Ida Kaplan is a psychologist and Directive Services Manager for the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (VFST). She works with torture and trauma survivors who are refugees, asylum seekers or people holding Temporary Protection Visas. Kaplan first became involved in asylum seeker issues because of her interest in the psychological impact of detention. Through VFST, Kaplan has assisted families to deal with the impact of their time in detention, the effects of which can include depression, psychosomatic symptoms and detrimental changes to familial relationships. She has also participated in the schools program Kaleidoscope for the Classroom.
More information on Ida Kaplan
- Refugee Conference, University of New South Wales, 2011, Summary of Kaplan’s qualifications and role at VFST.
- “The meaning and mental health consequences of long-term immigration detention for people seeking asylum”, Elsevier, 2010, A qualitative research paper co-authored by Kaplan aiming to identify the psychological characteristics of prolonged immigration.
- “Post-Migration and Mental Health: The Australian Experience”, Mental Health of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, 2010, A chapter co-authored by Kaplan discussing effects on and the importance of migrant’s mental health.
- “Psychosocial Indicators of Wellbeing for Resettled Refugee Children and Youth: Conceptual and Developmental Directions”, Child Indicators Research, 2011, An article co-authored by Kaplan which presents a framework for the development of psychosocial indicators of wellbeing for refugee children.
The cases below all considered reports from Ida Kaplan in evidence
Transcript of Interview
26 September 2006
Interview conducted by Cecilia Winkelman
MS WINKELMAN My name is Cecilia Winkelman. I’m conducting an interview with Ida Kaplan. Today is Tuesday 26 September 2006. This is Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Ida would you like to introduce yourself please?
IDA KAPLAN Just with my name?
MS WINKELMAN Just with your name.
IDA KAPLAN I’m Ida Kaplan.
MS WINKELMAN Ida perhaps you could start by saying how you came to be sitting here giving this interview.
IDA KAPLAN I’ve been aware of the project for some time. In fact, I’ve been involved in talking about ways to conduct the interviews and one of the things that I was interested in conveying to people organising the project in fact, was that I felt that people probably had experiences that they may not be able to talk about during a live interview. I work with torture and trauma survivors who are refugees as well as asylum seekers or people with Temporary Protection Visa holders. I understand that some of the work experiences that people have are very difficult to talk about, even when they’re not being filmed. So, I was anticipating that there would be issues about disclosure for a public record. As a result, I was keen to talk in general terms about what I felt and the impact of detention was on people’s wellbeing, particularly psychologically and socially.
MS WINKELMAN Could you say something about the issues that you were concerned about and then talk about the impact?
MS KAPLAN The issues have changed in focus over the years. During the time when many people were being held in detention, there were a lot of issues that were arising around the nature of that detention environment and the deleterious affect it seemed to be having on people. I’ve been able to see people after they’ve left detention and one can observe the longer term affects of detention and I think it’s important to understand as fully as possible not just the immediate effects, but the long term effects. These of course vary with the nature of people’s experiences in detention, as well as the nature of experiences they’ve had before they came to be in detention.
MS WINKELMAN And you were mentioning the psychological impact?
MS KAPLAN There is a range of psychological impacts which range from an escalation of fear, in response to being in an unsafe environment. Detention may be initially safe but it becomes unsafe over time, because it represents complete uncertainty about the future, as well as ongoing separation from family members in most cases. So, fear and anxiety about the future is a very important effect. Probably, I think the most potentially long term devastating effect arises from a loss of trust and faith in an environment such as Australia’s, to provide what no doubt would’ve been anticipated as haven. If we look at the countries from which most people come such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it takes little imagination to consider what those people have fled, even without knowing the details of their history, given the circumstances and conditions in those countries over a long period of time. We are very well aware of very difficult situations of hardship, if not outright and torture and persecution that has occurred. And when you seek a haven from those experiences and are met with disbelief or mandatory detention, then this has a very humiliating and degrading effect, as well as an effect on trust in people. So, one can mitigate those effects, that’s why it’s extremely important to have supporters and people who have made contact with people in detention. I think that contact from people who are interested in them as people, is a vital factor influencing the long-term course of people’s psychological health.
MS WINKELMAN You’re wanting to make a contribution to this project. Can you say more about that motivation of what you’re wanting to contribute?
MS KAPLAN I think it’s important to understand the impact of detention from a psychological perspective, which is somewhat deeper, or calls up the need to interpret what people say or go beneath the surface. Because as I mentioned earlier in the interview – people will not necessarily articulate the impact in full and I think it’s important to do justice to the experience. Not that I claim to have more ability to describe the impact. I think people’s voices themselves are very powerful but, I suppose I do want to offer some analysis of the impact in terms of fear, impact on long-term relationships, impact one’s sense of self esteem and worth as a human being.
MS WINKELMAN Can you say more about that; you mentioned, go beneath the surface?
