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  • Becoming through the Mundane: Asylum Seekers and the Making of Selves in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
  • Paige West (bio)

In “We Refugees,” Hannah Arendt argued that refugees want to be seen as, and to feel like, anything other than refugees; they are seeking new kinds of selves to be in the wake of their suffering, and they wish to become those selves through practices that are not tied to either their suffering or their status as refugees (2007). In this essay, based on six years of ongoing ethnographic work with people connected to the Regional Resettlement Arrangement (rra) between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG),1 I take up the question of what kinds of places and practices afford some of the asylum seekers affected by the rra the space to make selves that are not configured—by either themselves or others—through their legal status, their detention, or their suffering.

Arendt famously asserted that when given refuge in a new nation-state, refugees become new kinds of selves through attempts at self-assimilation through practices like learning languages and becoming loud, optimistic patriots (2007, 271). Yet the men detained by Australia in PNG, most of whom have spent the bulk of the past six years in a detention center in Manus Province, have not been given opportunities for these forms of assimilation. They are truly relegated to a state of exception (Agamben 2005; Mbembe 2003) in which, in addition to being deprived of the possibility of both citizenship and bodily sovereignty, they have also been deprived of the possibility of most of the mundane daily acts that allow humans to make selves in prosaic or ordinary ways. For these men, it is another part of Arendt’s “We Refugees” that is a haunting predictor of their future. Arendt wrote, “Once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride on the [End Page 468] subway without being told we were undesirable” (2007, 269). In what follows, I think with Arendt to try and understand what forms of mundane daily activities the asylum seekers who live in Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, undertake and how those activities allow them to reassert a form of humanity that has been denied to them during their detention.

The Shopping Mall

I startle as I hear my name called out across the bustling exhibition hall at the Stanley Hotel in Port Moresby. The hall is hosting an agricultural expo, and I’m languidly moving up and down the aisles, picking up pamphlets about things like fertilizer, tractor repair, and new varieties of rice. I look around, don’t see any of my friends who are at the expo with me, and go back to my indifferent strolling through the hall. Then I hear it again, louder this time, and I see a slight, balding man coming toward me, smiling a wide, bright smile. I have no idea who he is. As he draws closer, it takes me a full one hundred and twenty seconds to realize that he is Ahmad,2 a man I had met two years earlier, in 2017. We were connected through friends of friends, as he had just arrived in Port Moresby from Manus and I was there working with a number of asylum seekers with whom I have been close since first meeting them in 2015. I realize who he is just in time and smile back at him as he reaches me. We hug for just a beat too long, and as we pull back, he holds onto my hand as we talk.

When I first met Ahmad, he was about sixty pounds heavier, with a full head of hair. By June 2019, he is gaunt and almost unrecognizable. I look at him for a long time, never knowing how to begin these conversations with the men who have been indefinitely detained in PNG, and then he gifts me with the first words of our exchange, knowing that I am wordless. “You! Always at the shopping mall!” he says, laughing. I return...


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pp. 468-476
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