How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir

The Long Way Home

Ten years ago, I fled the only home I’d ever known to escape a violent regime. I endured years of detainment and traversed three continents before finally finding sanctuary in Toronto

By Jaivet Ealom| Portraits by Norman Wong
| July 25, 2022
“You young guys are like tadpoles swimming in the hoofprint of a bull.”

I’m not sure whether it was my mother or grandmother who first explained my world to me in those terms. They were members of Burma’s Rohingya Muslim community who had the good fortune of being born in an earlier era of relative security. My grandparents remembered being able to travel wherever they liked. They lived a life of freedom and choices. My brother, Shahed, and I—also born in Burma—did not.

Our world was a roofless prison. My hometown, Maungdaw, was a coastal trading city of about 400,000, most of them Rohingyas, located near the border with Bangladesh. It was all I knew. I’d never seen a building higher than a two-storey village house, let alone a university or an airport.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
The author, pictured here as a toddler, spent his childhood in the town of Maungdaw

The region had been contested territory for generations. The Buddhist majority that controlled the country considered Rohingya people to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although our roots in Burma dated back centuries. The myth of our foreign origins, once invented and spread, became a sharp blade used to cut us from the national fabric. We were forced to live in specified wards, to register our houses with the regime and to report how many people lived in each dwelling. We were prodded, hounded and controlled. Soldiers thought nothing of dragging terrified families out of bed in the middle of the night for surprise head counts.

A Rohingya who swam against the tide and managed to get an education risked becoming a target of the government and getting thrown in jail on spurious grounds. I happened to be one such creature, a tadpole who leaped out of the bull’s hoofprint and into a decent school. I was admitted into the industrial chemistry program at Dagon University, 500 kilometres away from Maungdaw in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon.

In June of 2012, while I was studying there, sectarian violence erupted back home. Buddhists in my home state, backed by the regime, started attacking and burning Rohingya villages. There were near-daily reports of communities wiped from the face of the earth, tens of thousands of Rohingyas forced to run for their lives. The safest option for me was to leave Burma, but that thought came with a shiver of confusion and fear. For all its strife and despotism, it was the only home I’d ever known.

I made urgent inquiries with friends and family and was given the phone number of a Rohingya man named Khaled. He’d fled to Jakarta with his family and was in the process of applying for refugee status. When I phoned Khaled and explained my situation, he offered to help me escape, saying I could essentially tailgate his family through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees process. He even promised to pick me up from the airport and drive me to see a UNHCR representative.

Due to the limits imposed by the ruling regime, I barely knew a thing about the countries on the other side of the border, let alone how to survive in them. Out there, I’d be vulnerable, swimming in the open waters, easy prey to creatures of the unknown seas. But now I knew someone in Indonesia, and that was the best I could hope for. I took the first step. And, just like that, I became a refugee.

A blast of hot air welcomed me at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. It was a steamy afternoon in late May of 2013. I eventually found Khaled. He appeared to be about 40 and was approachable and easygoing. He struck me as a good man.

We travelled into the city so I could set up an appointment with a UNHCR representative. I fell in at the back of the line, and within half an hour, hundreds more people had queued behind me. For the first time since leaving Burma, I realized how utterly exposed I was. A droplet in an ocean of lost souls.

I was given a note to meet with a representative in two and a half months. In the meantime, Khaled invited me to join him and his family in their tiny flat in the slums of Jakarta. It was there that I started to realize what I had gotten myself into by fleeing to Indonesia. It became clear that my view of the UNHCR as a paragon of justice and goodness needed an adjustment. The organization was founded to help the most vulnerable refugees around the world, but it operated like just another broken bureaucracy. People could expect to wait up to seven years to be accepted into a third country, sometimes longer.

After a week or so of refugee limbo in Indonesia, I met two Rohingya guys who claimed to have found a boat that would take them to Australia—for a price. By then, I’d heard stories about the compassion that Australians showed to refugees. At first, I thought these boat rides to Australia were the stuff of rumour—fairy tales to give hope to the hopeless. Then the two Rohingya guys disappeared, just like they said they would. A few days later, they phoned to let Khaled and me know that they’d made it: they had lodged claims for asylum, and the Australians were taking good care of them.

Khaled decided that the cost of staying was too high. Life in a slum where his kids would receive no education was not a future he could tolerate. Despite the dangers that lay ahead, he would take his wife, his sister-in-law and the little ones across the sea to salvation. If I shared his dreams of a better life, I could join them.