MS KAPLAN Yes, one of the things that a lot of people have talked about is the impact on family relationships of being in detention. Many families arrived into detention as families, whereas many other people who have been in detention have come as single people and there are a whole range of families, who are actually separated whilst in detention. So, there were cases, for example, of perhaps a wife or a brother or a sister being Nauru and the other member of the family being in Australia. And there was no possibility of being reunited until decisions had been determined about their refugee status and even once decisions had been determined, it wasn’t automatic that someone for example in Nauru would come to Australia. So, there were a range of circumstances around separation and my experience is, that people rarely seek a haven from persecution without thinking about the wellbeing of all their family members. So, delays to being recognised as a refugee and then delays in the possibility of reunion, as a result of the nature of the Temporary Protection Visa, means that people have an experience of failure about being able to protect their family members. That has an ongoing impact of inflicting further humiliation, which is internal, rather than externally created. So, there are many aspects of the detention experience, which are humiliating. But I think what really affects people in the long term is their sense of humiliation which they – or failure that they carry from within. The other aspect I’ve seen of the way in which families have been affected is the way parents suffer terribly when they’re in detention with their children. So, I’ve observed this close hand in working with a family where two young children were in detention and there were many factors causing a mother and father distress. But probably the worst was having to wake up every day to their children in detention and their children asking why they were there. I also spent time with the children to support them psychologically and help cope with the experience and they would say things such as, well, we must be bad if we’re in detention because only bad people get put in prison. So, how do you actually make sense of that experience for children, because it’s actually not comprehensible to adults either, it doesn’t make any sense. One normally associates the deprivation of liberty with a sentence for a criminal offence. So, being held in conditions where liberty has been, is deprived to you, then parents have no way to explain that to their children. So, that’s one aspect of the way in which parents feel that they’ve failed. The other is that in the detention environment, they have no control over what they feed their children or when they feed their children. That lack of control over what it is essential to family functioning, has a devastating impact on parents. Certainly, being released from detention is absolutely vital in making a difference. I think there’s a lot of information around as to why children shouldn’t be in detention and, thankfully, for people in Australia, children are no longer held in the conditions they once were. But nevertheless one has to address the impact of the time in detention. Which, in some cases, was upwards from one year, two years, three years and even longer.
MS WINKELMAN How long was it for the family you mentioned?
MS KAPLAN Almost two and half years.
MS WINKELMAN When they were released what happened to them when they left?
MS KAPLAN They often talked about detention and that was partly because my role was in fact to assist them deal with the impact of detention and they certainly celebrated their release from detention. But even to this day and some four years have gone by, they are trying to make sense of why it happened. They can’t, although one of the things we talk about is the nature of the political context and, what happened to them, isn’t a result of anything they did per se, apart from trying to achieve protection in Australia. They arrived at a time when detention was mandatory and the environment wasn’t sympathetic.
MS WINKELMAN That was one family that was able to stay together though, while they were in detention?
MS KAPLAN Yes, that was right and they did have each other, although the parents really were not functioning very well, in terms of their psychologically state, and it’s difficult to talk about them in detail because I’m aware of issues of confidentiality. But I have observed in other parents as well, that the detention leads to them being depressed and very distressed or in constant pain, as a result of a variety of psychosomatic symptoms, and their relationship with their children actually changes.
MS WINKELMAN How did you see it change?
MS KAPLAN In order to cope with detention some people withdraw. Probably, that’s the most common response and emotional withdrawal, in order to cope with really a total lack of freedom and lack of control over one’s environment. People withdraw in order to cope with anger and frustration and from having so little to do and that’s a normal coping mechanism. That’s the way a lot of people cope with distress and being in circumstances that you have no control over. But in order to withdraw from your environment, in order to cope with that environment you also withdraw in your relationships and that affects relationship between parents and children. That’s why I think so many people have been interested in ensuring that children had meaningful activity in detention, not just to promote their rights for opportunity and ensuring that their developmental pathways were unduly curtailed. But it was also a way, I think, to compensate for probably the lack of normal stimulation and nurturance they would have received from their parents. So, the family relationship was terribly degraded under the conditions of detention.
MS WINKELMAN For this particular family, you did see the parents withdrawing, both parents withdrawing from the children emotionally?
MS KAPLAN Well, actually I think they were exceptional in their efforts to maintain a relationship. But the children certainly picked up on their parents distress and what’s also common for children is that they will take responsibility for looking after their parents. So, there’s a great burden that’s placed on children, to keep their parents going and I think that’s been a factor in some children’s
MS WINKELMAN Did you see that happening?
MS KAPLAN poor psychological state. I did not have much personal experience of watching children look after their parents. But I’ve actually seen it, in a context of refugees who arrive in Australia with Visas for permanent residency and so the issue of detention isn’t in the forefront, but people have been affected by their experiences of torture and trauma and I’ve seen many cases of those dynamics being manifest then. Where parents have difficulty in coping in this case, with previous experiences of torture and the children put on a very brave face and look after their parents. But you also see children not coping at all with that situation. So, there is tremendous variation in people’s coping strategies.
MS WINKELMAN Can you say how this particular family – the children weren’t coping?
MS KAPLAN They were very expressive, and I think that helped a lot, that they could talk about their experience and they had a lot of supporters and that was critical.
MS WINKELMAN From outside or from within?
MS KAPLAN From outside, certainly not from within.
MS WINKELMAN Who were these supporters?
MS KAPLAN Well, supporters in the sense. I mean I’ve provided psychological support. That was professional support so that provided the means by which the children could express themselves. So, we used methods of play and story telling, and I can’t go into detail about some of their supporters, because I think that would potentially identify the family. But they were from the community and of course this included their professional links were very important as well. So, their links with their lawyer I remember as being very important.
MS WINKELMAN The children have a relationship with the lawyer, would talk to the lawyer?
