Celebrating a Centenary

PEN was one of the world’s first non-governmental organisations and amongst the first international bodies advocating for human rights. It was the first worldwide association of writers, and the first organisation to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable – a principle PEN continues to champion today.  

PEN International began in London in 1921, a hundred years ago. Within four years there were 25 PEN Centres in Europe, and by 1931 there were several Centres in South America as well as China.

As the world grew darker just before the outbreak of war in 1939, PEN member Centres included Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Palestine, Uruguay, the US and others. All the Scandinavian countries were included as well as several countries in Eastern Europe. Basque, Catalan and Yiddish Centres were represented, too.

Today with 155 centres in more than 100 countries, PEN acts to preserve endangered languages, support translation, protect the freedom to write, and expand the space for writers worldwide in the belief that literature can build communities.

Words without Borders, a wonderful organisation, is celebrating the PEN Centenary with some excellent new fiction. Written by Words Without Borders contributors who have ties to PEN centres in three countries, the stories from Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu (Turkey), Kettly Mars (Haiti), and Mohamed Magani (Algeria), with translations by Ralph Hubbell, Nathan H. Dize and Edward Gauvin, make some great reading! You can find the stories on the Words without Borders Website

Check out your local PEN chapter around the world and get involved. Click here for the Perth Chapter

Reflections this Refugee Week

Unity is the theme of refugee week this year and I can’t think of anything more apt. The volatility of life in recent times has shown us unequivocally that we need to work together, often merely to survive, let alone to thrive and progress.

Refugees make such a positive impact in this country. If you look, there are inspiring stories everywhere. I particularly enjoyed reading Hava Rezaie’s story about her work as a refugee women’s rights advocate in Afghanistan, Iran and now in Australia.

Sharing food has always been a special part of refugee week and many television channels have been featuring programs dedicated to food from different countries made by refugees.  Here is a selection of recipes from refugees that you might enjoy exploring. 

Finally the Refugee Council of Australia is advocating for over 6,000 refugees who are stuck in an indeterminable limbo.  These children, women and men have already been granted permanent humanitarian visas to enter Australia. But they’ve been denied entry – some missing out by mere days when the borders closed because of the pandemic. On every level, this is just a dreadful situation. 

In just over a year of COVID-related travel restrictions, more than 500,000 people have been able to enter Australia. These include returning citizens and permanent residents but also many who are neither – including movie stars, tennis players, business people and skilled migrants who were given automatic exemptions.

From refugees living without work rights for over seven years in Indonesia, to those in sprawling refugee camps in Jordan, families are now trapped, awaiting our nation to fulfil its promise to get them to safety.   

My hope is that we never lose sight of those people in vulnerable situations. Let’s take the opportunity to start afresh and rebuild our lives together… in unity. 

International Human Rights Day

During this week we celebrated International Human Rights Day.  On the 10th of December we remembered the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948.   It is a milestone document that guides much of international law today covering the inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being, regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.

In this year of COVID19 the theme is recover better- stand up for human rights.  The pandemic exposed failures and exploitation of poorer people around the world.   While there were heart-warming examples of people coming together in more caring ways during COVID19, I feel those suffering in refugee camps were almost forgotten.  

Social distancing simply isn’t possible for the one million Rohingya refugees who live in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, in south eastern Bangladesh. Families live in close quarters inside flimsy bamboo shacks, using communal toilets and water facilities. Sometimes the most basic items, such as soap, are lacking. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth.

I think how lucky I am to live in Western Australia where life has been relatively normal with exceptionally low case numbers. But then I reflect on the cruelty of the Australian government’s decision to slash support to people seeking asylum in the 2020-21 Budget. This decision, according to the Refugee Council of Australia, puts over 100,000 people, including around 16,000 children, at further risk of homelessness and destitution.  Refugees are living in Australia on various temporary visas because the government will not recognise a large cohort of people who came to Australia seeking asylum.  These are the forgotten people.

During this year, while attempting to publish stories about the lives of refugees, I was told by several publishers that the reading population has “refugee fatigue”. Is that true? If it is, what does it say about our humanity?

Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the declaration’s authors stated, “human rights begin in small places, close to home.” During this week of international rights, I know I could do more in standing up for human rights. Maybe we all could.