Khaled contacted a syndicate that ran boats directly to an Australian territory called Christmas Island from a beach just a few hours’ drive from Jakarta. In Rangoon, my brother frantically called friends and family and managed to raise around $1,000 (US) for the price of passage to Australia.

The night we left, the moon was barely visible, a fingernail clipping in the starless sky. There were two trucks and dozens of fellow refugees. We were crammed in like livestock and covered with tarpaulins. As the hours went by, the stink of stale air and human sweat was soured further by the reek of children who had pissed and shit themselves.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
His journey from Indonesia to Australia took four days on a boat packed with dozens of other refugees

As the sun rose, we rolled to a halt and the engine stopped. We spilled out into a jungle clearing. I pushed through the undergrowth and saw a large wooden boat in the bay, pulling against its anchor like a sea monster. I found an open space next to the wheelhouse and sat there. My fears chased one another in a spinning wheel until I lost track of them and fell asleep.

It was mid-afternoon on the fourth day when the sky vibrated with the rumble of an airplane. Flying at low altitude, it banked, revealing the word Customs in a bold script on its side. Later that evening, two speedboats overtook our vessel. They appeared out of the darkness as marine spectres, a team of men in full commando gear. As they boarded, they stepped over my prostrate body to take hold of the boat and its exhausted passengers. Around 2 a.m., I caught my first glimpse of Christmas Island, a low-lying coral atoll.

Once ashore, we were directed toward some minibuses. As our bus climbed a hill, a wide-angle panorama through the windows showed a richly jungled cliffside. The view filled me with the most amazing sensation, a hope I had not felt in years. I had made it. At last, I could stop running.

The bus slowed to reveal a tall grey fence topped with barbed wire. A two-storey gate rattled open to allow the bus into a steel cage, a wire-mesh airlock to separate the outside from whatever lay within. A steel sign planted in the neatly cut lawn announced that we had arrived at Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. The facility was an estate of low grey steel-roofed buildings. It was not, at first glance, a welcoming place.

The bus stopped and we were directed off. I was shown to a shower block inside a nearby building and told to wash quickly. Then a guard directed me to an adjacent room with three other men. There were two steel bunk beds bolted to the wall and two military-style fold-up cots on the floor. Wedged into the far end of the cell were a toilet, sink and shower. Every surface was hard and made of metal—even the toilet. There were no pillows. The door could be locked only from the outside. I had never been in a prison, but this was what I imagined they were like. The lofty optimism that had filled my heart faded. I was still grateful to have a new chance at life, but I also had a dawning sense that everything I’d heard about Australia might not be true.

Eventually, our compound was visited by a cadre of Australian customs officials. One of the men said that there had been a change to Australian law five days before our arrival. Those entering Australian territory by boat and without a visa after that date would not be permitted to claim asylum in the country. Single men would be sent to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, in Papua New Guinea, while women, children and families would be dispatched to Nauru, a speck of a nation in the western Pacific. The people I had travelled with urgently called friends and family in Australia, which triggered an avalanche of distressing rumours about the conditions on Manus Island. People spoke in hushed tones about strange and violent rituals still being practised in remote parts of PNG.

For two weeks, I barely left my room, which I now accepted was a cell. Night after night, I lay awake in a cold sweat, dreading the moment I’d be taken away. Early one morning, a guard arrived and said, “Wake up and pack all your stuff.” He took me to a part of the prison I’d never seen before. I joined a crowd of men who had also just been plucked, terrified, from their cells in the predawn abduction. Several hours later, a phalanx of Australian immigration officers and interpreters entered the building to deliver an address. “You are being taken to Manus Island, and your claim for asylum will be processed there,” an official announced. “If you are found to be a genuine refugee, you will be resettled in Papua New Guinea. You will never set foot in Australia.”

We touched down on Manus Island on the morning of December 19, 2013: a lone aircraft on an empty airstrip in a far corner of the world. The plane door opened and the air-conditioned cabin filled with the hot breath of the equatorial jungle. A platoon of heavily armed commandos seized us by our arms and marched us onto buses. Our convoy was waved inside the Lombrum Naval Base, past radio towers, water towers, military trucks and groups of commandos, before stopping at a high steel gate. We drove inside and stopped again in a large quadrangle ringed by barbed wire. A glance through the fence filled me with fear. Hundreds of men roamed around a sad-looking settlement of huge canvas tents. It was a lawless, chaotic human zoo.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
The prisoners at Manus staged daily protests in the yards outside their cells

The prison was divided into numerous compounds, each with a military name—Charlie, Bravo, Oscar, Foxtrot. We were to be put into Oscar, a rectangular patch of gravelly dirt. We were each handed some sheets and a pillow—my first in six months—and herded through a high iron-mesh fence as heavy padlocks clicked into place behind us.