MS KAPLAN That’s right, you were talking about the children. They were aware of the lawyer and that he was working to achieve release from detention. Yes, the children did have a sense of the lawyer being interested in their wellbeing and that had a big effect on reducing their sense of isolation.
MS WINKELMAN When this family left detention you mentioned they celebrated. What did they do to celebrate?
MS KAPLAN Basically, people who knew the family celebrated with them over food. It was very significant to participate in really the first meal, after being released from detention and everyone was acutely aware of what it meant to choose what you were going to eat and travel to a restaurant freely.
MS WINKELMAN Over a meal at a restaurant or I was wondering who prepared the food?
MS KAPLAN Yes, yes it was at a restaurant.
MS WINKELMAN Can you say how the family’s adjusted since then?
MS KAPLAN This family, like other families I know, really waited for the review of their Temporary Protection Visa and they were in limbo for several years, until they got their permanency. Again, it’s hard to talk about a family in particular, so I need to speak more generally about other people and families in that situation. That you can’t achieve any sense of security if you know your visa is going to be reviewed to protection application rather. Has to be made again with no knowledge of the outcome and that process of reapplying, was extremely anxiety-provoking for people and brought back usually traumatic experiences pre-arrival. Because anticipating failing to get protection, meant the possibility of return and in anticipating return, it’s experiences associated with the country of origin that become alive again in people’s minds. They’re always there but there’s renewed stimulation and traumatic events become almost relived rather than nearly remembered, in circumstances of fearing return.
MS WINKELMAN Can you say about this family, were they able to maintain contacts with people back in their country of origin?
MS KAPLAN It was dangerous to do so and, again, it’s difficult to explain the circumstances around that because of potentially identifying the family. But contact was very, very limited. There was some capacity for telephone contact but that is not straightforward in some countries.
MS WINKELMAN So, you were talking about how this family has adjusted and was saying that in waiting for their permanent visa, each time they applied for an extension of the temporary visa, it would reawaken for them the pre-arrival experience?
MS KAPLAN Yes there there’s only one application that’s made, so on being granted a temporary protection visa. You can apply for a permanent protection visa, but not for three years. So there is one application, so there’s a period of not being able to do anything about permanency for at least three years. But ’til processing occurs again and a decision is made, it’s sometimes been up to five years since people were released from detention. So that period of time during which they’re living in uncertainty, is very long and for people who’ve got family members left behind it’s extremely painful. There’s a very diverse group of people who have been in detention. I’ve also been, I’ve also worked with people who have been in detention a very long time.
MS WINKELMAN How long?
MS KAPLAN Up to four years and on their release, with the spectre of another three years at least before they might be reunited with families, they aren’t doing very well. The mental health impact of that period of time of separation and not knowing if you will be reunited is, has a terrible impact. It produces very severe depression and to the point where even people do have work rights under temporary protection visa status, they can’t necessarily work. Although in other cases, work is the only thing that just keeps people going and gives them some structure and direction. But not everyone is capable of working and what begins to happen is, when the period of separation is very long, even where people can make phone calls. They have children at the other end asking them why they can’t see them and people I’ve spoken to, describe how the children and the wives, in the case of males, who don’t believe that the person’s trying.
MS WINKELMAN These children and the wives are in the country of origin?
MS KAPLAN In country of origin or in a country they have fled to for temporary safety and so people in Australia are worried for their safety, but it’s the actual contact which is extremely fraught and I’ve heard some men talk about wanting to call. But not wanting to call because they don’t know what to say anymore about the situation and it is very difficult to explain, what the nature of the visa and what’s happened and why. Again, it’s not comprehensible. People assume if their relative is in Australia, it must be possible to find a way for them to be reunited. So it’s the inexplicable nature of it, which then I think damages relationships and a lack of trust develops within a family and I’ve seen men simply lose the words for explanation. They don’t know what to say and how to say it.
MS WINKELMAN Okay.
MS KAPLAN (Indistinct) stops.
MS WINKELMAN Can you say whether one of these families you’re speaking about now, where it’s gone for so long the uncertainty, whether you’ve seen them able to reunite with the family at the end.
MS KAPLAN I’m trying to think. The people I’m thinking of are still not reunited but, yes, I can think of a family where there was a reunion after about five years.
MS WINKELMAN Where the family came from, the country they had fled to?
MS KAPLAN Yes and that was fantastic of course, but it certainly it still meant that the person involved had to continue receiving intensive psychological support. He had developed in detention a very severe depressive disorder with prominent symptoms, characteristic of post traumatic stress disorder and he had recurrent nightmares and intrusive memories of events that had occurred before arrival in Australia. But in this particular case, some of the trauma had occurred in detention, but again it’s very difficult to describe the nature of those events in detention but there were events that were traumatic for him in detention.
MS WINKELMAN When he was reunited with his family, how did the adjustment proceed?
MS KAPLAN I think there’s been a gradual process of rebuilding. I think it’s very important that people are involved in facilitating opportunities for employment and housing, from people who recognise what the difficulties are. So that it’s not just a practical task to assist someone with housing, but it’s carried out with a sense of understanding of what people are carrying. I suppose I’m talking about a fundamental way of showing respect and understanding, for people who’ve undergone many hardships and humiliating experiences and I think that’s what makes a difference. So that I’m hopeful for the future in this particular situation, because this family is surrounded by not just professional help which is critical to continue but also there is very strong support from members of the community.
