On Being Human – Suellen Green

We’ve Boundless Plains to Share…

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Written by Suellen Green, mid 2012


* All the names of refugees interviewed for this piece have been changed to protect their identities.


While I have always been sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers, the SBS series, Go Back to Where you Came From, which I watched in class last year, was an absolute eye-opener. This program gave me a greater insight into the desperation that causes people to go to such lengths, and I highly recommend taking the time to watch it, and its sequel which involved a group of celebrities, for free on the SBS website.

The feelings this program evoked in me encouraged me to attend the first event in the Victoria University Controversies Seminar series; ‘What happened to the concept of “a fair go” for all? Why does this not apply to new arrivals in Australia?,’ presented by David Manne; which further galvanised my need to do something. I decided then, that I was going to write an article, pleading to whoever would listen, that Australia must stop treating the world’s most vulnerable people as criminals.

There is a simulation on the Go Back to Where You Came From page called Asylum: Exit Australia. It invites you to be in the position of someone who’s fallen foul of a new regime in Australia. I’m a writer, and traditionally writers are one of the first groups to be persecuted under totalitarian regimes. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to put myself in this situation. Although it is only a simulation, my stress and anxiety levels were sky high. The thought of my kids in danger, or having to leave them to try and find a safe place for them was incredibly distressing. Not to mention worrying about my own safety. The first time I tried the simulation, I died from starvation on the boat!

It was against this background that I spoke to Aron Micallef, a frequent contributor to SEED, and a passionate human rights campaigner through his position with the Socialist Alliance. Not only did he give me an interview about his own experiences protesting against mandatory detention, he also put me in touch with a VU student who has been in mandatory detention. As a result, Aron’s interview is going to have to wait for another opportunity; the whole scope of the article changed when I met Ali.

Ali’s problems started long before he was born. His ancestors moved to Iraq to be close to the Holy Shrine of Hussein, the third leader of the Shia Muslims. The borders of the Middle East were much more fluid then, but things have changed a lot over the last 100 years or so. As a result, many years after this migration, the Saddam regime threw Ali’s parents (both of whom were born in Iraq) out of the country for not being ‘true Iraqi’. His mother was pregnant at the time, and Ali was born in detention in Iran.

Twenty-five years later Ali was stateless. Although he was born in Iran, he was turned down for Iranian citizenship, time and time again. As a result, he had no identity papers. He couldn’t work in a legitimate job, couldn’t get a license; he wasn’t even allowed to study at university. His status meant that he was illegal in his country of birth. He was discriminated against his whole life. In Iran, he was considered Iraqi. Many Iranian’s hate Iraqi’s. Their two countries had been at war, and around a million Iranians had been killed. Local Iraqis became scapegoats. It was not a pleasant upbringing, but things were about to get worse.

The fall of Saddam’s regime led the Iranian government to announce that it was deporting Iraqis back to their homeland, even those who had been born in Iran and had never even been to Iraq. Saddam may have fallen, but the attitudes that led to the persecution of Ali’s parents, and their ejection from Iraq had not changed. Ali explained to me that Iraq is a tribal nation. If you don’t belong to one of the tribes, then you don’t belong at all, and Ali’s family were not a part of any tribe; they had nowhere to return to. Ali went to Iraq four times after Saddam’s fall to try to get identity papers. One time his parents went with him, to prove that they had been born in Iraq. All this effort was to no avail. He was as unsuccessful at getting an identity in Iraq as he had been in Iran. Not having anywhere to go in Iraq, and not being able to stay in Iran, he turned his mind to leaving the Middle East. Ali went to the Australian Embassy in Iran. It was closed, but there was a sign giving details of the process to apply via the website. He applied, but did not even get to the interview stage.

Having exhausted all his options, finally, in desperation Ali contacted a people smuggler. The price to escape from his situation? $10,000. Did he have $10,000? No, of course not. He was working illegally in his own country, he didn’t have much money at all. He therefore used all the money he did have, then had to borrow money from many family members and friends, and fortunately managed to scrape together the smuggler’s fee. He was given a fake passport, and a plane ticket, and flew to Malaysia.