The only thing the 500 men in Oscar shared was an obsession with their own survival. If you didn’t fight for water, you didn’t get any. If you didn’t tussle over food, you went to sleep hungry. The language barrier made social cohesion unlikely. With more than 20 nationalities locked away together, fights would erupt from simple misunderstandings.

It’s common to hear people talk about a hot day as “torture,” particularly when the mercury climbs above 30 degrees. On Manus, it was over 30 degrees year round, with the humidity making it feel more like 50. This was a problem in a place where we were made to line up all day, first for the toilets, then for breakfast, then for lunch and then for dinner. For all the time we spent in line for meals, you might think the food was worth waiting for. In reality, the standard fare was a variation on semi-raw meat and unnamed vegetable matter in a stew-like concoction served with undercooked rice. These offerings were regularly alive with maggots or seasoned with stones and bits of gravel. One man even found two human teeth in his dinner.

While I was in Oscar, contractors were clearing the jungle on the other side of the steel fence. Bulldozers obliterated trees, vines and undergrowth and replaced them with a tarmac of gravel and compacted dirt. Cranes hoisted white shipping containers into neat stacks. For weeks, we looked on as a new jail materialized in front of our eyes, like dying men forced to watch the assembly of our own coffins.

Not long before the grand edifice was completed, officers carrying clipboards asked the men in Oscar if they wanted to transfer to one of the steel boxes. The 12-metre-long shipping containers in the new compound, Mike, were each divided into three four-person cells. I figured it had to be quieter at night in one of those steel cages than in a tent with 49 other men. By February, I had moved to Mike.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
Ealom’s compound had shoddy plumbing and no air conditioning despite the scorching heat

Whenever prisoners were transferred to Manus, they were shown an “orientation video” recorded by Australia’s new minister for immigration and border protection, Scott Morrison. “You will never live in Australia,” he said. “If you are found not to be a refugee, you will remain in this camp until you decide to go home.” It was so bleak and demoralizing. There was only so much of this we could tolerate. Morrison’s threat that we would spend years in detention was like a nonstop finger in the eye. With no hope or recourse and desperate for our voices to be heard, detainees began to gather in the main yard of Mike and other compounds at 5 p.m. every day. We waved hand-written placards and chanted, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Each of these demonstrations lasted about an hour.

When I looked around the compound, I saw hundreds of intelligent men in the prime of their lives being deliberately trampled. Like me, a lot of guys were in their 20s—a time when we should have been setting the foundations for our later years. I worried that, if my 20s were lost in offshore detention, I would become permanently isolated from the world. It would take a heroic effort—maybe an impossible one—to be “normal” again.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
He took this selfie and other photos of Manus with a contraband cellphone

Some people thought suicide was a better option. I saw many detainees try to take their own lives. I could relate. I had lost all agency over my life. There was no hope in the darkness. To wake up in the morning was to sign up for another day of anguish. Living was the hard part. Suicide was relatively easy.

I realized that, from the roof of my shipping container—a good five metres off the ground—I could dive head first into a square cement base that supported an adjacent steel lighting tower. It would give me the best chance of a fatal injury. It was dark when I climbed onto the corrugated steel roof. Peering over the edge, I found my target in the concrete cube below. I took a deep breath and leaped into the soft Manus air.

My left side smashed into the concrete box at the same time my skull slammed into the metal light pole. The terrible noise of the impact brought guys running outside from the lower container. They found me—somehow still conscious—in a heap on the ground. Each beat of my heart inflated my head with unbearable pressure. My ears boomed with the sound of an echoing bell that thankfully receded as my vision went black. When I came to, I was in a bed at the clinic inside the detention centre. I’d shattered my left rib cage, suffered a major concussion and had multiple sprains and abrasions. For me, the worst news of all was that I was still alive.

Time was elastic on Manus Island. It twisted and elongated according to the state of sadness or physical pain you were in. Years of lining up for food three times a day had homogenized existence to a point where each hour merged with the next. We were stuck in a continuous moment: a line that rotated in a pointless circle with no terminus.

