Walkley Award for refugee advocate, Safdar Ahmed.

All the 2015 Walkley Award Winners announced on Thursday evening came from mainstream media organisations except one, Safdar Ahmed. Safdar, who won in the ‘Artwork’ category for his documentary web-comic Villawood: Notes From An Immigration Detention Centre, is a Sydney-based artist and academic in the field of Islamic studies.

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The work depicts the stories of asylum seekers and refugees inside Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. It includes the testimony of people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, including men, women and teenagers. Some of those included are long-term detainees who have been detained for up to five years.

The Walkleys presented it as a project of GetUp! The Shipping News, which is a crowdfunded initiative that has provided grants to journalists working on asylum seeker stories. Safdar posted it earlier this year in his space at the Twitter-owned Medium.org publishing platform.

We can’t exactly boast that we have a Walkley award winner, but Pearls and Irritations featured it back in March and we are proud that Safdar gave us his blessing and permission to use it. Safdar’s aim to use art as a tool of advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers is in harmony with the purpose of this blog.

The comic shows the disempowerment experienced by refugees in detention and the methods employed to survive and resist it. A chapter recounts the death of Ahmad Ali Jafari, a young Afghan refugee who suffered a heart attack within the centre in 2013. Forms of resistance depicted in the comic include acts of non-compliance, self-harm and one refugee’s participation in a rooftop protest.

Safdar writes: ‘I hope this Walkley Award gives the comic more exposure, which seeks to depict some truths about mandatory detention and prompt people to question or rethink why Australia abuses refugees for politically-driven ends. I’d like to thank all the asylum seekers and refugees who participated in the project, for sharing their experiences with me. The comic is dedicated to them and to my late friend, Ahmad Ali Jafari. 

‘My thanks to GetUp’s The Shipping News Project, and to the 4700+ members of the public who contributed to their crowd-sourcing campaign. This award underscores the importance of alternative types of journalism, including documentary comics, in tackling important issues. Thanks also to everyone in the community art organisation Refugee Art Project, which this comic was inspired by.’

The Walkleys judges commented: ‘Photos are not permitted within Villawood Detention Centre, so Ahmed has conveyed through his graphic novel style the conditions within the Detention Centre. By using the stories and often the artwork of the asylum seekers, Ahmed has produced a moving documentation of their plight, and a damning condemnation of Australia’s detention system.’

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