In Malaysia, Ali was spirited away to a small village, where he stayed in a hut for two days. Then, at sunset, he was taken to a secluded beach, where he got on a small boat with five other asylum seekers. Not understanding what was happening; being made to get into a tiny boat, in the dark of night, Ali started to get frightened. The boat took them to the north of Indonesia, where they got on a bus, which was home for another two days. They were only allowed to get out of the bus for very short toilet breaks. Eventually the bus arrived in Jakarta. Three days were spent hiding out in Jakarta, and then they were given tickets to Mararam Island. Ali was again greeted at the airport, and was taken to a small village. It was here that Ali met Hussein, who was to become his roommate in detention, and eventually, his housemate here in Melbourne. Again they stayed for three days, and then they were taken to a beach, where they were told a ‘safe’ boat was waiting. They were assured that there was no danger, and that the boat had a satellite phone, and life vests. They were both horrified when they saw what was really waiting for them.

‘It was 100% different to what we had been told,’ said Ali.

It was a very old, decrepit, leaky, fishing boat. From the time Ali left Iran, his life wasn’t his own anymore. He couldn’t make any decisions for himself, and by this time he was totally helpless to do anything; he had to get on the boat. The 37 people crammed on to this small boat were told by the three man crew that if the boat sank, they were on their own. The captain and the two crew mates would save themselves. This boat trip was one of the worst times of Ali’s life. None of them could eat, everyone was too seasick. He spent much of the time, lying on the deck, unable to move. They suffered through this ordeal for five days. Eventually they were intercepted by an Australian Customs Boat, which took them to Christmas Island. And then a whole new nightmare began.

Having heard about European detention centres, where you are free in the community, but have to sign in each night, Ali was astounded to learn that he was to be locked up for an undetermined period of time. That time ended up being 15 months; 14 months in the Christmas Island Detention Centre and one month in the Darwin Detention Centre. Detention itself is not an equal service in Australia. The Christmas Island Detention Centre  is very different from the Darwin Detention Centre, which is different again from Broadmeadows (Where one of his friends is still locked up after two years. )

The 14 months in detention at Christmas Island, was very difficult for Ali. For an intelligent man, the passivity of existence was hard to take. There was nothing to do, and no idea how long this was going to go on for.  Ali wrote messages daily to Serco’s management regarding his concerns about his mental health. Some people took their own lives; others withdrew, becoming more and more isolated. Many of them were unsuccessful in at their first attempt at requesting asylum. This also had a devastating effect on their emotional wellbeing.

Ali, himself, was rejected the first time. This was after he had been in detention for nine months, and was desperate to be free. Subsequent events proved that this rejection was the wrong decision. Perhaps the Immigration Department was so desperate to be seen doing something, they processed everyone in the same way? This was after the hunger strike (mentioned below) that highlighted the plight of detention centre inmates. It was promised that the process would be quicker. Yeah, sure; if you can accept an unfair rejection! Immigration minister, Chris Bowen, even blamed the refugees themselves for prolonging the process when they fought their rejections!

The more I research this issue, the more ashamed I am of the Australian Government. This country made a commitment to the United Nations Refugee Convention in 1951. Since 1992, when mandatory detention for asylum seekers who come by boat was introduced, successive governments have failed to live up to that commitment.

In October, 2010, Ali was involved in the peaceful protest at the Christmas Island Detention Centre. He went on a hunger strike with around 250 of his fellow detainees. Some of them (about 25) sewed their lips together. Ali didn’t eat for a week. The protest had an impact, made people listen, but it didn’t change anything. Six months later, there was another protest. This time it wasn’t peaceful. Ali wasn’t involved in the March, 2011 protest, but he understood the desperation that led to it, and helped interpret between protesters and authorities.  After everything they had already been through, just to get to Australia; to then be locked up, without charge, for who knew how long, took a great toll on everyone’s mental health. One of the reasons Ali chose psychology to study was that, after seeing the effects of detention on the minds of his fellow detainees, he wants to help people with mental health issues.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) got involved with this March, 2011 protest. Detainees were attacked with tear gas, and bean bag pellets. Some were injured. In the wee hours of the morning, when Ali was sleeping, AFP officers stormed into his room, and took him, along with 99 other men, who had been named by Serco as

Possible ringleaders, to another area where they were isolated from everyone else in the detention centre.