Before I arrived at Manus, Papua New Guinea’s opposition leader, a principled figure named Belden Norman Namah, had launched a challenge to the legality of offshore processing on Manus Island and had taken it to PNG’s Supreme Court. On April 16, 2016, the court at last announced its ruling: the detention of refugees on Manus Island was illegal and in breach of the country’s constitution. Both the PNG and Australian governments were immediately ordered to move us out of detention. Two weeks after the ruling was delivered, the detention centre gates were opened. The result you may expect, that we marched through the gates of our prison to freedom, did not occur. For one, there was a campaign, years in the making, to encourage the local community to view us as depraved criminals in need of a beating. For another, to leave the centre would be to illegally trespass onto Lombrum Naval Base, which served as the outer ring of our fortified prison. Leaving an island that was heavily patrolled and lay hundreds of kilometres from the nearest shore was going to be difficult.

Our keepers offered to drive us just outside the fence of Lombrum. A few of those desperate enough to swallow their fears for a brief taste of freedom began making trips into the nearby town of Lorengau. There, we could hang around for a few hours and sample tropical fruit before being loaded back onto the prison bus and returned to detention. We had to leave and return at the exact times we were told, our hands empty at both ends of the journey. Upon our arrival back in detention, we were searched, scanned, addressed as numbers and methodically stripped of whatever dignity and joy we might have recovered during our brief foray into the civilian world. The gates were open, but we were as confined as ever. We had no place to go and no hope of employment in Lorengau.

One of my guilty pleasures while studying at university had been the American TV drama Prison Break. I was intrigued by the twists and turns in the plot, which centres around a man who has to figure out how to help his innocent brother escape from death row. Borrowing a trick from the show, I began taking detailed notes on the world around me. I knew, for instance, the schedule of each guard, how long it took him to go from fence A to fence B, how many seconds it took to walk along the fence line, and how long the same trip took when cutting across the yard at a 45-degree angle. It was tedious stuff, but it laid bare the graceless choreography of the guards’ movements in and around the property and the mechanics of the centre itself.

Realistically, the only way off the island was by plane, and the only flights from Manus went to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG. Identifying that as my destination, I took a step backward, starting with a question: How might I get past airport security? If I made it to the airport and I wasn’t a fugitive, then who was I? There were two demographics that might work: interpreters and health care workers. An interpreter was a safer bet. I took a keen interest in their work. I watched them closely, recording their movements in my journal.

It took me about four months to be confident that interpreters flew in and out once every three weeks on alternating Thursdays and Sundays. Their busiest time was when flights landed, during the switchover between arriving and departing passengers. In those moments, the guards were usually distracted, their hands full with the transfer of detainees returning from med-evac. If I showed up at the airport during that window, I’d stand a better chance of squeaking through undetected.

During my time at Manus, I had befriended a woman named Winiaka. She worked for Playfair, a company that helped detainees through the legal and bureaucratic requirements of PNG immigration. I asked her to book me on the next plane out, the interpreter flight to Port Moresby on Sunday, June 25, 2017. In the meantime, I made a fake ID at a print shop in Lorengau.

The flight was scheduled to depart Manus at 1:30 p.m. I strode into the terminal with a feigned and brittle confidence. The tarmac was as hot as it had been on the morning of my arrival on the island, so long ago now: for the record, it had been 1,284 days, or three years and six months. With each step, my muscles tensed, flinching in anticipation of the hand of a guard gripping my shoulder and stopping me in my tracks.

My assigned seat was on the right-hand side, next to a window, about two thirds of the way back. I put my knapsack on the empty seat next to mine to discourage company. The door closed and the plane crawled toward the end of the runway. The horizon tilted outside the window as we took to the air. The ground dropped off, showing the tops of trees, and then the detention centre came into view. It was amazing that all we had been through—all we’d suffered and survived in the past four years—had taken place on that cursed patch of land.

From Port Moresby, I flew to the remote island province of Bougainville and then travelled by boat to the nearby Solomon Islands. I spent the next six months there, living with friends of friends and plotting my next move. With the government of the Solomon Islands—like that of Fiji and the other territories of the region—in thrall to Australia, one call to an embassy and I might be hunted down and apprehended. For my protection while I was here, and for the sake of finding a safer harbour, I needed some kind of identification to prove my legal status.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
After his escape, Ealom spent six months in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands

Winiaka knew a woman named Eliza who worked for the Solomon Islands government. She agreed to help me obtain a passport. All that was required was for two Solomon Islands citizens to sign statutory declarations that they had known me for at least five years and that I, too, was a Solomon Islander. Two of Eliza’s friends would sign for me, for a small fee. Those affidavits would be mailed along with a passport application form and two photographs to the Ministry of Immigration.