MS WINKELMAN And you’re aware of people treating, the father of this family with respect and with understanding?
MS KAPLAN Very much so.
MS WINKELMAN Right. Are you able to describe something about that?
MS KAPLAN I think one of the things that’s often invisible about people’s experience and it’s impact, is the toll it takes on everyday life. So that for example, if someone’s very depressed, it is difficult to get out of bed and to get going and again part of that, is a result of the adaptation of having no reason to get up. Particularly under circumstances of long detention and it’s very easy for people in a support role to come up with all sorts of things for a person to do, on the assumption that they will feel better. On the one hand that’s true, activities are important and involvement is important. But it’s very important to pace that involvement, or to be reasonably close to where someone is at, in terms of their readiness to do things and introduce activities or things that people can participate in which are gentle. So it may be going for a walk rather than going to a function where there are lots of people, so it’s respecting someone’s readiness to socialise. I think one of the interesting complications which sometimes arise, is people’s readiness to take up educational opportunities. So some people can’t wait to get to school, for example, after they’ve been released from detention and then discover that it’s difficult to learn again. Because of that numbing which has occurred in order to cope, as well as interference with concentration, through sleeplessness or post traumatic stress disorder symptoms. So it’s important to adapt expectations around education, to make allowances for changes in the ability to learn. So it’s crucial to have that opportunity but it’s also crucial to make allowances and sometimes people can’t attend and sometimes people are their own worst enemies. Actually, not external expectations which is the issue, it’s their own expectations. Because they have to make up for what they’ve missed out on and they can’t learn enough, fast enough, so one has to assist people in also allowing or facilitating them to allow for the fact that it’s going to take time. So it’s a juggling act, between providing opportunities but adjusting these expectations.
MS WINKELMAN Can we go back for a moment, to the separation issue you spoke about earlier. Where there was a member of a family on Nauru and other members of the family also in detention but in the mainland. There was a family you referred to who were separated and you alluded to the uncertainty that they experienced in that time. Could you speak a bit about how that family managed.
MS KAPLAN Well, I actually did not have contact with them once they were reunited. I had contact with the husband who was in Australia, whilst his wife was on Nauru and he was actually a suicidal client. That he found the separation unbearable, but there was more to it than that. We’re in a very privileged situation, being able to have a professional relationship with people which leads to a deep knowledge of experiences pre-arrival and, again, I cannot describe the nature of those pre-arrival experiences for reasons of confidentiality. Even though without using names there is still that potential for perhaps identifying people. But, as a result of that professional relationship, it emerged that his pre-arrival experiences had been characterised by extensive loss. By that I mean very close family members had been killed and that had produced so much grief, which he had never really been able to deal with because he was always in a situation of flight. And that also, he fled placing the family at risk and his wife fled after he did and that’s why she – they didn’t leave together. Which isn’t that unusual, there are family members who didn’t leave at the same time. As a result of the grief he’d experienced in his country of origin, which had occurred as a result of persecution and deliberate targeting – being faced with ongoing separation from his wife who had also undergone terrible experiences, filled him with such an utter sense of hopelessness, that he really did not wish to live. It’s hard to gauge how common this is because I think no one has had the opportunity to do a systematic, sort of, undertake a systematic look at people who had been in detention for a long period of time. So, I am speaking about particular people. But I know from my work with torture and trauma survivors in general, that people are at very high risk of committing suicide, when they’ve lost people very close to them and wish to join them. So the impulse to kill themselves, is driven by “I wish to be reunited” even with people who’ve died, and that’s preferable to the pain of endless isolation. So in my work, that is part of what constitutes a risk assessment for suicide. Is an exploration of previous losses and that impulse to be reunited, which is never articulated by people. They would not talk about, in these terms, although they would talk how they wanted to be with a child who’d been killed for example and that’s when you begin to recognise that impulse, combined with despair about lack of future, is a dangerous mixture. So, there are of course situations like that but I couldn’t say how many such cases, we really don’t know. But, if you analyse the causal factors for suicidal urges in those circumstances, you would imagine there’s quite a lot of people who felt that way. Again, what mitigates it, is support. One literally stays very close to someone who is suicidal in that way and it’s extremely important to maintain hope. Very important I think, in a professional role or in a volunteer’s role, is to convey hope even though despair is rather catchy at times.
MS WINKELMAN This particular family didn’t have children.
