Thomas Wales and Refugee Artworks from the Sherger Detention Centre


Here is a short video made with Thomas Wales, a traditional landowner and spokesperson for the Thanakwith people in far north Queensland. Thomas grew up in Townsville and has lived in Napranum, an aboriginal community in Wippa, since 1990. He worked for SERCO as a service provider in the remote Sherger detention centre for roughly 11 months. 


Mokwi [Brother] on Vimeo.

 Thomas Wales cropped

During his time at Sherger, Thomas became friends with the young Hazara Afghan refugees who were held there. He is proud that he and his indigenous colleagues treated the refugees with friendship, kindness and respect. He refused to refer to refugees by their boat number but called them by their names.Thomas began to learn Dari so he could communicate with the Afghan refugees more easily. A young Hazara refugee and friend to Thomas who was kept in the Sherger detention centre (and who wishes to remain anonymous) had the following words to say about him:

‘He was very helpful. I really love him. I have seen people in detention who were willing to commit suicide. He was the only person who was giving people hope for their life. Do you know what that means? Hope in life. He is more than good. He is too bloody good. That’s the reason we are alive. I was in detention about 20 months. I was in Sherger about a year.’


lang book web

Thomas’ Dari language notebook

When the Sherger detention centre was closed down and the refugees moved out, Thomas rescued and preserved some of the artworks that had been made by the detainees, which he claims would have been discarded had he not salvaged them. Wanting them to be seen by the public, he brought them to Sydney, for the Refugee Art Project to include in the Still Alive art exhibition. Some of the works have no discernable attribution and we are making every attempt to contact the artists whose names are known, in order to acknowledge them. If anyone viewing this display may know who might have executed any of these works, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us.


The artworks show pictures of old Afghan men, which Thomas took to be significant. ‘They were missing their families and drawing their old people’, he explained. There are drawings of Dingoes. Sherger being located in a remote area, the Afghan and Sri Lankan detainees were fascinated by Australian wild animals, especially the Dingoes and Kangaroos that would sometimes go up to the detention centre’s perimeter fence. The most disturbing image is a drawing of a Taliban roadblock. Thomas recalled hearing the Afghan refugees tell stories about the Taliban and the harm they would inflict on innocent people. ‘This shows what they are running from’, he pointed out. Thomas considers the work to be important historical pieces that provide meaningful reflections on the lives and experiences of the refugees who were kept at Sherger.


Through a successful Indiegogo campaign, we were able to bring Thomas to Sydney so that he could speak to Sydney audiences and so that we could make a short film about his experiences of working in the detention centre. 

This project is important for exploring the insights of an Aboriginal man who had experience of working in a detention centre. It is suggestive of the intersections that exist between the racism long practiced against Aboriginal people, and the more recent forms of discrimination and exclusion that are now experienced by refugees.

Our thanks go to Agnieszka Switala for making this film. We are also greateful to the following people for supporting our Indiegogo campaign to bring Thomas to Sydney: Suvendrini Perera, Rosa Pascoe, Angus Reoch, Michael Lever, Peter Marquis-Kyle, Thomas Morison, Asiya Sian Davidson, Penny Daly, Sticky Institute, Joanna Anderson, Nina Melksham & Anna Noonan.

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