Mapping And Modelling The Traumas Of Offshore Refugee Detention
Elahe Zivardar wears many hats. She’s an architect, artist, and journalist. She’s also an activist who draws on her own experience of being confined for six years on the Micronesian island of Nauru, caught in one of the world’s most controversial systems of refugee response.
Zivardar left her home of Iran, bound for Australia, in 2013. She didn’t know it at the time, but the day she left was the same day that the Australian prime minister announced an intensified policy of offshore detention for asylum seekers. The government vowed that no one who arrived by boat would be resettled in Australia, regardless of how desperate their circumstances had been.
Instead, asylum seekers would be moved to Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, to go through the arduous process of applying for asylum away from Australia’s borders. After Zivardar’s boat landed on Australia’s Christmas Island, she and others seeking refuge were sent to Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation, to begin long waits.
Nauru was a prison, Zivardar reflects now. She left nearly three years ago, after the US accepted her as a refugee. “I’m still struggling with all that trauma,” she says. This included unsafe living conditions, guard violence, and the grinding uncertainty of not knowing how long she would be held there.
In the worst cases, some offshore detainees died by suicide, after inadequate medical care, or in clashes with guards. After the dangerous and abusive conditions on Manus Island were brought to light, the Australian government even paid AUS$ 70 million to settle a class-action lawsuit representing people detained there.
One way that Zivardar is dealing with the painful legacy is by advocating for other asylum seekers in detention. In September 2021 Nauru and Australia agreed on a new deal to keep some form of the arrangement in place, and hundreds of detainees remain on Nauru and Manus.
Then there are the countries that have sought to replicate Australia’s policy, despite the abuses committed within the system and the evidence that it hasn’t worked to deter people smuggling or deaths at sea.
In December 2022, a UK court ruled that it could proceed with its plan to send adult asylum seekers to Rwanda, despite widespread protests. Denmark is also planning a Rwanda-based scheme.
Zivardar has spoken out against other countries repeating Australia’s sins. “It’s an ongoing fight and I hope we can stop it, because this is a huge mistake,” she says.
She’s found creative approaches to this advocacy. Together with Jaydn Gosselin, Zivardar is directing a documentary called Architect, about the Nauru detention center. The film is expected to be released in 2024. While the crowdfunder hasn’t yet reached its goal, Zivardar is continuing work on recreating the site digitally, to create a 3D simulation.
She’s building this model based on Google Earth, although the images aren’t always clear. Zivardar started with representing the two bunk beds in each tiny room, then moving outward to each structure. She’s presented the work in progress to other former detainees in Zoom calls – asking them, for instance, if they remember where the shower area was. The collaboration with former detainees has been especially helpful for capturing details of areas where she had limited access. For instance, she was held in the SAF (single adult female) area, rather than the area reserved for families.
“All the dimensions are approximate,” Zivardar acknowledges, and pinning down the spatial details hasn’t been easy. For one thing, the configuration of the site kept changing. She reckons that the model she’s constructing corresponds to the layout of the detention center around the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015.
There’s also an emotional toll to memory; it can be especially challenging for people with PTSD to recall troubling times. Not every former detainee wants to be involved and relive those traumas.
But Zivardar can also call upon the copious records she kept ever since arriving at Christmas Island. She continued to create her own calendars, for instance, with color coding corresponding to the different locations she was held. The calendars helped her to mark her days in confinement, as well as the reminders of normalcy like family members’ birthdays.
She also swapped cigarettes for a camera that she used to surreptitiously document living conditions, including for the international media. This allowed a chink in the official secrecy around what was happening on Nauru. Her photos and videos, as well as her sketches, are helping to build out the model, which she created using AutoCAD software. She’s doing the 3D rendering with the Lumion software often used for architectural visualization.
Zivardar is able to draw on her architectural background, but this isn’t a typical project. With a commercial building project, you can have reference to objects, Zivardar explains. This isn’t the case with a detention center. “We didn’t have anything in our tents,” she says, meaning that it was challenging to keep food away from rodents. She and the other detainees essentially had to create their own furniture out of trash, like empty cartons. These are the kinds of details that Zivardar is manually inputting into her model.
This painstaking work of architectural modelling is bringing Zivardar some comfort as she continues to work through her traumas and urge the abolition of offshore detention centers. For her, “finding creative ways to move on is a better option” than shutting out all reminders of the past.
The film Architect is crowdfunding now.