Christmas Island trauma counsellor brings stories from detention to MPs

On Christmas Island, trauma counsellor Christine Cummins always served tea from tinkling porcelain cups.

Her patients, asylum seekers at the detention centre, were used to eating off Styrofoam, holding plastic knives and forks.

But when they were bussed over to the hospital, ordered out of their cells by a number rather than a name, Ms Cummins and her team would always be waiting with a hot brew and their finest china.

Christine Cummins, a refugee counsellor shares stories from her time on Christmas Island in the new book 'Dignity in a tea cup'. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Christine Cummins, a refugee counsellor shares stories from her time on Christmas Island in the new book 'Dignity in a tea cup'. Photo: Jamila Toderas

"Some of them were so overwhelmed, they had tears in their eyes," she said. "That's why I stayed as long as I did, when people were made to feel human again."

Her debut memoir Dignity in a Tea Cup chronicles the five years she spent on the island and her work with its most desperate people - refugees fleeing torture and atrocities overseas. And the former nurse has a very particular target audience in mind - the upcoming 46th parliament of Australia.

Next month, when the election blows politicians back into the house on the hill, more than 200 copies of her book will already be waiting in their offices, one for each MP, carefully labelled, signed and bearing a message: take care with language.

"I want [politicians] to think about the words they're using for minorities, they've divided this beautiful country," she said.

"I think a lot of it comes out of ignorance and maybe this book will answer some questions for people, like what does it mean to be stateless, and why can't people just line up at some imaginary queue for a passport?"

Four decades ago, people fleeing Vietnam were largely welcomed by Australia when they landed in Darwin. But Ms Cummins said the rhetoric shifted from sanctuary to security under the Howard government.

"Then when Abbott was elected [in 2013] things really changed on the ground at the centre," she said.

Asylum seekers, once known as clients, became "detainees" under new directives sent from on high, she said. Operation Sovereign Borders began and the number of spin doctors at the renamed Department of Immigration and Border Protection jumped from 13 to 66.

Most concerning for Ms Cummins, the word "illegal" was jammed into the public discourse in what she terms one of the most masterful works of propaganda in Australia's history.

"I think it comes from the illegal vessels, but seeking asylum is not illegal," she said.

Processing of asylum claims also ground to a halt. When she arrived on the island in January 2010, Ms Cummins said boats were coming in regularly but, after a few months, the people on board were usually transferred to the mainland.

"We'd see them off at the airport, they'd always be wearing their best outfit, they were so excited."

People were now languishing in detention for years, awaiting transfer to Manus Island or Nauru. Most of them were men who had braved the journey planning to send for the families they'd left behind in war-zones back home.

"They didn't even know what Nauru was," Ms Cummins said.

But they would still say to us 'Australia is a good place, you'll look after us'. That's what broke our hearts.

Christine Cummins

After six months in detention, trauma symptoms became significantly worse in her clients, she said.

"There were suicide attempts, self-harm, vivid flashbacks, some people had nightmares so horrific they were too scared to sleep.

"I took out as many of them as I could for day trips around the island, I often felt helpless."

One Kurdish woman, Jamila*, was 75 years old and disabled by the time she arrived on the island, after enduring repeated torture in her home country of Iran.

Learning Jamila was to be transferred to Nauru, Ms Cummins recalls chasing a department delegation through the island's airport.

"They didn't want me speaking to them because I'd been recommending Jamila go to Australia, but I just thought 'this woman will die if she's sent to Nauru'. I ended up begging an adviser to the [then] minister Scott Morrison on the spot."

The plea worked and Jamila was transferred to the mainland, where she was later reunited with her family in Sydney.

There were other "success stories" like Jamila for the counselling team, including three underage Somali girls Ms Cummins and advocates managed to transfer together to Australia. But by the time she left the island in late 2014, Ms Cummins said she was traumatised herself.

"I'd kept it all compartmentalised at work, now I felt this urge to write everything down," she said.

"I never intended to show anyone."

At her laptop surrounded by islands of notes, she said the first draft came out in a flood over five weeks.

"I was 10,000 words in before I realised this wasn't just for me, this was a book that needed to be shared."

Long trained to keep client conversations private and sacred, Ms Cummins lost sleep wrestling with this new ethical dilemma.

She reached out to those she could for permission, and they all said yes, some even begging 'Aunty Chris' to tell their stories.

But there were others she couldn't find. In the end, she decided to change names and key identifiers for the book.

"I made up a name for everyone, it was my way of honouring them, they mean things like courage and hope and beautiful."

But one name - Omid - she didn't change.

She met the young Afghan refugee on the island, and let him practice his English over tea in her counselling rooms.

"How do I stop myself going mad like everyone else?" he'd asked her.

Omid was released on the mainland just weeks after Ms Cummins arrived back home in Victoria.

"I was the only person he knew to call," she said. "He was very scared."

She took Omid in and he is now married and working in Bendigo.

"He's like my son," Christine said. "He's expecting my first grandchild this Easter."

*Not her real name