The Year of Welcome

Refugee Week is held every year in June to recognise the important role refugees play in society. This year the focus is on welcome. Living in a world of COVID-19 has often meant we’ve been thinking about ourselves and our own safety, but we shouldn’t forget those on the margins, whether as part of the Black Lives Matter Campaign or refugees and asylum seekers needing our help.

The Refugee Council of Australia has fabulous resources on their website, but I particularly recommend the facts page.  There is so much misinformation and propaganda on refugees, and this page provides a counterbalance. Refugee week is a great time to learn more.

From 14 to 20 June there are many activities available on-line. Refugee week promotes harmony and togetherness, aiming to unite individuals, communities, and organisations from many different backgrounds behind a common cause. “Through Refugee Week, we aim to provide an important opportunity for asylum seekers and refugees to be seen, listened to and valued.”

The welcome theme is also a reminder that, regardless of our differences, we all share a common humanity.  The organisers have joined forces with SBS Food Online. You’ll be able to watch and cook along with people from refugee backgrounds as they share delicious dishes from their home cuisines and tell us what each dish means to them.

Members of Australia’s refugee communities are also offering up their talents to bring an exciting week of entertainment.  Think creative arts, thought-provoking discussions, movies and more. 

For a full list of events and other opportunities in Australia so you can get involved, go to the website.

Hope and a home

Much loved Australian actor Kate Blanchett has collaborated with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and film website IMDb to share a “Films of Hope” lockdown watch list which she says will put the spotlight on the growing struggles faced by refugees.

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In this time of COVID-19 it is easy to find yourself focussing inward and concentrating on what life means for you.  These films shine a spotlight on vulnerable others.  The films are inspirational, and I think this can take us away from own worries.  Perhaps for some of us, it limits the amount of light entertainment we are mindlessly streaming in isolation!

The two-time Academy Award winner has curated six films which focus and explore themes around human resilience and isolation as well as what it means to have hope and a home.

The selection features movies from around the world including several of my favourites Babel, The Other Side of Hope, News from Home and The Joy Luck Club. I also add another of my favourites about displacement and home that is not on the list — Lion.

UNHCR Australia National Director Naomi Steer said she hoped Ms Blanchett’s watch list will help connect people but also remind them of the importance of supporting others during the pandemic.

If you have time, please think about making a donation to one of the many agencies working with refugees.  I find it is positive for my state of mind to reach out and help others.  The two agencies I am involved with need financial and other support now –    Edmund Rice Centre WA and CARAD

At the same time watch a movie and be inspired!

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A world of stories

 

Refugee Week, 16 -22 June, provides a wonderful opportunity for people around the world to celebrate the contribution refugees make to our society.  It’s also a time to raise awareness, remembering and honouring the often-perilous journey that refugees have taken to reach Australia and other countries.

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For many people, Refugee Week provides an opportunity to meet a refugee for the first time. This year’s theme for Refugee Week is A World of Stories which makes food the focus and asks you to “Share a meal, share a story…”  With that in mind, the Refugee Council is encouraging businesses, community groups, schools, and individuals to hold a food event (breakfast, morning tea, dinner) where they can hear stories from this year’s Refugee Ambassadors, while sharing some of their favourite meals. This can be done by either inviting a refugee to your event, watching a video or listening to stories in other ways.

There’s a lot of information on the website and similar organisations around the world also provide advice.  If you are planning an event in Western Australia, I can highly recommend the speakers bureau at the Youth Affairs Council of WA.  For a modest fee, a young person is available to talk, share their story and answer questions.

There are many public events around the world for Refugee Week.   If you do nothing else, take time on World Refugee Day on 20 June to look out for some stories such as this one about a woman whose parents came to Australia after the second world war.

Or you could buy a book.  Behrouz Boochani’s book about his imprisonment on Manus Island No friend but the mountains  is excellent, or They cannot take the sky, a collection of direct testimonies as stories, is also a thoughtful read. I have a suggested reading list on my website you may like to investigate.

I will be thinking about my new friends – those refugees who entrusted me with their stories, and the positive lives they have built for themselves here in Australia.

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What next?

