Features Interviews

Chatting With The Minds Behind Humans of Detention

Interviewed by: Tahlia Sanders


If you have been on Facebook at any time over the last five years, you would have at some point inevitably stumbled across at least one of the many pages inspired by Humans of New York. Humans of New York has served as a seed of human empathy that has sprouted into greater understanding within local communities and broader connectivity across the globe.

In my opinion, one of the strongest branches to stem from Humans of New York’s central idea, is Humans of Detention. It’s the project of eleven humanitarian students from the University of New South Wales who make weekly visits to the Villawood Detention Centre to speak to the detainees. These driven young people are working to humanise the struggle of the refugees they meet by sharing their stories with the online community. Each story on their Facebook page is accompanied by artwork from local artists.

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By Rebecca Yan

The fact that the Humans of Detention team have worked to confront an issue that even the Australian government has been unable to address with a sufficient sense of human compassion is beyond inspirational. That they are doing this as students, whilst the majority us are watching Netflix and feeling high-brow whilst perusing The Onion, is even more admirable.

Humans of Detention are the ultimate advocates for positive change in contemporary society. They’re waging a battle through the enhancement of understanding not hate. While they’re at it, they’re demonstrating the right way to give voice to an important cause in the digital age – through patient, sustained propagation of an objective yet compassionate message.

I contacted Humans of Detention in the hope that I could help to spread and amplify their message. I think it deserves to be heard.

Can you tell us a little bit about the background behind HoD? What was the inspiration behind launching the initiative?

The inspiration of Humans of Detention arose from the weekly visits to Villawood Detention Centre, made by a group of UNSW students. Initially, the goal was to provide social relief and assistance to break down the complex legal processes, particularly for the asylum seekers who have a poor grasp of the English language.  However, it was not long before the focus shifted, and we realised the importance of our visits was also in creating a vital link between the detainees and the outside world.  Situated in the outskirts of Sydney in an industrial suburb, the centre is out of sight, and out of mind for many. After making the visits, we felt that it was incumbent upon us to communicate what we witness to the Australian public; create awareness of these detention centres; and give asylum seekers a voice and opportunity to connect with the Australian community. From there, Humans of Detention was born.

What is involved in the process of collecting the stories you post on the HoD Facebook page?

Behind the scenes, there is much involved in collecting the material for the page. The stories are collected over many visits, both in Villawood, as well as from other detention centres in Australia. Often, volunteers will offer detainees to have their stories shared after they have communicated content that is suitable to post on the page.  At other times, we are approached by the detainees who request the opportunity to share their experiences or viewpoints. It not only gives them an avenue to express themselves, but also to do so in an anonymous mode.

What is the significance of accompanying the stories with unique artwork? What do you ideally look for in artwork to be featured?

One of the key reasons we have chosen not to accompany the stories with portrait photographs is to protect the identities of the asylum seekers, due to the highly sensitive and personal nature of their disclosures. We felt that the anonymity would encourage them to more openly share their concerns.

Instead, we have chosen to accompany the stories with artwork, which is sourced from local Australian artists, and sometimes detainees. We match the stories with artwork so that they complement each other, significantly enhancing the message that the asylum seekers intend to portray. The visual aspect of the page through artwork is highly expressive and universal in nature. Artwork is a medium that speaks all languages.  

We are always on the lookout for artwork that fits the general theme of the page, and which conveys emotion. If you, or someone you know, may be interested in contributing artwork to be exhibited on Humans of Detention, we encourage you do so, by contacting us via direct message on the page or by email.

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By Alwy Fadhel, former detainee at Villawood detention. Material: coffee beans

What has been the response from the asylum seekers that you have visited? What sort of relationships have formed between your team and the people in detention?

The response from the detainees has been extremely positive. I think it is an initiative that they are all proud of, and one in which they are all a part of. Many of the ‘likers’ of the page are our friends from detention. It is heart-warming to see the likes and comments from the familiar names and faces.

What sort of response have you received from the public regarding the work you’ve been doing through HoD? Have there been any stand-out stories?

The response from the public has been remarkable. While there is bound to be opposition, with a hot topic issue such as this, there has been mostly an air of support for the page, and for the stories shared on it. We have been delighted with the attraction that the page has garnered, as it indicates substantial support from the Australian public. It is evident from reading the comments and direct messages, that the page has opened the eyes of many to the issue, and we anticipate that it will continue to do so in future.

What have you learnt from your visits to the detention centres that you feel is important for the public to hear?

Making the weekly visits to Villawood was a major learning curve for our visitors. I think we were all amazed at how much of a difference we could all make through the few hours that we visited each week. Even just lending a listening ear, and letting them know that there is a wider Australian community who care, could make all the difference.

We were also surprised about how much of a difference the visits made on us. The asylum seekers that we have been visiting have been an incredible inspiration to us all, and we feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to hear their stories. By sharing their stories with the public, we hope that there is something for everyone to gain.

What can we expect from HoD in the future? What direction do you have to head in and what are your goals?

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By unknown. Source: Humans In Detention facebook page

We are so grateful for all the positive support that the detainees have received through the page, and can only hope that the page can continue grow and for the audience to expand. We also aim to expand the content to include stories from all centres around the country. We appreciate how important these social network avenues are for raising awareness, as well communicating to the public. Therefore, expanding this opportunity to a wider spread of centres is expected to extend the benefits more widely.

If you’re feeling inspired by the work that Humans of Detention are doing, there are many ways you can help – from donating money to their suggested causes, to contributing your artwork or writing a letter to your local Member of Parliament. Check out the comprehensive list of activities here and be sure to “like” their Facebook page.