To my dismay, my application was denied. But I tried again, this time including a forged doctor’s certificate stating that I needed care from a specialist overseas. Finally, in late December 2017, I was handed a crisp new passport.

The timing could have been better. It was three days until Christmas—peak travel time in the strongly Christian Solomon Islands. All the international flights were heavily booked, and remaining tickets were expensive. There were, however, some seats open on a plane to Canada via Fiji and Hong Kong, flying in two days’ time. That settled it—I would make a run for Canada, a country and a culture completely unknown to me.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
He used falsified papers to fly to Toronto via the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Hong Kong

My best hope for the future was to claim asylum in Canada. To give myself a fighting chance, I needed to make my claim in person to a Canadian immigration officer. Luckily, I had studied English since I was in middle school, and during university I’d worked for an IT company that operated in English.

When we landed in Toronto, I could feel my heartbeat in my temples as the slowly moving line brought me closer to the customs desk. I stepped forward and found myself face-to-face with a 50-something man with a long grey beard. This was it. I handed him a signed and dated message scrawled in capital letters on a page from my notepad: “I have been travelling for the last three days without proper sleep. I am a Rohingyan man from Burma and I am fleeing genocide by its government.”

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
The note requesting asylum that he presented to Canadian immigration officers

Without saying a word, the officer read it and looked at me. “Walk this way, please,” he said, ushering me past the booth into an area away from the queues. With those few steps, I entered the sovereign realm of Canada. The relief was intoxicating.

Another official with neatly combed hair and glasses arrived shortly afterward and asked for my name. After less than five minutes of my life story, he interrupted. “I am going to process the asylum claim for you right here. But first things first.” He brought me a Subway sandwich and a can of Coke. My first meal in days, paid for by the immigration official who was in charge of deciding my fate and future in the country. Canada was already turning out to be a place unlike any I had known.

During the course of the interview, the official filled out the first of the documents needed to assess my claim for asylum. He handed me some forms to complete in my own time, ahead of a hearing that was to come. The rules stated that I was to be sent to an immigration detention centre until the completion of a security background check. “But I just can’t do that,” the official said. “What you’ve been through deserves a better response.” He picked up the phone and called a few homeless shelters. He found a place for me downtown at Seaton House.

I took the train from Pearson to Union Station. Snow carpeted the streets and sidewalks. I contemplated taking a cab to Seaton House, but still in frugal escapee mode, where every dollar spent now would probably be needed more urgently later, I walked nearly two and a half kilometres to save $10. I quickly realized my mistake. Having spent more than four years in the blast furnace of the tropics, I had no idea the planet could get so cold. Eyeball-freezing cold.

About 15 minutes later, I pushed open the door of Seaton House in a state of physical crisis, shaking and unable to speak. The staff piled blankets on me and sat me next to a heater. When I stopped shivering, I spoke with the woman at the reception area. “We’re over capacity because of the weather,” she said. “You’ll have a mattress and some blankets, but you’ll be down on the ground.”

A drab four-storey blond-brick building, Seaton House resembled a prison rather than a safe harbour. It reminded me of the compounds on Christmas Island, with tables bolted to the floor and a two-way radio squawking from the belt of every staffer. But the people who worked there were kind-hearted. The woman from reception gave me a pair of mittens, a sweater and a scarf. When I had arrived, cold and battered, on the doorstep of Australia, they had refused to grant me even a pillow for the first six months. Here, this overcrowded, under-resourced homeless shelter had dug deep to give me a Christmas gift.

The next day, after lunch at the shelter, I pulled on my new sweater and explored the nearby neighbourhoods. They were remarkably neat and attractive. There were shops and houses adorned with Christmas trees and strung with colourful lights. Children tumbled in the snow in parks, and couples walked past holding hands, too engaged in their chatter to notice me. I was just another person on the street, with as much right to be there as anyone else.

There was still work for me to do. In a local branch of the public library, I spent hours filling out and submitting asylum claim forms. With help from my brother, Shahed, I managed to speak with a man named Saiful, who was well connected to the small but growing Rohingya diaspora in Canada. Saiful told me his address in a place named Kitchener. I discovered only after entering a cab that Kitchener was more than 100 kilometres away. The fare ran into the hundreds of dollars. When I arrived, Saiful came out to the curb and paid it in full.

