It's a word that breaks Jensiya Joy Christy’s heart, every time she hears it.
It’s become part of the 18-year-old’s familiar, uninvited identity. An identity she longs to leave behind, and yet clings to because, at least it is an identity.
Who are you? A refugee. She uses it in the same way as one would say “I’m Australian.” Or, “I’m Indian,” or “Sri Lankan.” For Jensiya, they are all somewhat true, and also all untrue. She is in that unclaimed, displaced state where the country she knows best is not the country she can claim any legal rights to.
Where’s home? Where are you from? “I don't have the answer for that, I really don't,” she says. Even from the other end of a video call, she shifts nervously as she considers her response. “There’s no place to call home, except a refugee shelter.”
So what nationality are you considered to be, legally? “That’s a confusion for me as well,” she says.
She’s been in Australia for 12 of her 18 years, arriving on Cocos Island in 2011 at the age of six, after a harrowing sea journey.
Yet, she can’t call Australia home, as much as she may wish it, and feel it, in her heart. Belonging somewhere is not a status Jensiya, or anyone, can choose through integrating and living and wishing oneself into a community, not without the papers to prove she belongs.
Jensiya’s birth certificate says she was born in India. But, she is not an Indian citizen, having been born in a refugee camp, to Sri Lankan parents.
A refugee camp is like an island within the mainland, a place where you automatically adopt the status of a non-citizen, a nomad in a no-man’s land.
“I don't know what nationality I could consider myself as my parents are Sri Lankan, but they left Sri Lanka during the war as refugees to India. I’ve never seen Sri Lanka, so I can't call it home,” she says.
Her family was recently awarded refugee status - a decision that’s caused relief and happiness for the family, who describe the last uncertain decade as one of great sadness.
But first, back, way back to the time her parents made the decision to leave the country of their births, Sri Lanka. Or, rather, when the decision was made for them thanks to a civil war that began in 1983 and raged for over a quarter of a century, with an estimated 80,000–100,000 deaths (UN estimate).
“My parents were really young when they left Sri Lanka, mum was like 10 years old. My dad was 14 when he left Sri Lanka, on his own, as his mother had died. They were children when they went to the refugee camp in Tamil Nadu, in India, and that’s where they grew up, and met and fell in love. They were at the refugee camp until they fled to Australia.”
Many think refugee camps are temporary places of shelter until a crisis is resolved or a more permanent living arrangement is found, but this is simply not true for many. Jensiya tells me her parents lived in the Tamil Nadu refugee camp for 20 years, and if they hadn’t fled, they’d still be there, just like many of their family members who continue to live there, and who have died there.
Jensiya was born in India, in the refugee camp, and then her two sisters followed within a few years of each other. When her youngest sister was two and half, the family boarded a boat bound for Australia.
Jensiya’s memories of the ordeal, the ensuing rescue and her first nights in Australia are endearingly experienced through the lens of a seven-year-old.
“On the boat there are lots of other little kids, infants too. We don't have any food or water, for about four days, nothing left to survive on. We’ve run out, because there are so many families. My little sister and I drink seawater, we are all praying it will rain.
“There isn't a big space, we are all crushed together. If the boat goes this way, people on this side fall off the boat into the water.”
Onboard, are 82 people – including 12 children. It’s a 55ft vessel. They are at sea for 17 harrowing days, until the welcome sight of a big vessel appears on the horizon. Uniformed officers from the Australian border force usher the passengers off the smaller boat and into the safety of the large ship.
“I don't really remember their faces, but if somebody saves you, they're like a god,” she says. “I don't remember what they looked like or what they did, but I remember they gave us food – two cookies…which felt like a feast, and a bottle of water.
They were then taken to Cocos Island, and later to Christmas Island where they spent their first few months in Australia in detention.
Endearingly, it’s the red crabs that captured seven-year-old Jensiya’s memory of the ordeal. “There were lots of crabs, so if you left your door open there were little crabs coming into your room. I didn't really worry about what else was going on,” she says.
As a parent, I can’t help but ask the question: Why did your parents risk all your lives on such a dangerous journey?
“They were hoping to create the chance at a better life for us,” Jensiya says. A life with that most precious word – opportunity – for their children.
“In India, you're still a refugee, and the camp is more like a detention centre. If you go out, you have a curfew, you have to be back by a specific time. You have to tell them exactly where you're going. There is no freedom.
“People treated us like refugees; it’s hard to get an education or work, or get medical help if you were sick. I wouldn't see dad much because he was sent to work at other places, so mum was on her own with us.”
