Category Archives: get involved

Harmony, peace and understanding

With Harmony Week over for another year I wanted to focus on the unity and friendship that we all share and highlight some stories from the week’s events that you might find enjoyable.

Harmony Week celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. It’s about inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging for everyone.

In Mirrabooka, located in Perth’s northern suburbs, 112 people from 77 nationalities took part in a drumming circle, which made the Guinness Book of Records.  You can watch the joyful, musical result here.

The dark cloud from the Christchurch massacre hangs over us all still, however there have been remarkable expressions of support for the Muslim community, both in New Zealand and here in Australia.  Here is the link to a story about a Muslim man going to a Mosque and meeting a woman of Christian faith in Canberra.

Of the many celebrations held during Harmony Week, one always close to my heart is the big Harmony Festival in Katanning.  This year they celebrated 10 years for this great community event.  I wrote a chapter about this regional town in Western Australia in More to the story – conversations with refugees, and told the story of John Nazary who lives there.  Katanning is a true multicultural community, the most ethnically diverse regional centre in Western Australia that is home to people from some 50 different language groups.  Katanning has always welcomed refugees and migrants.   You get a sense of their inclusive community from this video on their website.

I hope we can all take the desire for harmony further than this week. Let’s help make our communities, and the world, a better place.

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Truth Telling

Over 120 people gathered at John Curtin Art Gallery last weekend for the Truth Telling and Taking Action symposium about the current situation for asylum seekers in Australia.  It was hosted by a group of service providers, advocates and the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University.

It was a day of storytelling.

Asylum seekers, on many different types of visas, told of their daily lives and how challenging living on these different temporary visas can be. My overwhelming sense was one of uncertainty and worry.  People wake up every day and wonder whether they will be called in to discuss their visa and if they are safe.

How can Australia torment refugees like this?

There are thousands of people seeking asylum living in the Australian community.  Some of these people have come to Australia by plane and sought asylum afterwards. Some of them have come to Australia by boat. The way they came affects whether they are detained, the conditions of their visas, and how their claim for protection is determined.  It’s very complicated.

The Refugee Council of Australia will be spearheading a major campaign from Thursday 14 March leading up to the Federal election called I Choose to be Humane – treat people like people.  All the presenters described how there is a real opportunity to be heard and make a difference in the next few months.  You’ll be able to access the campaign at www.choosehumane.org.au so register your interest now.

Easy-to-read facts and information are also available from the Refugee Council website.  This is one thing we can all do – be more informed about the debate and people’s lives.

Here’s the definition of some common visa types that might be helpful in understanding this issue.

Bridging visa (BV): Temporary visa granted to allow someone to live in the community while they wait for their refugee claim to be finalised.

Temporary Protection Visa (TPV): Three-year temporary protection visa given to someone who came to Australia by boat and is found to be a refugee. At the end of the three years the holder can only apply for another temporary protection visa.

Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV):  Five-year temporary protection visa that can be granted to someone who came by boast and is found to be a refugee.  At the end of five years, they may be eligible to apply for a permanent visa if they meet that visa’s requirements, but only if they have worked or studied in a designated regional area for at least 3.5 years.

The symposium coincided with Refuge, a Perth Festival exhibition which runs until mid-April, featuring two poignant and timely works – Candice Breitz’s Love Story and Angelica Mesiti’s Mother Tongue. They both utilise cinema and art to present the complex experiences of their immigrant and refugee subjects through music, performance and the spoken word.

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Spotlight on Burma

As part of the Perth Writers Week at the Centre for Stories there will be an evening of reflection and readings hosted by local Burmese intellectual Chris Lin, that puts the spotlight on Burma.

This event includes a selection of translated creative works read by Holden Sheppard and Michelle Johnston and is a great opportunity to understand more about Burma. Light refreshments of traditional Burmese food will also be served. The event is free but reservations are essential via the Perth Festival website.

Spotlight on Burma is part of PEN Perth’s interest in human rights and the responsible freedom of expression in our Indian Ocean region. PEN is a non-profit organisation with chapters all over the world that works at the intersection of writing and politics. In particular, PEN campaigns for the release of wrongfully imprisoned writers and advocates for the responsible freedom of expression.

The Burmese military government has had a long history of silencing its critics.   I wrote about Paul Kyaw one of the leaders of the pro-democracy uprising in 1988 in my last book More to the Story – conversations with refugees. Paul and his family were accepted as refugees over 20 years ago and he remains an active advocate for the Karen people both in Australia and overseas.

