My first home was Seacliff, a twenty minute drive from Dunedin. Seacliff is pretty much how it sounds: a small township on the edge of some towering cliffs, overlooking the sea. Few people stop for a visit; there is no shop, no sweet country café, it’s not even on the main road but instead hidden along the ‘scenic route’ to the city.
Sometimes people know of Seacliff for what it used to be. Seacliff was the site of an early lunatic asylum which burnt down in 1942. It’s a bit of a famous asylum because it’s the one Janet Frame wrote about, the one that nearly removed her beautiful poet’s brain. The asylum sat just up from where the township is now. The old site was long ago made into a reserve, full of big walnut trees and sunny grassy spots, yet some of the chimneys from the asylum still stick out form under the greenery like bones breaking the skin.
My sisters and I played up at the reserve as kids, we asked about the chimney bones and about the plaque for Janet Frame. We came to know about darkness that happened to her and others at the asylum, and we felt it echo through the trees. Either Seacliff wasn’t free of the mad people, or it wasn’t free of the madness that was used to make them sane.
I’m thinking about Seacliff again because a few weeks ago there was a homicide there. “It is a weird place,” Mum and I agreed trying to make sense of the situation through some brief text messages.
But I’m also thinking about Seacliff because I’m hearing the word asylum all around me: the government should grant asylum, the government should protect asylum seekers, and so on. The media is interested now – in Syria, in refugees, in the politics of asylum.
The word asylum – like the word refugee – is about home, about safety, and about security. Our state, the New Zealand state, has had more than a few goes at providing asylum; the Seacliff lunatic asylum is but one example. I could speak of Child Youth and Family. I could speak of Aged Residential Care. I could speak of Housing New Zealand. And I think mostly I’d be speaking of darkness again and again. I am wary of the state’s ability to provide a home, to provide safety – I mean, it not so long ago removed parts of people’s brains in the very name of asylum.
I’ve been working with people who have been granted asylum in New Zealand for a little while now. And it has been pretty confronting. Once an Iraqi father, exasperated from a conversation with Housing New Zealand, yelled at me repetitively: “I’m just looking for my rights! I’m just trying to find my rights! Who’s going to give me my rights!?” I’m still not sure quite what he meant by that, and I don’t want to fill in his thoughts with my own crappy guesses. But I know that he was at least speaking of distress, of unmet promises. These certainly weren’t the words of a man at home, feeling safe and secure.
Some lefty friends say leaving the work of settling asylum seekers to community groups, instead of the government, is just playing into neoliberalism’s hand. My reply here is that leaving it to the government has sometimes resulted in disasters as dark as lobotomy. So I’d like to help out, actually. For now, I am attempting to provide a more genuine sense of home for former refugees through English Language Partners.
I want to welcome refugees into all that the word asylum promises, which raises some deeper questions: what is home, what is security, what does mean it to be safe, if the state can’t provide these things who can? For me, these can’t help but sound like religious questions; to think of home is to think of Jesus, likewise for the Iraqi father, mentioned above, for whom home is all about Allah.
To understand the government’s past attempts at protection is unsettling – where are we to turn? – yet, when we speak of asylum, I think we should try to bear in mind the words difficult history.