June 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Villawood’s bad neighbour problem

By Fiona Harari
Living next to an immigration detention centre

On the day the Australian population is due to hit 23 million, western Sydneysider Barry Jones is in his front yard, staring across the road at the main entrance of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

“A big shopping centre would have been heaps better,” he says flatly, as he watches another construction vehicle leaving the site, as part of an $186 million upgrade unlikely to be finished for several more years yet.

Since the housing department moved him to Miowera Road eight years ago, Jones has become accustomed to the screams in the night from his faceless neighbours, and the sirens don’t bother him any more. But his partner, mother of six Tracy Tisdell, is less keen on those “cranky” after-dark sounds and thinks the whole place should be moved. “If we’re in the lounge room, we can hear them across the road, banging their bins,” she says irritably. “My family members go, ‘Where do you live?’ I say I live across the road from the detention centre. And they go, ‘Oh, how could you live across from there?’ Well, that’s where they put me.”

She has no wish to meet her neighbours on the other side of the street, who number up to 480 men, women and children at a time. “I don’t know them. I don’t want to.” But she has seen them – in rooftop protests, and during the riots of 2011, when buildings were set alight, and she and her family were afforded a ringside seat. “It was right in front of us here,” she says. “We just sat out the front for two hours watching it all burn. I was excited because it was burning down.”

Newcomers to Australia have been living in Villawood for half a century. Initially a migrant hostel, the site has developed over several decades into a secure facility in the city’s suburban heart. Abutting the repository of the nation’s history, the National Archives of Australia, its official address is on Birmingham Avenue, a dead-end semi-industrial street lined with businesses selling picture frames, cars and imported food. The entrance, for most visitors, is a few minutes’ drive away near a small shopping hub with a Bunnings hardware store, a plumbing shop and a furniture warehouse – all you need to create a new home.

It’s a distinctly working-class neighbourhood of small housing-commission blocks and privately owned cottages, where backyards feature trampolines and P-plated cars sit expectantly in driveways. From her home just around the corner from Miowera Road, and backing onto another flank of the centre, Nina Simonovic often hears women crying. “It’s hard,” she says. “Especially for me, because I’m a wog. I came here 34 years ago, from Serbia. I feel bad. I can do what I want. But they can’t.”

Over the wooden palings of her back fence, she used to be able to see straight into the centre. From her raised terrace, where she sits at a little table and smokes, she sometimes spotted children waiting to catch a school bus and heard boys playing soccer. Over 20-odd years, she’s witnessed some terrible things, too. “We saw when they were on the roof, and when a lady jumped off.”

Now an enormous dump of upturned earth blocks her view, towering several metres above her fence. It’s been there for a year, since the reconstruction began, and on windy days, her garden beds, washing and pergola are soiled with rust-coloured dust. “But it’s better like this,” she says. “I don’t have to see them.”

Fiona Harari
Fiona Harari is a journalist and television producer. She is the author of A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld and Teresa Brennan.

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