Safdar Ahmed’s Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Center depicts the treatment of immigrants in Australian detention center, Villawood. Through his webcomic, Ahmed shares the stories of several refugees while also showcasing the center’s cruel conditions and unfair treatment of its residents.
In a particular poignant panel set, a woman asks a refugee about his past, wondering why he left and the traumas he endured. Instead of answering, the man turns the tables and demands the woman spill her worst trauma. In three simple panels, Ahmed shows the danger of entitlement to someone’s life story. Migrants are more than stories to be read. They are real people affected by their past and living in the present. They are not here to satiate someone’s morbid curiosity. Even Ahmed notes that he feels “like a prick for being so voyeuristic in the first place.”
Humanizing the Human
Ahmed, then, is tasked with a difficult objective: he must humanize the Villawood residents without turning them into palpable packages of trauma for the average reader to consume and feel good about themselves. He must skirt the line of “trauma-porn” while also showcasing the cruel realities these migrants are subjected to. A webcomic like his attracts the morbid voyeur, so how can he tell a story that doesn’t serve to satiate the sadist in us and instead serves as a platform for the Villawood residents to unearth their experiences? Ahmed does this in several ways that, as a reader, I found both impactful and respectful. Through the use of voice and perspective, Ahmed allows specific individuals to tell their own stories. As they narrate, he gives us information on who they are and formats their experiences in webcomic form. His own perspective sits on the sideline. In this way, Villawood becomes neither a feel-good story or an onslaught of oppression and trauma. It transcends to something higher: a true story about true people told to highlight the oppressive system and the specific people it affects.
The Story of Villawood: Told from the Inside
In the first chapter, “First Impressions,” Ahmed sets the scene of Villawood’s strict rules and regulations. Ahmed begins the comic by stating what’s not allowed in Villawood: no phones, cameras, cash, or sharp objects. After being searched, Ahmed is thrust under the watchful eye of a security camera. The center reads more prison than safe haven. Tall fences and barbed wire. Handcuffs and guard dogs. With such harsh imagery, it’s easy to imagine the people there must also be cold and hardened. Ruthless criminals rather than refugees seeking safety.
While the chapter begins with Ahmed’s first impressions and his own perspective, it ends with artwork created by people Ahmed met in Villawood. Pencil drawings of their life before. We see they fled the threat of death and oppression for a prison of a different variety. They tell us this through their art, and they begin to take control of the narrative. Ahmed’s thoughts quickly give way to the voices of the people inside Villawood.
The second chapter, “Ahmad,” focuses on the specific experiences of Ahmad Ali Jafari, a Hazara refugee. Ahmed humanizes him by sharing specific traits of Ahmad’s in the beginning of the chapter. He is not a faceless name or a blanket character for the whole of the refugee experience to be thrust upon. He is a real person with individual quirks. An artist, a poet, and a victim of Villawood’s cold cruelty. Ahmed even includes a photo of Ahmad in the webcomic, putting substance to the man besides pencil drawings and cartoons. One important thing to note is that Ahmed uses a photo that Villawood residents hung up as a form of protest and call to action. The residents themselves want the truth of Ahmad’s death to be spread. The story is shared, not appropriated.
In the third chapter, Ahmed continues to share their story. He follows specific people as they speak about education, loneliness, and mistreatment. The residents speak for themselves while Ahmed illustrates their experiences, a trend that seems to fill the majority of the webcomic. The difference between the voyeuristic woman demanding to know a man’s trauma is that she demanded answers while the residents take control of their own voice. The reader must trust that Ahmed only tells what the residents wanted to tell and that he only shares the artwork they wished to share.
The final set of panels in the webcomic is especially telling. Refugee Haider Ali is granted release from Villawood. He is ecstatic while his caseworker tells him he can leave while his claims proceed. The caseworker, however, laments the extra load of paperwork on her part. The comic ends with Ali staring open-mouthed and shell-shocked, the phone still to his ear. He has endured the cruel conditions of the detention center, yet he is met with complete apathy when his situation changes. If someone as close to the system as a case worker cannot recognize Ali’s humanity and joy of escape, then what does that say not only about the system itself but how the rest of society treats migrants? Isn’t the burden of paperwork and overtime worth the goal of basic human decency and humane treatment?
The last panel suggests that Ali’s journey is not over. As a refugee, he will also be tainted by the knowledge the society in which he lives does not welcome him. He’s seen as a burden, unfairly throwing paperwork on someone who chose to make filling out that very same paperwork her profession. He escaped the Taliban only to be thrust into the hold of Villawood. And he has escaped Villawood only to be treated with apathy, his celebration cut short before it truly starts. In this way, Ahmed challenges our own role within the “refugee crisis,” questioning our presuppositions while also maintaining we have no right to demand these stories from these people. Any story we listen to must be freely given, and we cannot listen to the stories until we learn to humanize people like Ali—people who experience joy and pain. People whose victories must be celebrated, no matter what may come next. And, ultimately, we must take up the burden of paperwork—doing what must be done to reform the system and help the people it was designed to hurt.