Another detainee who was caught up in this wrote a letter which can be read on ABC’s The Drum website at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-05-18/asylum3a/2717968. His conclusion is thought provoking to those who believe Australia is a just, progressive country.

‘Is this called justice, here in Australia? Is this the way people get treated in a country that boasts about its humanitarian efforts? Accusing people of an offence they haven’t committed,

without any solid proof or evidence, is something that happens in dictatorship governments. Does this country follow the same dictatorship system as our own countries?’

Another three months later, it happened again. After the third major incident at the Christmas Island Detention Centre, this time in July 2011, Ali, along with many other detainees was removed to Darwin Detention Centre for final security checks. He was finally released from detention on September 7, 2012. In the short time since I first met Ali for an interview that was supposed to go for an hour, and instead turned into a 4 hour chat session, we have become firm friends. He is a very intelligent and incredibly interesting person. And isn’t that the whole point here? He is a person, a flesh and blood individual, just like the rest of us.

So, next time you see another news report dehuminising desperate people seeking asylum, remember that they are not ‘illegals’, they are not criminals, they are not ‘boat people’. They are just people. Men, women and children who need our help, not our condemnation.

Perhaps we can change the call of ‘go back to where you came from’ to ‘Welcome to Australia’.

Isn’t that more in keeping with our much vaunted Aussie sense of fair play and mateship?

The Lucky Country

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I grew up in the lucky country. I was so proud to be Australian. I heard about things that happened in other countries, and while I felt sorry for people who lived in countries that weren’t as wonderful as mine, mostly, I just felt grateful that I had been born into a society that was fair. A place where there were no class barriers, a community that would help if you were in trouble, a society that didn’t discriminate against you on the basis of gender, sexual identity, race, or religion. Australia was just the best country in the world.

I don’t know if I was just over idealistic, but I don’t think so. Growing up in the 70s and 80s meant that I missed all of the appalling ‘White Australia’ policy, (although I exist as a result of it; my mother was 11 years old when she came here as a £10 Pom), and Indigenous Australians finally got the vote just before I was born. What I did witness was women becoming more empowered; LBGTIQ people becoming more accepted and refugees being welcomed, and helped. There was never any question. These people were in trouble, we were Australians, of course we would help them.  The pride I felt for my country knew no bounds. Plus, we were good at sport, and I love sport. Best Country Ever!

While I had the luxury of being born in the lucky country, my kids weren’t so fortunate. My teen years included such marvels as seeing people come together to protect the environment (Franklin Dam), My kids’ teenage years are being lived in an atmosphere of a community divided. All the issues that made us a compassionate, tolerant, pride worthy country are being turned on their heads. The empowerment of women has resulted in rampant misogyny, our government has turned its back on equality for minority groups, couldn’t make the obvious marriage equality laws themselves and dragged the country into a divisive, expensive, internationally embarrassing ‘postal vote’ to be told what was obvious all along, just get it done; and our politicians have been involved in a race to the bottom with their treatment of asylum seekers. We are at the bottom now. And I am deeply ashamed.

See, it’s not just the politicians that make me feel this shame; the politicians wouldn’t be doing it they didn’t think it’s what the people want. When did we as a society become so selfish? What happened to our compassion? Why is it that people feel a sense of entitlement above all others? Are we not all human?

I know it’s not everyone. I have been to rallies of thousands of people, protesting our government’s treatment of refugees. I read letters and blogs and articles of people who still have that sense of fairness and compassion that I used to think was embedded in the national psyche.

Ironically, given our own history, we set up our very own penal colonies in Manus Island and Nauru. It was most likely illegal, it was most definitely immoral. We signed up to the Refugee Convention because it was the right thing to do. And we have benefited from it, beyond measure. Many former refugees have gone on to become valuable members of our society, and their children have done the same. The problem with the current climate is that those refugees that come by boat are demonised. The Australian public are fed so much misinformation about these refugees, that they are no longer recognised as people.