MS KAPLAN Yes they did. They did and, therefore, I think typical of many other families who had children. Again, if you look at the nature of pre-arrival experiences and who is in a family and who is not in a family, then you discover that it’s very typical for close family members to be missing or have been killed. But this information is only – comes out when you have a very close relationship with somebody and, generally speaking, this is one of the reasons why I want to do this interview. Generally speaking, my experience was that very few people who had been in detention and then were released on temporary protection visas, would talk about their experiences pre-arrival. Now I think from a cynical perspective, which might be that of a decision maker needing to determine if someone is a refugee, or is a refugee or not – I think that lack of disclosure is somewhat damning. Is suggestive that perhaps they haven’t actually undergone experiences of persecution. But in my experience what people have been through, particularly when it relates to loss and death, especially of children, that the guilt is such that they won’t speak about it. The other complicating issue there, is a child may have died as a result of lack of medicine or hardship in the country of origin or may have been killed as a result of some other act of violence. So the cause of that child’s death, is the circumstances in the country and have been beyond the parents control. But there is no parent who doesn’t take responsibility for the loss of a child. So, sometimes the factors that would contribute in fact to their protection claim, are never expressed, because they believe they caused it in some way, through neglect or never having done enough. It’s parallel to what you would see in grief in any parent, I’m not just talking about parents with a refugee background. Any parent who has lost a child will take responsibility. There may be anger at systems and what people didn’t do but inside they blame themselves. So parents of a refugee background are the same and that leads to, I think a lack of disclosure of the full circumstances in which they lived. Because without qualification, any person with a refugee background has had to do things which they feel guilty about and which they feel shame about. Every act of fleeing means leaving people behind who are in danger. Who to take with you, who to leave behind, there is no decision that can really be right. There is always loss and something wrong about the decision, because it leaves other people vulnerable. So that guilt leads people not to talk about their experiences, as well as outright concerns for people being reluctant to describe how they may have procured or obtained the ability to leave a country of origin, say through people smugglers. I mean, it’s – people aren’t going to freely talk about situations that might jeopardise family members left behind. Because you’re not, it’s not considered safe to talk about such things. So, that’s one issue, which I think has got quite a lot of public acknowledgment, but I don’t think there’s necessarily much visibility around what can’t be said for reasons of traumatic loss. The other reason that people cannot say what they’ve been through, is where it involves torture or human rights violations, such as rape. One of the problems is with the use of the word “torture” rape is an act of torture as well. But, people aren’t going to
MS WINKELMAN Shall we carry on there’s just five minutes left on the tape.
MS KAPLAN People, people don’t talk about their – people don’t talk about the worst of their experiences because of, because of shame and, again, people who have been tortured have often been forced to disclose things that may have jeopardised a colleague or a friend or a fellow political activist. So, people aren’t going to talk about experiences where they feel they have betrayed somebody. Even if it means that it will contribute to their protection claim and I have also heard torture survivors talk about it being a – it feels like a violation to tell somebody what you have experienced, if you’re not going to be believed. So they are reluctant to communicate their story as well. My observations of people who have been in detention, is because they were so surprised by mandatory detention and the conditions to which they were subjected under detention, that their view of not being believed was extremely solid. They didn’t expect to be believed and therefore they would hold back. In fact I do remember a woman we worked with who was, well, in lay terms a total mess. She, I don’t know how she got through the day. I almost felt she had to go back, to be reunited with her children, because she had a very agitated grief reaction. So instead of being numb, she was just constantly thinking about her child and was, yes, extremely agitated and very difficult to contain. Because we had known her for a long time, we would have contributed a psychological report to the review of her next application for protection visa. Even though we knew her really well, we could not elicit a history of what had happened to her and we knew that her state wasn’t – was of course caused of the ongoing separation. But we appreciated there was a lot more to it. But, she wouldn’t talk about it and that’s with a very close professional relationship. I’m glad to say she did get a permanent protection visa and is, will be reunited with her family but it’s been a long, long time. So it’s – there are a lot of reasons why people can’t talk about the past. Just getting feelings of fear back, is one of the most obvious ones, or the fear of re triggering memories, is one of the obvious reasons why people don’t like to talk about the past. But I think the deeper issues are ones of having, feeling guilty for perhaps having betrayed someone, or feeling shame because they have experienced something so terrible, which is unspeakable and the result is that people understate their experiences.
MS WINKELMAN Ida, you were talking about this family that were separated, one was on Nauru and one was in detention, the wife was in detention here and they were reunited and some of the difficulties members of this family would have experienced, speaking about their experience and the pre flight experience as well.
MS KAPLAN Yes. I am not sure what the question is.
MS WINKELMAN Well, I suppose the question is – the husband in the family had a difficult time managing with the separation and he didn’t have contact with his wife as a support. I imagine she also had her own difficulties as well.
MS KAPLAN Yes I didn’t – I could only imagine her difficulties because I didn’t have an opportunity to get to know his wife and I think that’s what led me into describing the need to have some imagination for what people are feeling, when they can’t actually talk about their worst experiences. So where there has been loss, as a result of pre arrival experiences and this is compounded by loss, through separation, whilst in detention and seeking protection in Australia.
MS WINKELMAN Do you want to grab that?
MS KAPLAN Shall I start that one again.
MS WINKELMAN Yep.
MS KAPLAN I didn’t get to know the wife in that situation, but I could imagine the impact on her as well. I think that’s required of us as professionals, as well as people in the community who support people in this situation, is to have some imagination for the degree of loss that people have experienced pre-arrival as well. That loss is compounded by, often very long periods of separation during detention and during the Temporary Protection Visa stage. I think people do realise and that’s why they offer their support, but it goes back to what I was saying earlier, about sometimes needed to accommodate people’s reactions in the way of depression or lack of participation. Because sometimes they want to be alone with their pain and yes, again finding that balance of leaving people alone, as well as engaging with them, is quite a difficult one. But sometimes people a feel bit obligated to participate very actively. In celebrations for example, and one hand that’s very important but sometimes I think they want to say no and can’t. So, it’s just an area of sensitivity to think about.
MS WINKELMAN The person wanting to say no, would be the former asylum seeker?
MS KAPLAN Yes.
MS WINKELMAN Yes.
MS KAPLAN Yes.
MS WINKELMAN So, you mentioned having to, kind of, be the bearer of hope for this man, during some of his periods of depression. The family, where are you with that hope now for this family?
