Category Archives: get involved

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.

take action

#WithRefugees

refugee week 2018 logo

Refugee Week is an annual activity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees. It provides an opportunity for us all to recognise and better understand the courage and contribution of refugees.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week in Australia, which runs from Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June. Refugee Week coincides with World Refugee Day on 20 June.

There will be events and celebrations everywhere so I encourage you to think about joining in.

The Refugee Council of Australia has chosen #WithRefugees as the theme for Refugee Week 2018. In Australia, it is the responsibility of our Government, as well as each one of us, to ensure people forced to flee their homes from persecution can live with dignity and with hope. Two of the ways “people power” has made a difference this year:

  1. People have been lobbying their local councils to set up refugee welcome zones to begin to connect with everyone in the community through cultural and information events there’s been great success in the areas of Margaret River, Lithgow, Scarborough, Joondalup and Gippsland. If your local council is yet to sign up as a refugee welcome zone, don’t give up.
  2. Thousands of people have helped amplify the voices of the people trapped in offshore detention — including Behrouz, Joinal, Aziz, and Imran— by sharing and liking their stories. Behrouz Boochani won the print/online and multimedia category in Amnesty’s media awards for his journalism from Manus. Please link up to their FB pages and follow what’s really happening in offshore detention facilities and settlement programs.

As the Refugee Council of Australia reminds us:

A ‘Refugee’ is a person; boy, girl, woman or man. Not a label, but a human being with a beating heart, just like you and me.  And the refugee experience can be prolonged. Today there are more refugees than ever, and only by standing together #WithRefugees can we begin to change this.

Freedom to read…freedom to write

As I write, hundreds of journalists and writers are in prison.

More than half of those jailed for their work are behind bars in Turkey, China, and Egypt. The pattern reflects a dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press.

Founded in 1921, PEN is a worldwide association of writers with a common concern for the art of writing and freedom of expression. PEN groups campaign all around the world on behalf of writers who have been silenced by persecution or imprisonment.

Peter Greste photo

Peter Greste

PEN Perth is one of 147 PEN international centres around the world. As part of its major launch and fundraising effort, PEN Perth will welcome award-winning and internationally recognised foreign correspondent Peter Greste to the city on Thursday 31 May. In 2013, Peter spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison on false charges. PEN International worked alongside thousands of individuals and organisations around the world to campaign for his release.

Joined by Victoria Laurie, Peter will speak to issues of media censorship, freedom of expression in times of war, human rights, the role of writing, and how people can participate as private citizens in safeguarding democracy.

As a former journalist and as a writer, I believe it is essential we speak up for freedom of expression at all times. We must always remember the importance of writing in our society, no matter where we live in the world. Renowned Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk reminds us:

“When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free”.

I urge you to join up to your local PEN branch to stay informed. PEN Perth is still developing a website, but in the meantime you can follow activities on the Facebook page and subscribe via the Centre for Stories website.

Celebrating Harmony Week

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Harmony Week in Western Australia starts today 15 March and runs through to Australia’s Harmony Day on 21 March. Harmony Week is an opportunity for all Western Australians to celebrate our vibrant multicultural State. The fabulous artwork used for this year’s Harmony Week banner is by local artist Alina Tang. Her parents were Vietnamese refugees who came to Australia in the 1980s.

Harmony Day in Australia takes place on the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which started in recognition of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre when police fired on a peaceful demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, killing 69 unarmed protestors.

Harmony Week has become an opportunity for all of us to celebrate our diversity while working to remove barriers that still exist in the community. The message of Harmony Day is everyone belongs. The day aims to engage people to participate in their community, respect cultural and religious diversity and foster sense of belonging for everyone.

Since 1999, more than 70,000 Harmony Day events have been held in childcare centres, schools, community groups, churches, businesses, and federal, state and local government agencies across Australia.

