At the beginning of 2014, the controversy surrounding offshore processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru was red hot.
National opinion was divided. Revelations about the conditions within the facilities were beginning to surface and the government was feeling the heat. It was around this time that Jason Ross decided to accept a post on Nauru that would change him forever.
“I’ve been teaching for about 25 years, and this was, without doubt, the most significant teaching experience that I ever had. But also, without doubt, the most distressing. For those of us who have since come back, we’re all still dealing with it to some extent.”
Jason is a straight shooter. Very measured. You get the impression he only says things one way – exactly as they are.
He’d been to Nauru before, on his way to taking young students on ‘cross-cultural experience’ trips to Kiribati, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He remembered Nauru’s moonscape environment, and its isolation, but he’d never seen the detention centres before working there.
“I don’t think we knew exactly what to expect,” he remembers, “Until we actually saw how hostile that environment is, just how incredibly hot it is. There is just this air of despair and hopelessness. And a lot of us found that really sad and frustrating – feeling, to a large extent, powerless.”
His new role with Save the Children took him to the heart of the detention facility. Firstly, as a teacher, then running the secondary school and finally as Education Manager. Together with the education team, he helped set up an early childhood centre, a primary school, a secondary school and an adult education space.
“When we set up the schools – and we set up some amazing schools for these beautiful kids – they really provided the children with a sense of normalcy and routine and a safe environment to be in. It was really comforting for both the children and their parents to know that, for a short period of their day, they were in a safe environment and they were going to get an education.”
But it was a tough gig. Confronting, grueling and heartbreaking. The uncertain futures of the children, the conditions they endured, what they’d already been through and having to leave them behind when it was time to return home. This all contributed to a profound and underestimated emotional toll, on everybody who worked there.
“We’d have to field these questions from students like, ‘Teacher Jason, how long are we going to be here? Why are we here? Do all Australians hate us? Do they all want to see us in detention?’ These are children asking these questions! ‘When are we going to get out of here, Jason?’ They are pretty difficult questions to answer. You don’t want to give them a false sense of hope. I just didn’t have the answers.”
Most of the staff who were deployed would stay, in a fly-in fly-out arrangement, for three or four months. Some would last a few weeks, some just a few days. Jason was there – regularly flying in and out – for nearly two and a half years. He admits that while he was there, he had to be strong for his team every day. Staff would come to him distressed, in tears, distraught after having listened to horrific stories or to frightened mothers and children howling through the night.
‘Teacher, how long are we going to be here? Why are we here? Do all Australians hate us?’
After Save the Children’s tenure ended, Jason stayed on as a Technical Education Advisor in partnership with the government of Nauru.
“I was really lonely. I’d been used to having red ‘Save’ shirts around me. To having a beer and a debrief at the end of the day. Those last six months I was there, there were two reported cases of self-immolation, reports of women who had tried to hang themselves, and of kids who had attempted suicide. I was there for all of that and then I would come back to my accommodation at the end of the day, and I was just alone.
“So, when I did eventually come home, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought I was ok but after probably a month, trying to settle back into this world ... There were nights when I just found myself curled up in a ball, just shivering and shaking and I’d be having these flashbacks of my last two and a half years. And I basically couldn’t function.”
He pauses before breaking into a smile, “But feeling better now, thank goodness!”
A common thread running through Jason’s reflections is the incredibly high value the children and parents in detention place on education.
“I remember the day 157 Tamils suddenly arrived. Including about 53 children. I watched Save the Children come together that day; the recreation team, the welfare team, the teachers, all there to offer support. You can’t imagine what these people had endured already. To now be in this hostile environment, scared, not knowing what lies ahead. So, we told the families that we have this great little school. The next morning, we went down to the detention center, and there they were – all lined up, all these beautiful, gorgeous little kids in the best little outfits they could possibly find. That was marvelous, and so valuable for all of us.”
Something else that becomes clear when you talk to Jason about Nauru is his belief in how critically important it was that Save the Children was there.
“It was an incredibly unique experience for all of us. Initially, we were criticised by some in the sector for going over there. But having been there, and having listened to the children and parents talk about their positive experiences with us – they were so grateful we were there – there’s no doubt in my mind.
“You know, a lot of the kids there are still running around Nauru in their Save the Children red T-shirts. Some of those kids even sleep with them at night, just to provide some comfort. That’s something we should be proud of, I reckon.
“I just pray for the day they’ll all be able to leave and settle in a country where they feel welcome, safe and happy and where they can build a hopeful future ... that’s a fundamental human right!”