MS KAPLAN Yes, strong, strong hope. But it takes time, it really takes time and sometimes children are reunited with a father most usually, but not always, and they haven’t seen each other for years. The children have gone through all these developmental stages and it is, they actually have to get to know each other and deal with that gap and overcome I think, some of the distrust that developed. A big burden for the father, is those feelings of guilt and failure because basically he has not protected his children and he will blame himself for that. So, to overcome that, takes time and can only be overcome with the rebuilding of the future, and children need a lot of time to trust that future. Again, it’s not conscious for children, but if they’ve also spent years under conditions of uncertainty and someone’s promised them something, which hasn’t been delivered for years on end, then they do internalise an expectation that something’s going to go wrong. That’s one of the, not the biggest, but one of the challenges I think for children and that it takes time to alter an expectation like that. But it’s very, very important because it can be like an undertow in life. If you’ve experienced what seems like abandonment from a parent and, yes, the unfulfilled promise of well, I will see you eventually but it doesn’t eventuate for years. Then children internalise a sense of uncertainty about what life can provide. So, I think there’s a lot of work to be done in rebuilding and contributing to rebuilding people’s lives. For one side of the picture, is to not under state the detention experience and the impact of that period of uncertainty. That’s one side, which is very important to acknowledge, as well as address the specific adverse legacies where they concern mental health. But I think, regardless of obvious manifestations of poor mental health, I think we’re obligated to really maximise our contribution to rebuilding people’s lives and that’s the purpose of our resettlement programs. When people of refugee backgrounds come to settle in Australia, the purpose of that settlement is to contribute to rebuilding their lives. I think it’s well recognised, it’s not enough for people just to get here. You actually have to respond to the legacy of the past, by rebuilding the future and the more adverse those past experiences, the more critical it is to provide experiences. So, opportunities for study are extremely important but one has to facilitate the financial means to study. I think programs for young people about navigating their way through a new culture. This is for those young people who arrive after periods of separation, as well as young people who have been in detention. They have to learn to work out where they are and can they trust the new environment. Is it a benevolent or malevolent situation? I think that needs discussion and support and that’s one of the – well the purpose of this is not particularly to talk about various programs that we run, but one of the reasons we invest a lot in school-based work, is to reach children, and adolescents and also young adults who are never going to come forth and say I’ve got a problem. So, one needs a way of recognising that they may have had special experiences, which require expression and perhaps discussion and to include other students in that discussion, who haven’t been through those experiences. So that the wider community also has an understanding of what people experience and how it gets expressed in every day life and what it means for the future.
MS WINKELMAN Is it WE?
MS KAPLAN WE, WE is, I work for Foundation House which is the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture.
MS WINKELMAN So, you’re aware of young people in schools having experiences that need to be addressed?
MS KAPLAN Yes, a big part of our work, during the time of – well it’s current but when there were quite significant numbers of children and adolescents leaving detention and entering the community. We recognise importance of schools being able to support those children and adolescents and sometimes it wasn’t known that a child or an adolescent had actually been in detention, and I think it was important not to separate those students from other students of refugee backgrounds. So, it’s important to have programs that looked at their feelings about being in Australia. This is for all children and young people of refugee backgrounds. It’s very important for them to have an opportunity to express the things they like about Australia, but also the things they don’t like, so that they can share ways of dealing with things and this can be done through group programs for example. So, it was important to have programs which look at children and young people’s journeys and how they’re experiencing their lives and how they might share some of their – share and overcome their difficulties and meet challenges. And we were very aware and through a professional development activity, we paid some attention to the school environment and how it might notice, which children might need some extra support as a result of experiences of detention.
MS WINKELMAN What kind of difficulties were you aware that they were having?
MS KAPLAN A lot of this is guessing, rather than hearing it from children and adolescents themselves. One of the things I touched on much earlier in the interview, was that feeling of they had done something wrong. Because they, in between they will be in prison, they must have done something wrong, or their family has done something wrong. So, feeling bad is one issue, the other one is not being confident about the stability and continuity of the school environment. So, the provision of education in detention was erratic a lot of the time and not sufficient, in terms of just number of hours. So, I think going to school was a very for, for all the hours that you’re entitled to go to school, is a big bonus for children and adolescents but they couldn’t interpret the environment they were in, because they were used to things being taken away from them. People being unpredictable, particularly detention officers.
MS WINKELMAN In what way unpredictable?
