Social worker and therapist Poh Lin Lee worked on Christmas Island for three years. (Supplied: Michael Latham)
For three years from 2011, social worker Poh Lin Lee worked as a trauma counsellor for the Christmas Island Torture and Trauma Service.
She offered therapy and support to detained asylum seekers referred from the nearby detention centre, which closed this month.
At her lowest, most conflicted moments she wondered who she was providing the care for.
“It might be enough for someone to get through the next week or the next day, but for whose benefit is that?” she says.
“Altruistically I like to think it’s for the person, but very often it felt very much like it was just for the system, just to tick a box to say ‘yup, they’re receiving care’ to try and limit self-harm.”
But it wasn’t always this way.
‘Uncertainty was the only thing that was certain’
With a career spanning 15 years, narrative therapist Lee has worked around the world, including Turkey, Malaysia, Palestine, the UK, Germany, Benin, Mongolia and Australia.
Like many Australians, Lee became aware of Christmas Island through media reports on the detention facility, which opened in 2008.
“It just seemed really unreal what I was reading and hearing and it didn’t make a lot of sense to me,” she says.
“I really wanted to understand the situation closer.”
So when she had the opportunity to be part of a small team at the Christmas Island Torture and Trauma Counselling Service, Lee moved to the island with her young family in tow.
The Christmas Island facility was closed this year but could be reopened within 72 hours if required. (Getty Images: Scott Fisher)
Lee says when she started with the service, even though it was an imperfect system and there was still harm happening, “there was still a lot we could do”.
“We could advocate and have people transferred to the mainland to be closer to the other services,” she says.
But towards the end of 2013, she says, as then prime minister Kevin Rudd took a “hard-line” approach to boat arrivals, the effects of government policy changes were felt on Christmas Island.
Lee recalls being left in the dark as to patient’s well-being and whereabouts, or the status of detainee’s transfers to Manus Island or Nauru.
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“Uncertainty was the only thing that was certain,” she says.
“Before that, we could do some kind of follow up care, but after that, literally, you might only see a person once and then never again. That was really dehumanising.”
She says the changes affected the counsellors’ “roles as witness”.
“It was hard to write notes and write a letter for someone who you’d only seen once, yet you didn’t really want their existence to be kind of erased,” Lee says.
Exploring through sandplay
Narrative therapy, Lee says, looks at the context of people’s lives and at what is happening politically and socially.
“We might tell one dominant story about our life but actually there’s many, many stories that make up our identity, who we are in the world, our relationships,” she says.
Through sandplay — which uses a box or tray filled with sand, miniature figurines and sometimes water — Lee’s patients can explore the trauma, struggles and private thoughts that make up their interior landscapes in a hands-on way.
The approach also allows individuals to visualise a world and tell the story of their life according to their own ethics and experiences.
Sandplay is an expressive therapy commonly practiced with patients who have suffered trauma. (Supplied: Michael Latham)
Lee says this contrasts sharply with the way people have to speak about their experiences when seeking asylum in Australia — in a fashion not unlike a testimony.
“The way that they are demanded to tell their story is very much a linear, factual recount of what happened to them: how they left, how they arrived,” she says.
“When you’re working with people who have experienced multiple and ongoing trauma, to ask someone to continually give a linear and factual description of their story reinvigorates the trauma,” she told ABC Radio Melbourne earlier this year.
These intimate sandplay sessions between Lee and former detainees are at the heart of docu-fiction film Island of the Hungry Ghosts, which screened at this weekend’s Antenna Documentary Film Festival, and short film The Island, streaming on the Guardian Bertha documentaries website.
The films were created over four years in collaboration with Lee’s close friend Gabrielle Brady.
In 2013, the Rudd Government changed its refugee policy so that asylum seekers who arrived by boat had no chance of settling in Australia. (Getty: Scott Fisher)
As filming patients still in detention wasn’t an approach either Lee or Brady thought was safe or ethical, the two friends eventually settled on re-creating the therapy space.
They engaged with people who had recently been released from the detention centre and were “on the mainland in a temporary situation”.
In one session, patient Shaan Karoon from Somalia silently and thoughtfully, arranges figures in a sandbox. When prompted by Lee, she replies that the scene reminds her of the life she left behind.
In another session with Aarif from Afghanistan, only five plastic trees stand in the corner of a sparsely decorated sandbox.
The scene brings back memories of his country:
“I don’t remember one day of peace in my country… every night [the] news is not good, every day innocent people get killed,” he says in the film.
Looking towards the desolate scene in the sandbox, Aarif continues: “And also the country goes like this … no nature, it’s all sand and the buildings destroyed.”
‘There’s something I need to show you’
In 2013, Australia filmmaker Brady was just a tourist visiting her long-time friend Lee on Christmas Island, who she knew was having a difficult and tense period with work.
Director Gabrielle Brady takes inspiration from film director Werner Herzog’s quote: “We have to create adequate pictures — images for our civilization. If we do not do that, we die out like dinosaurs.” (Supplied: Gabrielle Brady)
Although the intention for the holiday was not to talk about work, at the end of Brady’s visit Lee said: “There’s something that I need to show you before you go.”
For an intense 45 minutes the two friends trawled through an overgrown track.
With machete in hand, Lee chopped and cleaved at the dense jungle, and they finally arrived at an outlook that would haunt Brady’s dreams for some time to come.
Standing atop Jacks Hill, Brady saw the purpose-built Christmas Island detention facility for the first time.
“To then see it at a distance, this alien structure, was so confronting,” she says.
It was then that the seed of an idea for a film began to form for Brady and Lee, who was just starting to articulate her desire to make a record of what was happening on the island.
She went back twice to research and ruminate on the idea with Lee.
“Meeting the people that Poh Lin was working with and looking them in the eyes as they had to go back into that detention facility, not knowing when they’d come out, was just chilling,” Brady says.
Brady describes a feeling of haunting urgency to make the film, with a strong desire to seek out “emotional and essential truths” rather than return to usual tropes about asylum seekers.
The result is a mesmerising juxtaposition of intimate and affecting therapy sessions and Lee’s existence on the island with her family, interspersed with cinematic imagery of the untamed and natural beauty of the remote Australian territory.
In one scene, Lee is at home with her partner and visibly shaken by the story of a new patient.
The patient was travelling by boat between Indonesia and Christmas Island in 2013 when the boat capsized due to the heavy swell and unpredictable conditions.
“He explained to me that as the light first came up, the water was still like oil, slick and dark,” she recalls.
“He didn’t see the sharks — he heard the people, their screams and they were taken.
“And I just sat there thinking if I was in that situation I don’t know if I would let go and just sink, drown or whether you’d wait for your turn to see if a shark takes you or not. It was really hard to sit with that.”
Poh Lin Lee says her daughter Poppy considers all the asylum seekers they spent time with at the beach as aunties and uncles. (Supplied: Michael Latham)
The emotional and physical toll on Lee wasn’t only witnessed by her partner, but also her two young children.
After a picnic outing with a detainee and her children, Lee explained to her then two-year-old Poppy the difference between a prison and detention facility and why their picnic guest couldn’t go in and out of the detention centre as he pleased.
“Poppy just turned to me and she said, ‘I think the Australian government is naughty, Mamma’,” she says.
“They should be in prison, not these people.”