sightseeing and on picnics. Some of the local people have formed groups to help women with bead making, arts and crafts and so on. They use the recreation facilities and parks and oval, playing cricket and soccer and other activities [escorted by SERCO officers].

"Children from the detention centre attending school in Leonora for the first time was expected to be daunting, not only for the visitors but the locals as well, however all went off without a hitch."

Richard Evans sees the fate of his town, his land and the detainees themselves as symptoms of the dominance of the white settler communities.

"Two hundred metres from here you can see my people living in third world conditions, while the wealth of his nation has been pillaged and taken out of this country. I am supposed to be king of my country here, and I am living in poverty. John Howard’s 10 Point Plan made it impossible for us to receive native title."

Evans holds "no bitterness" towards people seeking asylum in Australia and is not opposed to them being in Leonora.

"220 years ago the First Fleet came into Australia and took over. Now they are telling these people here, boat people, ‘nick off, get going you boat people’, and that’s the First Fleeters saying that."

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Ngalia elder Kado Muir grew up in and around Leonora, now spending "half of his time" there and the rest in Perth. An anthropologist and human rights advocate, he opposes the mandatory detention of asylum seekers outright. While Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she understood "the anxiety around unauthorised boat arrivals", those fears are something of which Muir takes a wry view.

"What we see it as is one group of boat people getting hysterical about another group of boat people."

This is the first of two articles about Leonora by Giovanni Torre.

New Matilda

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