MS KAPLAN Unpredictable, in the sense they could talk about there were good officers and there were bad ones and I’ve heard some children describe being taunted by officers about wanting something and not being able to get it, such as food or lollies. Yes, they would be taunted, but others were generous and clearly helpful. So, they have this distrust of adults and you could imagine how that plays itself out in a school situation. Because I think teachers can be a bit unpredictable in their own way, not in any malevolent way, but they can be generous and fair at points. But if they’re frustrated they can become angry or perhaps a bit punitive in their tone. So, children were very sensitive to the behaviour of people in authority. So, children and adolescents coming out of detention, I think needed more explanations than other students did. About why perhaps a disciplinary procedure was implemented, it needed to be explained. That the rules, what made things happen, what didn’t make things happen, to build that picture of understanding. Not just predictability, but actually understanding what the rules of the adult world were – in Australia, outside of detention. So, that’s very important. Also they needed to experience just outright nurturing and genuine interest in their wellbeing and a sense that they mattered and this was particularly important where there were still difficulties at home, in the way that I talked about earlier. I think adults, some adults, continued to be depressed on release from detention. I’m talking about longer periods of detention here and children carry that burden. So, they need a place where they don’t have to carry a burden, which is school. They also need the opportunity to play in proper conditions, as well as learn and particularly so for adolescents too, because they’ve either had little schooling pre-arrival. Or perhaps interrupted, highly interrupted schooling and their schooling would’ve been interrupted in detention. They wouldn’t have got the same level of input as they would, other children. So, with adolescents you’ve got a much more heady mix of distrust, adolescents as we all know are what I call meaning makers. Adolescents actively strive to make sense of their world. They work out what’s good and bad and what’s fair as unfair and any adolescent is really into that and can play it out at school and so those issues of trust are particularly magnified I think, for adolescents. So, one has to I think go out of one’s way, to prove that the detention environment’s a peculiar one. Although, that’s harder during that period of Temporary Protection Visa status because it’s not a detention environment, but it’s still an unfair environment and they would meet other kids of a refugee background, who had the security of certainty about the future. So, adolescents would have still carried with them, the fact that they were different and why were they being given Temporary Protection status, rather than permanent. So, certain features of the detention environment continue outside the detention environment, in terms of uncertainty and lack of rights compared to actually everybody else. The only group that certainly has fewer rights are asylum seekers who haven’t been granted protection, or are in the process of seeking protection. They face a higher degree of uncertainty but TPV holders, really do still carry intense uncertainty, which is a big issue for adolescents.
MS WINKELMAN You said earlier that children will sometimes take on the parent’s burden or try to make their parents lives better. How does that play itself out once they leave the detention environment?
MS KAPLAN I don’t really know. It’s a big question there, about how long term are the affects of the various disruptions to family relationships and I don’t really know the answer to that question and I think it’s certainly one that’s very worthy of investigation. Because there are several disruptions to the family. That is one, children being parentified in carrying the burden. The other is disruptions, as a result of one or both parents suffering mental health effects, which interfere with their, what would have been their normal capacity, to be there for children and adolescents. The other disruption is the change in roles. So for example, it’s often harder for men to get work than women. So, this can have a profound affect on self-esteem which can be – affect the capacity of the father to feel a parent and be as effective a parent, as he otherwise might be. So, the changing roles are at the adult end, as well as the children end and I think it’s an open question, to what extent those effects are ongoing. And again, the answer partly depends on what degree of support and educational and settlement opportunities are available to people, and the effectiveness of that support. So, I think it’s a very important thing to follow up these families, because I don’t know, I mean, potentially you could have permanent adverse affects all the way to some outstanding coping ability, because there are ways to overcome adverse experiences. That’s what we try and do as an organization and that’s what Australia as a place of settlement is meant to be about for people, who arrive with visas to settle. It’s all about making and remaking lives, in the face of terrible circumstances pre-arrival. So, I would like to think and that’s hope speaking, that there is every possibility of great futures ahead. But it does depend on opportunities and specialised assistance, where people have really fallen over psychologically or socially or behaviourally. I simply don’t know if – the extent to which that has occurred.
MS WINKELMAN The programs that you’re offering the schools, how receptive have you found schools to offer and welcome you in?
MS KAPLAN Schools have been very receptive in looking at ways in which they can contribute to children and adolescents of refugee backgrounds, making the most of their lives in Australia. Yes, so there’s been a very, very high level of interest.
MS WINKELMAN Is there any comment you’d like to make about the programs themselves, that – what happens in the programs?
MS KAPLAN The programs vary from group programs for adolescents and children, that are composed just of children and adolescents of refugee backgrounds and that would include children adolescents, who received Temporary Protection Visas. And some of the programs, a whole of classroom programs, which would include children of refugee backgrounds as well as perhaps children with a culturally and linguistically diverse background, as well as children born in Australia and those programs are about sharing challenges and ways to overcome them. I’ve been personally involved in one of those classroom programs and they’re very successful I think, at building bonds and an understanding. So, students in a classroom have had comments like, I had no idea other children or why other students felt like that, or I thought they were stuck up, or I thought they were this, and that. So, they learn about each other and – so, programs that are about communication, self-esteem, understanding of feelings, ways to cope. They’re programs that would resonate with other health promotion strategies that are taken up by schools. So, those programs which are perhaps integrated into health curriculum, or other forms of curriculum, are very valuable. The Foundation Houses developed for example, a human rights group program, called ‘Taking Action’ and that’s for secondary school students and it’s an opportunity to talk about what are human rights. When do people lose their human rights and what are the ways to facilitate human rights. So, you might – I’m using imagine, a lot. Those programs are a wonderful opportunity for students to talk about human rights, but not in an abstract way. Because it’s carried out in classrooms where people have experienced violations first hand. So, there’s a range of programs like that, but the other important element is really the policy of the school, in being responsive to these issues and that also includes programs which engage parents, through regular meetings for example, to talk about the education system. It’s not about talking about their experiences specifically, but it’s a way of demonstrating that their engagement is important. Again, looking behind the scenes a little bit, a parental engagement program like that, that’s carried out by a school is the antithesis of say the detention environment. So, that’s an opportunity to rebuild, for those parents affected by detention, a sense of trust in authority.