As a former journalist, top of my mind is the false imprisonment of two Reuters journalists in Burma. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Ooo have spent a year behind bars on trumped up charges. The court recently rejected their appeal and sentenced them to seven years in jail for breaking the country’s Official Secrets Act. You can read more about their plight on the Al Jazeera network.

Even if you can’t attend the event in Perth, I encourage you to follow their story and to consider joining your local branch of PEN.

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Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone (File: Thein Zaw/AP photo)

Small places, close to home

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world… unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”                                                                                                               Eleanor Roosevelt

I just love this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt as it captures the essence for me of what human rights are all about.

Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, so it’s a good time to be thinking about those small places. Human Rights matter in our local communities, our neighbourhoods, at our work, during sport and when we are out socially. It’s in these places that we need to think about the equal dignity and worth of every person we meet or interact with as we go about our daily lives.

To mark the day, I’m heading off to the Centre for Stories in Perth to hear three very different speakers and to learn more.  My colleague at Curtin, Misty Farquhar, is one of the presenters. As well as facilitating LGBTIQ+ inclusion training and other projects to support the community, Misty is the founder of Bisexual+ Community Perth, is a TransFolk of WA Board member, and frequently presents on RTRFM’s All Things Queer program.

This year, International Human Rights Day marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

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As a writer I love that it is the most translated document in the world, available in more than 500 languages.

At this time, as we watch far right and populist governments take control in many countries around the world, I feel it is more important than ever to know what’s going on around us and to speak up.

My own country of Australia contravenes several articles in the Declaration in relation to asylum seekers and the protection of the children who are refugees. Each day I wonder how I can live in a country where this can be possible, but then I look around the world.

In the US Donald Trump separated refugee parents and children at the Mexican border and banned Muslim immigration. In Burma we saw the persecution of thousands of Rohingya people and more than five million children risk famine in war-torn Yemen as food and fuel prices soar.  Save the Children has warned that an entire generation may face death and “starvation on an unprecedented scale”.

Many of my Hazara friends from Afghanistan are watching in horror as the Taliban once again gain more power in their country and persecute the Hazara minority and other members of the community who do not support them. 2018 has seen a further increase in violence as the Taliban continue to make territorial gains and target the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces bases and outposts. Researchers point out that despite the effective destruction of Islamic State, the influence and scope of terror groups is greater now than it was in 2001.

It’s easy to feel powerless – just one person who can’t do anything. I used to feel like that. But these days I feel the absolute necessity to be informed so I can speak up, correct mis-information and call out discrimination and bad behaviour when I see it. Even in those small places. I hope you can too.

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The Day of the Imprisoned Writer

“When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free” – Orhan Pamuk

Today is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an annual, international day intended to recognise and support writers who resist repression of the basic human right to freedom of expression and who stand up to attacks made against their right to impart information.

Globally writers are increasingly targeted and silenced by their governments as the climate for freedom of expression continues to deteriorate.

Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:

“This is a day of solidarity and action. It’s a day in which PEN’s global community stands with those writers who are paying a heavy price for their commitment and belief that we all have a right to express ourselves freely and peacefully. It is a day on which we say, in one voice, that they are not alone. It is also a day on which we tell those governments who seek to silence writers that we will continue to stand with them and against any authority, system, or power that views the right to free expression as a threat.’

In Burma anyone outspoken against military rule has been routinely locked up in prisons for years. Currently there are 43 prisons and over 50 labour camps holding political activists. We know many are writers, but have no idea of the exact number. Most recently, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were jailed. These two journalists have been sentenced to seven years in prison on retaliatory charges of violating the government’s colonial-era Officials Secrets Act. Working for an international news organisation, they reported on a story of profound global significance a crisis: millions of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma.

In China more than 50 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in conditions that pose a threat to their lives, according to the Independent PEN centre of Chinese writers.  Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize, and Yang Tongyan, a dissident blogger, both died in 2017 from cancers that were left untreated while in detention. Under tougher internet regulations, members of the public can now be jailed for the comments on a news item that they post on a social network or messaging service, or even just for sharing content.