After four years of hard work I have finally submitted my PhD about refugee life stories.  It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience – well except for the last few months of endless proofreading, formatting and reference checking!

My colleague, Professor Baden Offord, told me at the beginning of my PhD that it would be a time when I could research a project, delving deeply into subjects dear to me, without feeling guilty that I was sitting and reading a book. He was right. What a joy it has been to read books and articles about stories from refugees from around the world.   I have examined the different ways stories are told and the influence this has on us as readers.  I have studied the way stories make their way into the public domain, and, at the same time, I have written my own manuscript-length collection of stories about women from a refugee background.  This writing has also forced me to examine my own role as a narrator and resulted in me telling some of my own story. My two supervisors, Dr Rachel Robertson and Associate Professor Caroline Fleay, are outstanding scholars and contributed to the joyful learning experience.

Eleven women and three men became co-collaborators as part of my writing, and I feel deeply honoured to have been able to work with them to create their stories.  I collaborated with people from Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Burma and Palestine.  I have learnt so much and been humbled by their honesty and their resilience.  All of them have agency and voice and a story to tell.  I look forward to sharing them with you in due course.

My thesis is now with two examiners for some time so I am waiting in a kind of limbo.  Most people have congratulated me on submitting my thesis and expect me to be out celebrating.   I’m not.  I don’t feel elated. I feel kind of numb.  Apparently, this is a common feeling for many PhD students after something that has engulfed your life for years has quietly disappeared with the push of a “submit” button.

Hopefully I will officially pass sometime this year, then my goal is to turn the manuscript into a marketable book.  It will need editing and a couple more stories will need to be added.  If you are a woman from a refugee background or you know of someone, don’t hesitate to contact me.  I want to help more people to share their stories.

What became clear throughout my research is that we don’t have access to refugee stories in the style that I write. I use direct testimony from people, conversation and historical context alongside my own reflections to entice the reader to think about their lives, as well as that of the person of a refugee background.

My way of advocating for refugee rights is to tell stories and I intend to keep doing this.

I will also be continuing my work on the board of Edmund Rice Centre WA and, now with a little more time on my hands, will look for other organisations where I can volunteer my time and expertise.  So many need “hands-on” assistance as well as donations.

So far, I have been able to maintain my links with Curtin University.   I am joining other writing colleagues to give an academic paper at a conference in Madrid in June and I continue to stay involved with the Centre for Human Rights Education.  I have worked as a research assistant, co-authored one paper about the challenges of accessing higher education as an asylum seeker and am also working on another journal article.

So, whilst waiting for the examiners’ feedback on my thesis, I am taking a short break and then will be back to my life of writing stories and working at a grass-roots level in society to try and make a difference.

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I met Farid, Paul, Piok and Fauzia (L-R) when writing More to the Story – conversations with refugees.

World Press Freedom Day

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Today is World Press Freedom Day.

Proclaimed in 1993 by the UN General Assembly, 3 May celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom.  As a former journalist this day means a lot to me. It provides the chance to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

In this current global climate of ‘fake news’ and misinformation that flies into our phones, our inboxes and our consciousness every day, the importance of independent, professional and properly researched journalism is more important than ever.

This year’s theme “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” discusses current challenges faced by media in elections, along with the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes.

The major celebration of World Press Freedom Day is in Addis Ababa at the African Union Headquarters and is jointly organised by UNESCO, the African Union and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Locally, PEN Perth is holding an event Spotlight on Colombia at the Centre for Stories. Local Colombian intellectual and PEN Perth committee member Karen Escobar, will comment on the current situation in Colombia by weaving personal anecdote with political commentary, social history, and cultural observation. For more information and to book for the event, please go to the Centre for Stories website.

This event is a part of PEN’s ‘spotlight’ series, which focus on the plight of writers, artists and journalists in countries experiencing hardship and how that might affect responsible freedom of expression, media censorship, and political interference.

I’m also excited to see that one of the leading advocates for press freedom in Australia, and PEN Perth Patron, Peter Greste, will be giving a keynote address on Fake news and false history: The use and abuse of truth and lies at Notre Dame University in Fremantle on 17 May. It’s free and you can book for it via eventbrite.

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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