This is a repost from the old Cast Iron Balcony archive, August 2003.
On Sunday, my mum’s having the family over for a barbeque. They live in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne now. She’d like us to come and help out. Of course, we’d be more than honoured.
Our Gulags, 2
There’s this boy, see. An intelligent boy, good at school. He’s only fourteen years old. Back in 2001, his eyes started to feel sore. He was living in a hot, dusty place. His mum and dad took him for eye tests, of course. They were worried about him. The tests showed he was nearly blind in both eyes. Nearly legally blind. And in pain every day.
Four weeks later an optometrist (not an opthalmologist) tested the boy and claimed he must have always had very poor vision. The parents knew that wasn’t the case. Something very serious was going on.
They have been out of their minds with worry.
What would you do?
You’d go round all the specialists you could. You’d hassle the specialists, the hospital, everyone. You’d get your kid treated in the best way you could.
Except that the boy’s parents had no say in the matter. They were incarcerated behind razor wire at the Curtin Detention centre, at the mercy of ACM, a subsidiary of the US Wackenhut corporation which keeps prisoners for profit. Curtin is in a remote area of WA. The boy needed specialist treatment on a weekly basis, but that would have meant a move to the capital city.
ACM and the Australian department of immigration (DIMIA) delayed and denied treatment to the boy until he had completely lost his sight in one eye, and the other was severely compromised.
You’d be beside yourself. It’s bad enough to know that your child is losing his sight. It’s worse to know that if you had access to treatment, it could be prevented. It’s worse still to know that that treatment is available in the country you are in, but a muddle of incompetence, misdiagnosis, bureaucratic sadism and politics are preventing him from getting it. It’s such a waste, such a wicked waste.
This is what happened next.
Shahin was finally admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital in Perth as an emergency on April 1 – four months too late. Despite a delicate operation, he lost the sight in his right eye.
DOCTOR WILLIAM WARD: The right retina was pulled off and pulled up into the middle of the cavity in the back of the eye and the left retina was in the process of being pulled off also.
So the outcome in the right eye, even though the retina had to be put back on surgically, was very compromised. The left eye was better because it was caught before that happened but it was on the verge of happening in his left eye also.
Although treatment stabilised Shahin’s condition, it could flare up at any moment, threatening the sight he has left. He also has cataracts and glaucoma and requires further surgery.
Against the advice of doctors, when the Curtin camp closed, the family was sent to Port Hedland. Shahin’s mother, Fakhonda, is desperate to move.
FAKHONDA AGDAR, SHAHIN’S MOTHER (Translation): I would love it because he has lost one of his eyes. Now he only has one eye and even that one is in danger because it is so infected and inflamed.
(In early July 2003) in Port Hedland, Shahin’s eyes showed signs of secondary infection.
Unable to bear the thought of his talented son losing his sight, his father attempted suicide.
At least, after adverse publicity from SBS and the ABC, the boy and his family were moved the the Maribyrnong Detention centre in Melbourne. At last, he is able to get the treatment he needs. If the ACM guards will let him.
On the 30th of July in an ABC interview, Philip Ruddock showed his deep compassion and understanding thusly:
TONY JONES: Now you say that there is no problem with the way he was treated inside detention, but the specialist ophthalmologist Dr Ward says he was treated four months too late and, as a result, his right retina was pulled off, the left was in the process of being pulled off, before he had a proper operation and that there was a misdiagnosis initially by optometrist, not a specialist, and this resulted in him going blind in one eye.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I simply make this point, Tony — I suspect in relation to people who receive care and attention in detention where they have a higher level of specialist access and general service access while they are in detention that they get better service than many Australians.
(My bold. Pause, while we digest the full meaning of that bloody egregious statement above.)
And I suspect in relation to the places that they have left and the places they have transited, the attention that they receive here would be not just many times but hundreds of times better than might have otherwise been available.
TONY JONES: If a boy can go blind while in detention, what does that say, in the end, about your duty of care?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, first of all, I understand he has one damaged eye and he is continuing to receive treatment for the other.
So, I mean, he hasn’t been made blind in detention.
TONY JONES: When you say he has one damaged eye, he’s blind in that eye, isn’t he?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I mean, that’s not the point you made before.
I don’t want to get into semantics.
TONY JONES: Well he wasn’t blind in that eye when he came to Australia and, according to Dr Ward, the 4-month delay while he was detention in a remote camp, he went blind in one eye.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I am not an ophthalmologist, I’m not an optometrist.
No, Phil. You’re not an optometrist. You’re just a bastard.
2006 update: Shahin is now living in TPV limbo, but attending Box Hill TAFE studying english and maths. So he still has some sight. He has two sisters here, 19 and 20, who are also studying, and a younger brother, 14. Fortunately, they have not all been traumatised and damaged to the extent Shahin and his parents have been.