Saiful’s family were survivors in their own right. He was a student with a wife and daughter and another daughter on the way. They were grateful to be in Canada, where they were doing well. They lived simply, but their hospitality made their apartment more welcoming than any mansion. After four weeks with Saiful’s family, I began feeling guilty for overstaying, not that they ever gave me cause to. By that point, I qualified for rent support, and I found a cheap basement room to rent in Waterloo. It wasn’t much—a bed and a desk crammed next to a water heater and furnace—but it was my first private space since my university days in Rangoon.

I spent hours in that house preparing for my hearing and speaking to my legal aid representative, an affable lawyer named Ebrahim who was based in Scarborough. A few weeks after our first phone meeting, I took the bus to Ebrahim’s office to sign some papers. I had a few hours to kill in Toronto before my return trip. It was bitterly cold and still snowing, but the brief visit put a glow in my heart. I found myself in a neighbourhood of old stone, looking up at a sprawling gothic building crowned with spires and parapets. It was as if a piece of Hogwarts had been dropped into the middle of a modern city.

It turned out that the splendid building belonged to the University of Toronto. Over the next hour or so, I tagged along with a group of new students on a tour of the grounds, taking in the ornate high ceilings, lavish woodwork and sturdy masonry of the Victorian-era construction. When the tour finished, the guide handed out a selection of brochures and application forms. I took a handful just in case.

On the bus back to Waterloo, I thumbed through the applications and wondered if I had a chance in the gothic wonderland of academia. I decided it might be wiser to take the practical path of looking for a job. Over the next few weeks, I applied for countless positions, from restaurant and bar gigs to professional roles in pharmacies. I scoured Craigslist and other websites for any paying job, from the trades to data entry. Each time, I was turned down or ignored. Meanwhile the cut-off date for applications to the University of Toronto was approaching.

To have a chance at being accepted, I needed to complete the application and obtain my original academic transcripts from Burma. I also had to pass the academic English test with a score no lower than 6.5 in reading, writing, listening and speaking.

The test was held at 8 a.m. at the university. I woke up at 3 a.m. to make sure I didn’t miss the two buses to get there. I ended up receiving a score of 7.5 across the board. About a month later, I got notice that my application had been accepted and that I was due to start in the fall semester, in a few months’ time. My program was political science with a side order of economics.

As it turned out, my tuition was due the same day as my refugee hearing. Before I could celebrate being granted refugee status, I shuttled from the courthouse to the university. With minutes to spare, Stephen Watt, a marketing manager at U of T’s business school who is active in Canada’s private sponsorship program, agreed to loan me $5,000. We had met only twice.

In May, I took the bus from Waterloo and moved into a decently sized room, filled with sunshine, on the top floor of a big old house near campus. My first day at university felt like the beginning of a new journey, one that I was proud and relieved to take.

How I escaped from Manus prison: a memoir
The author at his home in the Annex. He now works for a local tech start-up that assists with humanitarian crises

In 2020, I became a permanent resident of Canada, the place I now call home. Becoming a person of legal standing in this great country was an incredible milestone for someone who had crossed three continents—without papers—in search of a sanctuary.

Since arriving in Toronto, I have tried my best to discover who I am beyond my status as a stateless person and former Manus refugee. Sometimes at the University of Toronto, I felt like an imposter, going through the motions of student life while knowing that my unusual past set me apart. Certain things—like the sight of uniformed officers or the noise of a passing fire truck—set my nervous system ablaze. In my first year, I attended a seminar on trauma and was retraumatized myself when, for lunch, we were asked to line up for sandwiches.

Over time, the patterns of work and life started to come more naturally, bringing me a little closer to a normal 20-something man. Keeping busy can be good therapy. Through Stephen, I ended up meeting someone from a start-up that brings tech solutions to humanitarian crises, and they gave me a job. It seemed a good fit for someone like me, and it was inspiring to join a team of other motivated people, each trying to make a difference in their own way.

Manus prison was closed in October 2017, but there are still about 100 former inmates trapped in Australia’s refugee-detention system, many of them at their 10-year anniversary of detainment with no end in sight. We can never be sure how many detainees were murdered or took their own lives after being deported and forced to repatriate to lethal homelands. We can’t put a figure on the souls lost in the UNHCR’s sprawling system of suspended animation.

My journey to freedom was made possible by quiet individuals who took a chance on me because they believed that doing so—helping even just a single person get to a better place—was worthwhile in itself. One individual can make a difference through the smallest act: small actions can come together to make great ones.

This piece was adapted with permission from Escape From Manus Prison: One Man’s Daring Quest for Freedom by Jaivet Ealom, published by Viking on August 2, 2022.


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