John Lennon once invited us to ‘imagine’. What I want you to imagine is that everyone on the face of the earth, sees every other person on the face of the earth, as just that. A person. An individual with their own unique personality. Their own personal strengths and flaws. When we start seeing people as people, we stop seeing them as ‘other’, and different, and wrong. Imagine a world where we see each other as potential friends to welcome into our lives, instead of enemies to close the door on. What has happened on Manus Island over the last 4 years, and especially the last 3 weeks makes me despair rather than hope. But I still imagine how it could be.

Party in My Head

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Written by Suellen Green in 2010

Party in My Head:

Schizophrenia – the illness, the sufferers and the effects on families


Today is May 14th, 2010. It is almost 7:00pm. At this time 6 years ago, my brother Jeff was still alive. He would not be for much longer. Today is the anniversary of the day that Jeff, like many before him, and after him, decided that he’d battled the demons of schizophrenia long enough. After nine years of a living Hell, Jeff Green ended his life at the end of a rope. It was May 14th, 2004. He was 30 years old.
The word schizophrenia comes from Greek, literally translating as “split mind”1 which may go some way to explain the popular misconception that sufferers have a split personality.   Dr Eugine Bleuler, who coined the phrase, was referring to a split in the brain between perception and reality2. Anne Deveson, broadcaster, film maker and mother of a son who was struck down by schizophrenia at the age of 17, describes it as:

A disorder in the brain which distorts the way a person thinks and experiences the world. This creates a loss of distinction between the inner and outer world3


Schizophrenia is a complex illness that is very difficult to diagnose. There are no tests that can be done to definitively establish the existence of the disease, and the cause is still unknown. Diagnosis can only take place after a long period of time, sometimes years, during which time a psychiatrist will monitor a patient, interview them regularly, and eliminate other reasons for symptoms4. Jeff was clearly ill for 2 years before he got the definitive diagnosis of schizophrenia.


Symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders and speech abnormalities. Secondary symptoms include the inability to express emotion normally, loss of motivation and enjoyment, and social isolation5. Some of these symptoms are related to each other. Jeff became housebound as the paranoia induced by his hallucinations and delusions made him afraid to go out. He couldn’t bear crowds, so the long time family bonding time of going to the footy became impossible. He became so isolated that the only people he ever saw were family members and medical professionals.


Schizophrenia, which affects 1% of the world’s population, is a word that still strikes fear into the hearts of people as there is so much confusion and misunderstanding about this debilitating illness.  Contrary to popular belief, people with schizophrenia are not especially violent, in fact the opposite is quite often true, as they tend to withdraw and isolate themselves from other people6. The media sensationalises the issue, for example, highlighting the illness as a factor in a particular crime, when it is a very small percentage of crimes committed by sufferers. Movies are often vehicles for misconceptions too. Popular culture emphasises the negatives of being ill with this disease, dismissing the fact that it is an illness.  Currently in Australia there is an advertising campaign for a new energy drink called “Insane Energy”. The website for the drink invites us to:

“Come in, sit down. Are you cold? Would you like a…. jacket? Don’t mind those wrist straps.”7


With the media depicting people with schizophrenia as either scary or funny, the very real tragedy of the disease is often overlooked. One in a hundred people will develop the disease, but it doesn’t end there; many other people will be affected by it in some way, most of these, the loved ones of sufferers.


Deveson also wrote a book about her family’s experiences with the disease. She explains that initially there was terror in both not understanding what was wrong, and Jonathan’s erratic behaviour being frightening for his mother and younger siblings. There was still the erroneous idea at that time (late 1970’s-early 1980’s) that schizophrenia was the result of bad parenting, so at a time when Anne was trying to come to terms with her son’s illness, she was also feeling blamed for her beautiful boy becoming a madman. The family also had to cope with the stigma of mental illness, people thinking Jonathon was bad, not mad, and a mental health system that had little support for families. Anne had to spend a lot of time, money and energy on dealing with Jonathan, which left her feeling guilty for abandoning her other children, and them being angry with her. She also felt conflicted about whether or not she wanted him home. Life was so hard when he was there, but what mother doesn’t want her child home, especially one that needs her so much? Jonathan eventually died of a drug overdose, aged 24.8