MS WINKELMAN Could you say more about the one that you were personally involved in?
MS KAPLAN The classroom program, it’s called kaleidoscope for the classroom and it’s made up of several components. One of which is the journey to Australia and another component is looking at feelings. When do you feel angry, when do you feel fear, when do you feel happy, when do you feel hope. Again, it’s a means of expression and then the students talk about when they feel those things. Which is what builds an understanding. As well as some ideas of how to feel better if you’re feeling unhappy, or what to do when you’re angry. So, their solutions are talked about but it’s about building the connections amongst the students and discovering what they have in common. It’s to highlight that children have all sorts of bad experiences and good experiences. It’s to, well, to make the detention experience special in some way, rather than necessarily just terrible. Naturally, I’m of the view that detention is a terrible experience, because it can only do harm, it can’t do good. But then, when faced with someone who’s been through detention it’s important to find ways in which, for that harm to be reconfigured and one way is to make it special. And that also helps children feel a bit special rather than bad. So, talking about processes of change and those programs can become part of the school, because they’re always co-facilitated. For example, where someone from Foundation House and someone from school, such as the teacher or a welfare, student welfare co-ordinator. So, the idea is for the school to take up the capacity to run a program like that without us, which is what indeed happens. So, but those programs aren’t dedicated in any way to children and adolescents from – with detention backgrounds. They were developed for children and adolescents from refugee backgrounds. Which includes, children who have been in detention and the extent to which those children and adolescents are present in a classroom, depends on the area of settlement. I know that this is talking about and thinking about another sort of group program, which has nothing to do with the school environment. We’ve been involved in group programs for young adults that have been around – again they’d been around welcome and rebuilding trust but the actual activity has say for example, involved learning to cook. Which has been a great thing to do for young men who have left detention that haven’t necessarily – they have done amazing things to survive but they don’t necessarily know how to cook. So, I know we ran I think a great program one year, with young men all of whom had been in detention, around cooking. So, that was important as a life skill but, again, it was a way of them sharing in rebuilding their lives again, and there was fun associated with that too and, you know, going to football matches. I remember was something that that group did and that sort of participation is really helpful.
MS WINKELMAN Can you say how you, personally, have been affected by your work with people in detention?
MS KAPLAN That’s a hard question. In terms of actually speaking for myself, I have found it difficult, in the sense that it’s difficult to watch a mandatory detention policy being enacted, which you know can only do harm. Because of some people’s exceptional coping strategies, it’s not to say that everybody’s harmed and it depends very much on the length of time that people are in detention. But once you get into longer periods of detention it can only do harm, and it’s incomprehensible at a certain level, that one would in act policies that could do so much harm. At another level, it is comprehensible in terms of political agendas, but yes it fills me with anger and disappointment and I’d have to say I’ve been very influenced by the fact that I grew up in a refugee family. My parents are refugees. Australia was experienced as an outstanding place to come to, which brought endless opportunities for a new life. Having experienced first hand the meaning of being welcomed and having opportunities, which seem to represent an acknowledgement of the terrible suffering that had gone before – to see that for other people, that their suffering isn’t being acknowledged, I found extremely difficult but also energising. In a sense that it makes, it’s made me want to look and look at those causes of suffering, give them due acknowledge. Facilitate people forming new lives as best as I possibly could, but I don’t do that alone. I do that with lots of other people and that’s very energising and supportive as well. So, working with torture and trauma survivors, is a roller coaster at any time. But one of the very strong features of the environment at the moment, is that Australia does have an outstanding settlement program – where we accept a lot of people with refugee backgrounds to settle in Australia. I think just in terms of sheer numbers per capita and the type of settlement programs we have, I think Australia plays an outstanding role, in contributing to the rebuilding of peoples lives who have suffered extreme human rights violations. Yet, that seems to be totally split off, and from people who also have backgrounds of horrific human rights violations. But because they arrived in an unauthorised way, therefore deemed bad refugees, or those derogatory terms around queue jumpers. Which is a very powerful little phrase, to capture that they have done something wrong and it’s a way of capitalizing on the public, not abiding something as unfair as a queue jumper. That’s sort of, try jumping a queue in any circumstance and people get frustrated and angry. So, it’s a very effective way of really degrading a whole group of people, who sought to flee their countries, in order for reasons of protection. I’ve often said on occasions when I talked about this publicly, I’ve talked about the irony involved, in the way we award honours to people for bravery, who commit acts which put themselves at danger, in order to save other people. We really understand that parents who risk their lives to save their children, if they’re not given an actual award – well, they deserve them and yet we’ve parents who have made those same decisions, as unworthy. In fact, they have been blamed for exposing their children to these risks. Well, there is no parent who would expose their children to those risks. So, I think it’s important to keep working at addressing those sorts of injustices.
MS WINKELMAN I think we should stop there.
MS KAPLAN I just (indistinct).
MS WINKELMAN Have you had any – your opportunity to make your contribution, is there anything else that you would like to say that hasn’t been asked? Just take a moment to see.
MS KAPLAN I’m glad of this opportunity to talk about the ways in which I think people have been affected, so that we sustain our response to people who have been in detention and I think it’s also very important for the record. I think we should keep investing in looking at the effects of detention long term, clearly to ensure that those policies that can lead to people being kept in detention for undue periods of time, change.
MS WINKELMAN Thank you. Thank you very much Ida.
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