Closer to Australia, one of the most public figures in the current refugee crises illegally detained and kept in limbo on Manus Island is Kurdish journalist Behrouz Bouchani. Behrouz is one of many hundreds of people on Manus Island who are denied their human right to seeking asylum. I highly commend his book No Friend but the Mountains which was laboriously typed out on a mobile phone from detention.

Most of us don’t have to consider our freedom to write every day, but thousands of writers do. PEN Perth Patron, Peter Greste argues that we need to make freedom of expression a much bigger part of the public conversation. The problem, he says, is that press freedom around the world has been eroding since 9/11, because governments have been using national security as an excuse.

On 15 November I ask you to think about your own freedom of expression and sign up to join PEN International which promotes literature and defends freedom of expression world-wide. You can also join a local chapter of PEN wherever you are and receive newsletters and updates straight to your inbox.

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The power of the written word

I am thrilled to be joining both emerging and established writers who will descend on the Centre for Stories and other venues in Perth for the Australian Short Story Festival, running from Friday 19 to Sunday 21 October.

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”

This powerful quote by Joseph Conrad will be in my mind when I participate on a panel at the festival on Sunday 21 October. With my colleagues Dennis Haskell and Marcella Polain, we’ll discuss the power of the written word and its conflict with the sword in a session hosted by PEN Perth.

pen-perthI am often asked what PEN stands for. Its name was conceived as an acronym: ‘Poets, Essayists, Novelists’ (later broadened to ‘Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists’) in the UK in 1921. Over many decades it has become a genuinely international organisation, encompassing a wide array of cultures and languages with over 146 Centres around the world.

PEN promotes literature and defends freedom of expression world-wide. You can join a local chapter of PEN wherever you are and receive newsletters and updates straight to your inbox. Right now that means you can access more information about the brutal killing of the Bulgarian investigative TV presenter Viktoria Marinova in Ruse, Bulgaria on 7 October, which came five days after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the Saudi regime, in Istanbul. There are unconfirmed reports that he may have been killed in the embassy.

In Australia, PEN campaigns for a number of writers including Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani who has just won the Anna Politkovskaya investigative journalism award for his work documenting Australia’s offshore immigration detention program. Behrouz, a refugee who fled Iran, has been held in indefinite detention since 2013 – first on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island. PEN Perth aims to raise the consciousness of the public and encourage a world where writers are free to express themselves, responsibly and respectfully.

I encourage you to participate in the Short Story Festival. You can book tickets online, and some of them are free. It should be a great event – I am particularly looking forward to David Malouf’s opening address and Maria Takolander’s sessions. I hope to see you there.

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Take action

You may have heard recently about how the Australian government is making cuts to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS). This program provides asylum seekers in the community, who are awaiting the outcome of their protection visa application, with a basic income (89% of a Centrelink Newstart Allowance) and casework support. New tightened eligibility criteria will mean that around 500 people in Perth may no longer have access to this program.

CARAD logoCARAD is a fabulous organisation in Western Australia that has assisted thousands of refugees and asylum seekers with a range of services. Their latest newsletter reports they are witnessing many people facing destitution and homelessness as a result of no longer having a safety net of financial and casework support available to them.

They are calling on people to take action by finding out the facts and getting involved via the following methods.

ADVOCATE – Engaging with your local Member of Parliament is an effective way of demonstrating that you care about justice, non-discrimination and upholding human rights for all. Advice on how to go about writing to your MP is on the CARAD website.

DONATING FOOD – With more and more people relying on their food bank to provide food for their families CARAD is seeking donations. Their website outlines the food and non-food items that are most often needed.

VOLUNTEER – CARAD has many volunteer roles on offer including homework support, English tuition, assisting with the food bank program, and helping out at the CARAD office. They also have a new Food Truck project just getting off the ground and are looking for people who have skills in vehicle mechanics/maintenance, hospitality/food industry, small business management, marketing or event management. Their volunteer information sessions are held every month – here are the ones coming up:

  • Thursday 26 July, 12pm
  • Tuesday 14 August, 5.40pm
  • Wednesday 15 August, 12pm

More information on volunteering is on the CARAD website. If you would like to get involved in the Food Truck project please contact: foodtruck@carad.org.au.

MEMBERSHIP – By renewing your membership or becoming a CARAD member you will give weight to their vital advocacy work, stay up-to-date on news and events and can actively participate in the organisation. More information on membership and on how to make a donation is on their website.

If you are located elsewhere in Australia there are a range of other organisations you can support that assist asylum seekers and refugees.

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