Category Archives: get involved

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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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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