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How a Holocaust survivor’s book helped this Rohingyan refugee survive brutal detention

Jaivet Ealom is now a political science student at the University of Toronto. (Cole Burston)

This story originally appeared on Alma.

Jaivet Ealom is the only known person to have ever escaped the notoriously brutal Australian-run refugee detention center on Manus Island. As a Rohingyan refugee fleeing Myanmar’s campaign of genocide, Jaivet found himself imprisoned on the remote island near Papua New Guinea for three and a half years.

He describes it as a torture center. The ​story​ of his prison break is the stuff of Hollywood movies. He planned it for months: leaving under the cover of darkness, posing as an interpreter and using forged passports. Against the odds, he arrived in Canada in 2017.

During Jaivet’s detention, one book — the only book he had access to — kept his spirit alive. That book was Viktor Frankl’s “​Man’s Search for Meaning​.” First published in 1946, the book is an exploration of prisoner psychology in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz, speaks with an unembellished clarity about the conditions in the camps and their impact on the human body and psyche. It’s also where he describes logotherapy, his idea that humans are primarily motivated by a search for meaning in their lives. The book went on to sell over 10 million copies.

Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Frankl’s book feels newly fresh and deeply relevant. Over 70 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced due to conflict. Millions are detained, indefinitely, in camps.

I recently spoke to Jaivet, now a political science student at the University of Toronto, about the book and its impact on him.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

Alma: How did you get your hands on ​”A Man’s Search for Meaning​”?

Ealom: We were not allowed to receive anything from outside of detention. I was a reader before [I arrived at the camp], and when you have nothing to do, a book can be your best friend.

We were allowed to print five pages per week in the office for documentation purposes — printing out forms and things. [“Man’s Search for Meaning”] was an ebook on the office computer, but I had no screen to read it on, so I used the five-page quota per week to print it out. It took me a few months to print out the whole book. Then I took it to a sewing workshop [on the island] where people repair their clothes. And I hand sewed the book.

When I escaped, I didn’t really have the chance to take any possessions. I just had to leave in the night. If there was one thing I could have taken with me, it would have been that book.

Why was the book so important to you?

On the island, I didn’t have any control — let alone of my life — I didn’t have any control over what I ate, where I sleep, when I sleep. It was constant suffering. And the detention we were given was indefinite — you never know when you are going to get out. When [Frankl] says “live life as if you did it wrong the first time and you are living it a second time,” this portrayed the present as past, and this gave me an illusion of control of my life that I didn’t have at that time.

At first I thought, “My life sucks. Everyone else in the world gets treated so nice, why aren’t I…” That sort of thing. But Frankl flips it. He says, “It’s not what you expect from life but what life expects from you.” That was the only thing I had control over in detention, so this was a nice perspective, to see it from the other side. This is useful in any context.

Frankl writes that “everything can be taken away except the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” and “in the final analysis it became clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of the camp influences alone.” This feels difficult to accept — that even in the conditions he lived under in Auschwitz, and that you lived under in Manus, one has complete control over one’s attitudes and reactions in each moment. What’s your take?

Yes, absolutely. In detention, we were called by numbers, not by names. From that little thing to almost every other aspect of life, you realize that you have no control, but you can still choose how to respond. That’s something that even the most horrible guards could not take away from you. It gave me a sense of higher moral value, like, even though you are treating me like shit, I can still control my reaction to you, I can still be nice to you.

I divided myself in two when I was in detention. At the beginning, I went along and did everything every other person did. You have all the reasons, you can find all the blame on earth to push it toward something else and blame the external situation. You were in the camp, you were treated like shit; you have every single reason to blame the environment and to blame others. But on the other hand, you have ultimate control. Frankl says don’t blame fate — accept it and work with it.

I always tell my friends, ”Don’t focus on things you can’t change, focus on things that you can change.” If you focus on things you can’t change, it eats up your energy and time. If you can focus on accepting the environment, whether it’s prison or detention, you can focus on building on it rather than blaming it all together.

Accepting was not easy, because the reasons are always there to blame. But something I learned from Viktor was how you rationalize suffering, and then separate suffering and pain from yourself. I learned how to rationalize and then distinguish suffering and pain from my inner self. I knew I had control over myself. That was helpful, especially when you are in constant suffering or you are in pain.

One of Frankl’s “recipes for success” is to have a future goal, regardless of your circumstances. Was this difficult for you in detention?

I think the future played a big part [for me] and it’s still the case for people in detention. Most suffering wasn’t physical. It wasn’t lack of food or heat or water. It was the mental torture of stripping hope from you because there was no sentence, no date when you are getting out. There was no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel. I felt this is contradictory to our life as humans because we always look towards the future. When you strip that away from people, you essentially strip away a reason for living. Why should I live my life, just so I can suffer? You are taking away the will to survive, the will to live.

So what was it that kept you focused on your future?

The night I learned that I would be able to leave, it was months and months ahead. I received confirmation that someone could arrange a vehicle outside of the fence. That was the singular moment when I caught a glimpse of hope. I used that hope for all [the] following months just so I could sleep well.

Frankl says something like “whoever is good will always be in the minority,” and in my case this was true. I was being held by the Australian government and horrible guards, but at the end it struck me that it was the workers inside the prison [who] were the ones who helped me escape. I realized you can always find the good even amongst the most horrible people.

I always tell people it only takes one person’s actions to restore your faith in humanity.

What advice would you like to give people right now who are so uncomfortable living with a deep sense of uncertainty about the future?

Something that I always talk about is the certainty of uncertainty. I never knew what is going to happen, and this is even more true in this situation. Most of the time, life never happens in the way we expect it. In the bigger picture, constraints increase your resiliency. Pain can make you more resilient in the long term; by being forced to accept it, you can rise above it.

What do you think Frankl’s message would be for people right now?

He talks about how when the pain is unique, so is your opportunity to rise above it. Maybe we can achieve something we’d never be able to achieve in a normal life without it. He says it is you and uniquely you who has the ultimate control.