Since the age of six, Previn* has been a refugee. During the Sri Lankan civil war in 1990, his family was forced to flee to Tamil Nadu in India, where they were called agathigal by the locals: refugee.
For more than 20 years they lived in a crowded refugee detention camp, without the same rights as Indians, so in March 2013 Previn boarded a boat to Australia. “It’s cruel in India,” he says. “Some of my friends told me Australia is a good place. I don’t know how they knew.”
Previn, 30, is the opening batsmen for Ocean 12, a cricket team established in 2013 by Noeline Nagle and the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. Previn and his 15 teammates are stuck in a kind of purgatory – waiting for the Australian Government to grant him refugee status so he can move off his bridging visa.
Previn started playing cricket in India with other Tamils, but he loves the Australian opposition. “I prefer to make friends with the Australians,” he explains. “I need to understand more of the slang English.”
Previn’s closest Australian friends are Noeline and her husband Paul. The Tamil men call her “auntie”, and she’s fiercely protective of her team. Whether it’s visa issues, cuts and grazes, emotional support or a place to stay for the night, Ocean 12 can always rely on Noeline. “It’s totally enriched my life,” she says. “If anything happened to these guys I think my whole world would just crumble. I don’t like to dwell on that.”
For 22 days Previn and his friends sailed on a small fishing boat to Australia via Indonesia. There were 92 other people on board and provisions for just one meal a day and precious little water. “We just talked about the future, then sleep and eat,” he says. “We got sick, it was very hot on the ocean. Our skin discolour and went very very dark. It was like God’s grace that we here.”
When they finally hit land, it wasn’t the Australia he expected. Rather than being free on the mainland, he was ferried to Christmas Island. “I didn’t know,” he laughs, “I was so confused. Is this Australia? It was like India in a detention centre.”
For three months he stayed locked away on Christmas Island, before moving to a different facility in Weipa, Queensland, where he stayed for another nine months. The guards were nice in Weipa, he says. On Christmas Island? “Horrible. Violent.”
At Weipa he met other Tamils, five of whom he lives with now in north-west Sydney. Two to a room with no rights to work, it’s Spartan living. “With my friends we just sit in our room for whole days and waste time. We just came out of the house for cricket on Saturdays and Sundays, but on the weekdays there was nothing to do.”
The number one challenge facing the Tamil men is in keeping their mind occupied. Noeline says most are dealing with post-traumatic stress, but without work rights or permanent residency they can’t earn money and it’s difficult to integrate into the community.
“I used to worry terribly about the boredom of the men in community detention,” says Noeline. “I drove home one day and thought ‘this is ridiculous’.” From that moment in 2013, Ocean 12 was born. They play in a 20/20 cricket competition in western Sydney with the support of Wentworthville Leagues Club.
Previn’s best mate Jagen* is a fast bowler and a top order batsman. He hasn’t seen his mum and dad since they left to work in Qatar nine years ago, and he misses his girlfriend, who he left back in Sri Lanka three years ago. Since arriving in Australia he’s suffered deep depression, and like Previn he’s had terrible nightmares of the boat journey.
“I’m better now for my mental health,” he says. “My mind clear now. Monday to Friday, every day sleeping and talk with mum and dad on my phone. Saturday and Sunday very happy I can play cricket.”
Jagen is waiting for a visa and work rights. He rolls up his sleeves to show me deep, dark scars where he would be routinely whipped by wire from the Sri Lankan army. “It’s a very difficult situation,” he says. “They suspect me of being part of the [Tamil] Tigers. The army would come in my home and torture.” Whether this – as well as a boat-journey and a stint in detention – is enough to convince the refugee review committee that he’s a ‘genuine’ refugee is yet to be known. But while he waits, playing cricket with Ocean 12 is crucial catharsis.
When Ocean 12 started, they were hopeless, says Noeline. “The men wouldn’t talk to each other and they got beaten terribly. It took a couple of months to turn around, and then in the summer competitions we didn’t lose a game. It just went from strength to strength. They became a team. They became supportive of each other.”
Many members of Ocean 12 have taken Australian flags to the cricket World Cup matches, and it’s through cricket that they’re starting to feel Australian. The support has been particularly crucial for Previn, who is now striving for success in other areas. He’s started umpiring local matches and he recently topped the class in his laboratory skills course at TAFE.
In March, Ocean 12 won their first grand final, making them champions of Sydney’s Last Man Standing competition.
Despite the victories on and off the field, nothing is permanent until the Australian government accepts that Previn is a refugee, and the fear of being deported hangs over his head like a dark cloud.
Previn is especially worried that he’ll be deported to Sri Lanka, not India. He calls it his “life triangle”. Still, he’s just received his work rights, and when he finds a job he’s going to buy that new gold chain he’s been eyeing off and then start saving some money.
Noeline says the team keep asking her when they can repay the Australian government. “I’m telling them about the tax free threshold,” she says, “but they’re not interested – they want to pay tax!”
“My goal for here is becoming a good person,” says Previn, “then second goal I really want to speak good English. And then I want to become a scientist. After that maybe I will get married.”
*Names have been changed.
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