The guilt, the despair, and the terror are all things I can relate to. Jeff’s illness first became obvious to us in 1995. The slow realisation that my brother was ill had a profound impact on me. The fear that he would be one of the unlucky ones that never recovers had me writing his life off in my mind. Hindsight now shows that those fears were founded. He never was able to work again, he never did get a girlfriend, get married, or have kids. His life was essentially over at 21. Jeff may have died in 2004, but in reality, we lost the brother and son we had known long before then. It was like another being had taken over his name and his face. The boy I grew up with would never have destroyed a dictionary because it was sending him evil messages or walked all the way from Balwyn to Mordialloc, half way without shoes, because he felt like taking a walk. The nine years after his first psychosis were full of hospital visits, reading books trying to understand, and being really uncomfortable not knowing what to do or say when he was so definite about things that were pure delusion. Mum usually pandered to them, Dad tended to not believe he was ill and I just didn’t know what to do.


In the documentary, Spinning Out, an unnamed mother was told that statistics are 10-15 % of schizophrenics commit suicide, so you need to be prepared for that. Her response was:

“… when you see that statistic coming, you don’t say ok statistic come on in, he’s not a statistic, he’s a human being, he’s our son.”9

Party in my head by Jeff Green


Things will never be the same,

they think it is a game.

What’s happening to my mind,

wanting them to go away,

tell me they’re here to stay,

keeps happening all the time.


There’s a party in my head,

and I’m not invited.

There’s a party in my head,

and I’m trying to fight it.


Craziness aint no virtue.

Sometimes it won’t do,

to be as normal as you can,

voices are r-rated

and things debated,

what about my life as a man?


There’s a party in my head,

and I’m not invited.

There’s a party in my head,

and I’m trying to fight it.


People with schizophrenia are just people, but they tend to be pretty creative people. Jonathon was an excellent artist, whose talent was never realised; my friend Richard McLean is also an excellent artist, whose talent has been realised with exhibitions, jobs as an illustrator and books he has published. Jeff wrote songs. One of the songs he wrote was a real insight into his illness. He called it “Party in my head”. I wish I knew the tune, but that’s just another thing that’s lost forever.






Barham, P. (1993) Schizophrenia and human value  Free Association Books London

Deveson, A (1991) Tell me I’m here  Penguin Books Australia

Deveson, A (1993) Spinning Out (Documentary)  Anne Deveson Productions

Kidman, A (2007) Schizophrenia – A guide for families  Biochemical & General Services

Lachenmeyer, N (2002) The Outsider – A journey into my father’s Struggle with Madness  Hill of Content Publishing

McLean, R (2003) Recovered, not cured  Allen & Unwin

Mueser, K & Gingerich, S (2006) The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia  The Guilford Press

Snyder, K ( 2007) Me, Myself and Them – A firsthand account of one young person’s experience with Schizophrenia  Oxford University Press



2017 Ration Challenge

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Today, my world is all about the Act For Peace – Ration Challenge. From June 18 I will be eating the same rations Syrian refugees in Jordan eat for one week.



Why am I doing this?

There are many reasons why I decided to take the ration challenge. And many reasons why I almost didn’t. I’ll start with the latter. I registered ages ago. Got my welcome pack ages ago. But right up until the last day before you had to earn your $100, to be sent the actual ration pack, I didn’t take the next step. I kept looking at the brochures on my bedside table thinking, ‘you’ve got to do this Suellen, do it now.’ But I kept putting it off. The reason for that was fairly simple. I was scared. I was scared I couldn’t do it. I was scared that people wouldn’t sponsor me. I was worried that I would be tarred with the ‘what good’s that going to do?’ brush. Or be berated by the ‘charity starts at home’ brigade. I was terrified of becoming known as ‘that woman.’ I have seen what happens to women who stick their necks out on social media.

So, I waited. My brain tried to convince me that no-one would know that I had committed to something, and pulled out. I could misplace the paperwork, be too busy to notice the date approaching. I could get away with doing nothing. I very nearly did.

At around 2pm on the cut off day of June 8, I somehow found my courage, created my fundraising page, and shared it on Facebook. What followed was a nerve wracking 10 hours, hoping I could raise my $100 by midnight. A friend I met when I was volunteering for Welcome to Australia, and when I went with a refugee friend to a refugee function in Richmond, was unsurprisingly, the first person to both share my post, and sponsor me. Unfortunately, that very day she was banned from Facebook for a month, so will have to follow my journey on Twitter. Why was she banned? Well, you’d probably have to ask the Facebook police the answer to that, but suffice to say she is a very passionate supporter of human rights, and sometimes that gets her into trouble. It is a lesson to me though; I need the support on Facebook, so it is gently, gently I go in my fundraising endeavors.


