by Angela Agelopoulou
I decided to analyze Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System for the class “Migration in Visual Narratives”, which deals with the migration journey portrayed in various types of visual narratives.
As I had already participated in a seminar that dealt with migration to Australia and the conditions in Australia’s detention centres, I was very interested to read Safdar Ahmed’s graphic novel. While the full graphic novel was published in 2021, a small part had already been published online as the webcomic Villawood: Notes from an immigration detention centre in 2015. I will make a close comparison between these two narratives in the following subpoint, however, I want to first summarize the plot of Still Alive briefly. The graphic novel shows the stories and lives of refugees being kept in an immigration detention centre in Villawood, Sydney. These people find themselves seeking asylum in Australia due to war and violence in their home countries. While it is the task of the Australian government to protect the refugees, the graphic novel shows the cruel reality of those needing protection: The refugees are faced with great challenges during their journey by boat but also upon arrival. All stories told in Still Alive are based on true events, as Ahmed ran art classes in Villawood and there met refugees willing to share their stories.
Even though I do have some knowledge about Australia’s detention centres, going through Still Alive was a very heartbreaking experience for me, as I felt deep sorrow while reading and seeing the stories of the refugees. I was overwhelmed by a sad and sickening feeling while going through both, the graphic novel and the webcomic. One thing I found especially shocking was the slogan of Serco, being “people are our business”. The slogan emphasizes that asylum seekers are not seen as human beings but as objects. Furthermore, it was also horrifying to read about the terrible treatment of the refugees (being physically and mentally abused and not being allowed to mourn their loved ones). The webcomic and the graphic novel do have some minor differences, for example, the graphic novel, unlike the webcomic, does not make use of colors, further emphasizing the hopelessness of the refugees. Moreover, the graphic novel has considerably more panels that are clustered together (emphasizing the feeling of being trapped) and uses a horror aesthetic, which should make it easier to talk about difficult topics, such as trauma. While these two narratives differ from one another, the effect they have on their readers stays the same: engaging with the graphic novel and the webcomic takes an emotional toll on the readers and shows the cruel reality of the world we are living in.
Art as a way of coping with trauma
The asylum seekers arriving in the detention centre knew that their migration journey would be long and dangerous. They knew that they decided to go on a journey, where they might be abused, experience loss, or even die. What they didn’t know was that their struggles would continue once arriving in the country that should keep them safe. The conditions in Australia’s detention centres are beyond cruel. The refugees are being controlled 24/7 and moving is heavily restricted. Detention centres resemble high-security prisons, where the guards abuse those detained for no reason. They are also the reason for self-harm, depression, and anxiety. Still Alive shows how the refugees deal with these feelings by drawing out their experiences, their situation, and also their migration journey. One refugee’s drawing for example shows a chessboard surrounded by barbed wire, while another shows a Taliban soldier holding four heads with the title of the drawing being “Death”. Especially in detention centres, where recordings are strictly prohibited, drawing is an effective way of expressing one’s feelings. Moreover, it is a way for the refugees to be in control and also to experience freedom. In the graphic novel, Ahmed describes the importance of art as followes: “Art and storytelling allow trauma to be visualized, externalized, and re-embedded in its context, which provides a greater feeling of safety and distance from it over time.” (22)
Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed gives a voice to the people who don’t often have one. The drawings and photographs portrayed in the graphic novel remind the readers of the lives being abused in Villawood, but also in other detention centres. It is a call to rise up and support the refugees and reject Australia’s detention centres that do not recognize the refugees’ lives.