Nans to the rescue
Rayna Brown (left) and Joyce Jenkin with the rug intended to draw attention to the plight of refugee children and their families.
GRANDMOTHER Julie Valent pauses and swallows to forestall the tears when she talks about the 11-year-old girl who tried to kill herself in the now-closed Woomera migrant detention centre.
Julie, a grandmother of six, says with obvious relief that the girl survived and is now a young wife and Australian citizen.
The South Yarra resident bonded with the girl and her Iranian parents at the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre after their transferral from the Woomera centre, which closed in 2003.
In 1970, Julie migrated to Melbourne with her husband Paul, a Holocaust survivor. "I strongly identify with people fleeing persecution," she says with understatement.
Julie, who completed post-graduate studies in community education at Monash University, joined the advocacy group Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children soon after it was formed in 2014.
The group, angered by detention of asylum seekers and their children on Nauru and the Australian mainland, has spread its message by the grandmotherly method of networking.
"We're not going to sit and be silent," says Clare Forbes, co-chairwoman of the group formed by five Melbourne friends in 2014.
The founders took their inspiration from Argentina's Plaza de Mayo, formed in 1977 with the goal of finding the children stolen and illegally adopted during that nation's "dirty war".
The Melbourne group's members have helped and bonded with migrants and asylum seekers.
Last December they collected toys, books and other gifts at a rally in the CBD and posted them in backpacks to Nauru - one pack for each of the 160-plus children then on the island.
"We hoped the children and families would be settled in the USA following Prime Minister Turnbull's agreement with President Trump, but that hasn't happened," Julie said.
Soon after the group founders convened, affiliated groups sprouted up in Victoria's regional centres, then in NSW and Tasmania.
The grandmothers' sub-groups are delineated within federal electorates. Julie became co-ordinator of the Higgins group.
By the time a conference was held in Melbourne in late 2015, 1000 grandmothers nationwide had signed up for campaigns, their apogee a "freedom ride" by bus and car to Canberra in March last year by more than 400 members, families and friends.
The group has an executive and a planning committee, and membership has since doubled to almost 2000.
On July 19, outside the State Library, the grandmothers joined a national candle-lit vigil to voice their outrage that for four years Australian governments have chosen to make people seeking safety suffer in offshore detention. They called for immediate evacuation.
The latest Australian Border Force statistics show that at June 30, 42 children, 48 women and 281 men remained in detention on Nauru.
The Manus detention centre held 803 men only, while the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre held 81 men and five women.
The grandmothers dig deeper with the figures."More than 40 children are still detained on Nauru; we have their names and ages, and babies continue to be born there," Julie says. The government's number of 42 relates only to children inside detention. Most of them and their families now live in a camp outside a fenced area, and they face repeated threats and violence."
The sub-groups take varied forms of action. Thirteen in Higgins have spent an estimated 180 hours, combined, to knit two large rugs, each comprising 80 squares. Those 160 brightly coloured tapestries represent each child who was then on Nauru, and their public display will advance the freedom message.
Higgins member Rayna Brown, of East Malvern, says her understanding is that the government believes the children are not in detention because they're not behind walls or wire.
""But they and their families have no idea what the future holds," she says. "When we get the children out of Nauru we're committed to ensuring they're not separated from their families. It's really about family units living in freedom in our community."
In February, some of the Higgins grandmothers attended a meeting at which refugee advocate Julian Burnside QC recommend grassroots action. "He suggested we knit a very long scarf - kilometres long - and stitch in the names of federal politicians who've been involved in immigration," Rayna said. "We decided we'd rather knit the rugs, for the children still detained."
Co-knitter Jill McDonald insists the group isn't political. "We thought putting the pollies' names on the quilt went a bit too far. We don't want to be Madame Defarges."
The knitters hit a snag. "We asked the Boroondara and Stonnington councils if we could display [the rugs] in their libraries, but they said no," said Mrs Brown. The group are now looking for a venue to display their work.