Did I get my $100 by midnight? Well, actually, no. My mum said she would sponsor me, but didn’t manage to work out the payment system until she had help the next day. A couple more friends sponsored me, and I sponsored myself, but by midnight my total was just over $60. When I woke up the next morning, I discovered I had easily passed the $100 mark overnight, and my little envelope on my page, that turns blue (therefore suggesting a pack has been sent) was highlighted, and I am pleased to announce it arrived in time.


Eager to find out who my benefactors were that got me over the line overnight, I was astonished to find a $56 donation by somebody that I had only just connected with on Facebook a few weeks ago, and had never actually met. I jumped onto messenger, and discovered that he was online, so I sent him a thank you message. He responded by saying that it is a great cause, and wonderful practical way of spreading some empathy, and that he has immense respect for me. Now, I was not doing this for the praise, but that gave me such a confidence boost, especially after one of the first responses to my initial request for sponsors being a negative one, so I thank you again. You know who you are.


Since then I have received donations from old friends, and new as well as one complete stranger who is not even a Facebook friend of mine. And one anonymous $20 donation. I wish I knew who that was, I’d like to thank everyone personally.  At the time of writing this, my fundraising total is $385.76. I’m starting to think I might even pass my goal of $500, which I thought was totally optimistic when I started.


At the beginning of this I said there are many reasons why I decided to take the ration challenge. There are so many in fact that I couldn’t possibly fit them all in here. I will be writing about them, and posting old writings about them over the next weeks or so. But I think it is apt to sum it up, in as simple terms as I can to finish this blog post. And that simple reason is, I am taking the ration challenge because we are all human. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are all one. And the ration challenge is a way that I can try to make a difference to other people, who through no fault of their own find themselves in an awful situation, that nobody should ever have to go through. I will learn a lot through this experience, and it is my hope that other people that follow my journey will learn a lot too.



Lots of Love, Jeff

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This is the introduction to a book I produced of my brother’s song lyrics, called Lots of Love, Jeff


He was my little brother, but he was our gentle giant. He was a big boy, Jeff Green was. At first he was just tall. A tall, stringy beanpole. That was before the medication got a hold of his biology and made him huge around the middle as well. For such a big man, he was very gentle. He was kind, loving and incredibly compassionate. You’ll see that come out in his writing. He bled for those less  fortunate than himself. He tried to solve the world’s problems. I don’t know if his illness expounded his resolve or if he still would have written to the prime minister and the US president, but the feeling behind it was always there. Jeff always cared. Ever since he died I have wanted to do something with his writing, especially his songs. When I was set an assignment to create a publication, I threw a few ideas around in my head mostly involving using my own work. When the bolt of inspiration hit me with the idea to put together a book of Jeff’s songs, I developed a passion heretofore unknown in my school work. This project has obsessed me ever since. It became so much more than a class assignment. It is memorial to my brother, so it became especially important to do a good job. I hope I’ve succeeded; I think I have.

Hump Day

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Well today is hump day. Day four of seven, so it’s all downhill from here, just three days to go. I had the most varied meal of the challenge tonight. I was waiting for dinner on hump day to open the red kidney beans, so I did that, and added about 10 of those, the last of the sardines, some oil, a small amount of lentils and of course rice and cumin.  I won’t be having such a varied meal again, as there are no sardines left, and no new ingredients to add. Not sure it made that much of a difference to be honest. The kidney beans have salt and sugar added, so that was the sweetest thing I have had in 4 days. The lack of sweetness is definitely one of the hardest things about the challenge. I have a major sweet tooth, so not being able to have anything sweet has been difficult. I’d love a piece of fruit even, it doesn’t have to be chocolate, or sugary treats, a simple apple, or orange would be amazing.

I know I can have whatever I want on Sunday. I can’t help but think how hard it must be eating like this, and not being able to see ahead to a day when there will be more food, and more variety. Especially for the children.

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