The 2016 census showed Western Australia is one of Australia’s most culturally diverse States. You can see other States results on the website.  I found it particularly interesting to be reminded that one-third (32.2 per cent) of Western Australians are born overseas — that’s the highest percentage of the population for any Australian State or Territory.   Among those born overseas, people from non-main English speaking countries (410,291) outnumbered those from main English speaking countries (387,423) for the first time since the Census began in Western Australia.   What’s it like where you live?

Everyone can join in Harmony Week: community organisations, businesses, State Government agencies, local governments, schools, colleges and universities. More information is available from the Harmony Day and the Office of Multicultural Interests websites.

These websites have suggested activities or events: simple things like organising a morning tea, inviting speakers to your groups or cooking up a variety of different food from different countries at home or with friends.

A Taste of Harmony has some super recipe suggestions from Syria, Turkey, China and Vietnam and so many other places. I’m rather fond of the Iranian Marinated chicken with charred limes on the BBQ myself, but I am yet to tackle Baklava, which I love.

What will you do to celebrate?

 

The year ahead

This time last year I wrote a blog looking back on the previous year for people from a refugee background. In 2018 I thought I would direct my gaze towards the future.

While I don’t have a crystal ball, I hope that 2018 holds the promise of better things for over than 65 million people worldwide, who are refugees, asylum seekers or displaced people. The situation in places like Yemen and Bangladesh reminds us there is much to do.

refugees fleeing - by Mohammed Salem

Photographer – Mohammad Salem

The refugee crisis remains a global issue requiring a global solution. Nearly one in every 110 people is fleeing war or persecution. This cannot be managed by one nation, governing body or multinational organisation alone. I read an interesting article ahead of the 2018 World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland that asked: What if multinational businesses welcomed refugees displaced by social and political upheaval and worked with governing bodies to assimilate them into our global workplaces?

I’ll share one example on the Davos website that recently moved me. After making a 2,300-mile journey to Berlin, Mohammad Basel Alyounes, a Syrian refugee and accountant by profession, was greeted by a German news crew. When asked what he hoped for his new life in Germany, he said, “I want to work for Ernst & Young (EY).” An EY manager in Germany saw the interview, used social media to locate Alyounes — and EY hired him. He now works with their German Diversity Charter refugee support team.

Wouldn’t be great if more companies around the world took this approach?

Some countries continue to do more than others, just as individually some people do more than others. I’ve loved talking to people who have got involved with volunteering and working with refugees. There are some ideas on this website of organisations you could consider helping, either by volunteering time or donating money.

In Australia, our harsh Sovereign Borders policy remains in place and we continue to only accept around 13,000 refugees a year through our humanitarian program (plus a one-time additional 12,000 people from Syria). Canada accept 250,000 refugees per year.

Some bright news in 2017 included the re-settlement in the US of several hundred men who had been detained on Manus Island indefinitely by the Australian government – although many more wait for an outcome. In a recent edition of The Saturday paper there was a particularly moving article written by Imran Mohammad who is a Rohingya refugee held on Manus.

Manus protests

Peaceful protests continue on Manus

Also pleasing is the increasing number of university scholarships being provided to those who came to Australia seeking asylum.

Personally, I feel the number of Australian voices speaking out about inhumane policies in relation to refugees is increasing and getting louder. One of my main hopes for the year ahead is that more people take the time to learn about what is really happening in Australia and around the world.  My go-to resources in Australia are The Refugee Council of Australia and The Guardian Australia which is usually the only newspaper that provides detailed factual reporting about the issues and thoughtful insights. The latest opinion piece from Tim Costello, Chief Advocate for World Vision, comparing his visits to Bangladesh and Manus Island makes sombre reading.

For a global perspective, I follow the United Nations six monthly reports and updates and Human Rights Watch as well as a number of other sites listed on this website.

Sometimes, it is hard to stay positive and not be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem, but I always remind myself that making a difference in one person’s life can sometimes be enough.