In India, the family of five lived in a house smaller than the size of most of our bedrooms (approx. 4 square metres). It had no bathroom. A total of 12 toilets served the entire refugee camp of hundreds of people.
At the time they fled India, Jensiya says she was too young to understand what was happening, or why.
“I just started to learn this stuff now that I’m mature,” she says. “I never knew why Sri Lanka had a war, why they fled to India. I never knew that I was in a detention centre in India, and then in detention centres in Australia. I heard the word refugee, but I didn’t know what that meant. I was too young to understand what was going on around me.”
Jensiya’s family was eventually sent to another detention centre in Brisbane, and later to one in Adelaide. Eventually, the family moved to Oxley upon being released into community detention, a program which places asylum seekers in community-based accommodation while waiting for an outcome on their visa.
Jensiya became determined to finish her schooling and get the education that eluded the rest of her family.
“Mum stopped going to school after eighth grade, even though she wanted to study but they didn’t have the money to buy books” Jensiya says.
“Dad got to fifth grade, but then he couldn't study further because he had to work to get food, and for his daily needs. He was ten years old, but he had to work for himself because he didn't have anyone to support him, he was only a kid in India by himself. So, he had to survive on his own.”
Jensiya graduated from high school last year, the first in her family to finish school. Not finishing, not taking the opportunities that had been provided to her through so much sacrifice, was never an option.
“I was so determined, like, I need to finish school, like somehow make my parents proud. Graduating high school was a way of making my parents proud after all the hard work they've done for us.”
Jensiya and her parents at her high school graduation in 2021.
Jensiya and her parents at her high school graduation in 2021.
Like many of her classmates, while in Years 11 and 12, Jensiya began thinking about what the next step would be. But unlike her classmates, she is not classified as a legal citizen or permanent resident, and therefore had an almost insurmountable hurdle to further study.
Having a bridging visa means the family can study, but they must pay international fees. “I was so stressed about what I was going to do after Year 12,” she says. “I knew no universities would accept my visa. I tried calling up a couple, and when they told me how much the payment would be per semester, I knew my parents couldn't afford that kind of money.”
Refugees and asylum seekers don’t qualify for subsidised study or access to HECS and HELP loans, meaning it is almost impossible for them to go to university without any assistance.
For Jensiya, and others like her, there are no benefits to help with unemployment or living costs that many of us take for granted. Even a simple task like opening a bank account can prove a stumbling block.
“It's really hard to even get a bank card, as they need your passport. ‘We need your birth certificate.’ I can't provide the things that are acceptable. I don't have a passport, and they don’t accept the birth certificate I have (Indian version) as it’s an international birth certificate.
“It’s a big heartbreak. My heart breaks every time I think about where my home is, and every time they call me a refugee.”
It’s the impossibly frustrating state of limbo that people who have never struggled for a recognised presence in the world can ever understand.
“I felt so mad at students who said they would drop out, like ‘You guys, you can finish high school, you can go to uni…why you're not taking it? It's gonna help you in the future. Why are you not taking the opportunity? Why are you letting it go? They don't know how privileged they are for their education, for what they have.”
The sky-high cost of university and no government assistance seemed like an impenetrable barrier to further education. She’d heard that a few of the Queensland universities that had previously offered Asylum seeker scholarships were no longer doing it.
“Then I found out the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC) had a scholarship for people in my situation, and I applied immediately. UniSC was the only hope I had.
"Classes were scheduled to start on the 28th of February, and I wouldn’t find out the outcome of the scholarship until the 25th of February, so it was a really stressful time. Then, somehow, everything worked out perfectly fine.”
Jensiya was successful in her scholarship application with UniSC, and she is now in her first year studying nursing. She hopes to go on to a career in medicine, a field close to her heart.
“I want to help the people that are struggling in Sri Lanka, I want to help them to have better healthcare.”
“My aunt is also my inspiration, she died of blood cancer in the refugee camp in India, because of not enough healthcare. We couldn't see her as we were in a detention centre in Adelaide. When she died, it was a huge loss for the family. Then with COVID, we lost other family members and we couldn’t say goodbye, as they were in the camps in India.”
Jensiya says these losses have made her more determined to do the very best she can, with the “miracle” she’s been given.
“I hope to make a successful life, I'm going to do the best I can, because this is something that not everyone can get, it is some kind of miracle, studying with a scholarship and doing what I want to do. That’s a big miracle. So, I want to do my best to get my degree.”
“I want to make my parents proud...I want them next to me when I'm getting my degrees smiling with tears, that's the thing I'm waiting for...because then my parents will know, their many struggles were not for nothing, they struggled for something.”