Birthday behind closed doors

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

“MAJNUN,” they call. “Majnun! Majnun! Majnun!” The word, meaning ‘crazy’ in Arabic, comes from The Story of Layla and Majnun, an Islamic folktale about a young man sent mad with love. If ‘crazy’ is another way of saying ‘unusual’, then Maile fits the description. For the young Australian is standing in a car park wearing a bright red dress and holding a tray of baklava swaddled in wrapping paper. Today is her 22nd birthday: to celebrate, she’s hosting a party in an immigration detention centre. Majnun Maile, indeed.

This detention centre, euphemistically called Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, is in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows. Maile visits regularly to support detainees, and invites friends along to help out. On our drive to meet her at the facility, we huddle in a clattering white van and listen to a radio report about the ‘boat people’ debate. When I hear the term ‘asylum seekers’, I immediately picture castaways waving for help, rags hanging off their thin bodies. But this was to be in stark contrast with conditions inside detention.

Our van arrives at what looks like an ordinary apartment block: red brick and concrete exterior; clean white-walled interior. Maile greets us and we head into Reception, meet the other guests, sign a form, place our wallets and phones in lockers, then step into the asylum seekers’ inner sanctum.

My first impression is of a conference facility. Bland blue carpet, white walls, greyish doors. In the lounge room, young men sit on leather couches watching TV or in front of computers, browsing Facebook. They wear surf-brand T-shirts and tracksuit pants. This centre houses asylum seekers under 18, but while some detainees look like boys, others have the facial hair and defined jawlines of post-adolescence.

The party is held in a corporate meeting room with a whiteboard at one end, a wooden table in the middle and chairs scattered around it. The atmosphere is awkward at first. The detainees shuffle about, not talking much. Guests make fleeting eye contact and smile sheepishly at one another. I start to wonder what we’re doing here. Did we come to cheer them up, or to make ourselves feel better?

But Maile lifts the mood. She bounces around in her red dress, pinballing from person to person, giggling and hugging everyone she meets. Soon a goblet-shaped Persian drum is produced and we’re nodding along to the rhythm, passing round the baklava.

A skinny boy in a blue tracksuit holds up a daf, which looks like a large tambourine, and beats it above his head. Other boys take up the riff while Maile dances towards the table to cut the birthday cake, swaying her hips and tapping her Blundstone boots. As she slices through coffee-coloured icing, a stocky Iraqi boy wraps a green Persian sash around her neck.

The tempo increases and more boys start clapping and dancing. They raise their arms aloft and spin nimbly on their toes, jiggling their buttocks. It’s a showy dance, and one boy in a faded pink Nike T-shirt is the showiest of all: he jumps on a chair and undulates his torso like a belly dancer. Everyone crowds around to cheer him on.

During the commotion, a ghetto blaster is placed on the far table. A mix of Persian, Iranian and Kurdish pop blares from the speakers. About 30 boys are dancing now and a crowd of other asylum seekers has gathered by the door to watch. One young man starts a shimmying competition. He holds his arms by his sides with his elbows crooked and vigorously shakes his upper body. His shoulderblades shudder rapidly, his loose T-shirt ripples like cascading water.  The rest of the boys join in, and the room begins to smell like a gym locker. Dancers fan their sweat-trickled faces with plastic plates. Maile moves among the throng, trying to match the way the asylum seekers sway to the beat.

Suddenly, after two hours, our visiting time is over. The music is turned off. A young man puts a party blower in his mouth, takes a deep breath and unfurls the paper in a drawnout honk. As we leave the building, the asylum seekers start singing: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Maile…”

As we walk out through the car park, a group of asylum seekers on the second-storey balcony waves at us. “Coming soon please!” they yell into the gloom. Maile bounds up the road in her red dress, shouting back at the boys, stumbling as she giggles. They respond the way they always do: “Majnun! Majnun! Majnun!” It’s goodbye to crazy Maile – the girl who sends young men mad with love, or, in this case, brings love to young lives gone mad already.


Two months after the celebration, Maile is sitting in her lounge room, speaking on the phone with a friend who also visits the detention centre. Instead of her bright red dress, she is wearing black jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt.

“Just their lips?” Maile asks.

“Are they still in there, or are they in hospital?”

“Are they roommates?”

“Okay, I’ve got a pen here.”


Maile puts down the phone and enters the kitchen. At first she doesn’t say anything. She takes a brown ceramic mug, fills it with water and then turns towards the kitchen table to share the news with her housemates.

“The boys had a protest,” she says. “They locked themselves in their room and sewed their lips together. They’re still in there.”

A young male asylum seeker she visits regularly is one of the three boys involved. Maile is usually a buoyant person, but this has floored her. She seems washed out, colourless. She says another asylum seeker had just celebrated his birthday.

“That’s how everyone found out. The boys weren’t there for the party because they had locked themselves in their room.”

The three young male asylum seekers have since been to see a doctor.

They are now back in detention.

First published in The Big Issue. Available for republication.