Amina’s story

“Australia is my home now, not Sudan.  Everything is normal here.  People don’t have guns pointing at you and your family.   I feel safe,”

Amina is a refugee from Sudan who escaped persecution to come to Australia with her husband and children.  After a very difficult decade for the family, in 2000 Amina’s husband explained to his family that they must escape from their country.  They could all see the violence was worsening.  Amina sighed and quietly told me: ‘you can’t live like that.’

“Our family needed to be safe and away from all the fighting.  We were locked in our home a lot of the time.   Villages, and even people, were being set on fire around us.  My husband travelled ahead of us to secure somewhere safe in neighbouring Egypt.  I was glad to get out.  I was scared of the violence, but I was also scared of what the future would hold for my family.”

Everyone settled in Egypt as best they could and seven months after fleeing the horrors of Darfur and claiming refugee status through the UNHCR the family were accepted as refugees by Australia for re-settlement.

“I didn’t know what to expect.  This country called Australia seemed so far away and we were leaving my mother, father, brother, and other family behind.  When we moved into our first rented place in Perth, we had nothing.  No furniture – nothing.  I couldn’t imagine how we were going to manage in this strange country as I spoke no English.  I persevered and gradually I began to feel better.  Australia was normal and safe.  There was nobody with a gun.”

She made an effort to become involved in new things and joined the language classes and other activities at the Edmund Rice Centre WA. “It opened my eyes to how life could be. Everyone was so friendly.   No-one was judgmental and it didn’t matter what country you came from, or what your religion was everyone was treated equally. It was like a big family. I knew I had found my place.  I had a family again.  I belonged.

Amina was very motivated to learn and grew in confidence working in a variety of different jobs as well as alongside her husband in his business over many years. Recently she decided to seek another employment opportunity in aged care. She gathered all her study certificates, most of which are qualifications for working with the elderly, wrote a resume, was offered an interview and was ultimately successful, returning triumphantly to celebrate her new job with her friends and family.

Amina has seven children who are all doing well at school and university.   Her husband owns and manages a retail outlet and they have called Australia home for nearly 20 years. I thought back to how Amina described herself when she arrived in Australia as a frightened, lonely woman who knew no-one. Over the years she has studied to become a successful businesswoman with a close knit, loving family.

“Of course, I am much happier now.  We are settled and in our own home and we have become Australian citizens. I’m still tired with all the work, of course, but that’s ok most of the time.”

Father of the Lost Boys

Father of the lost boys is Yuot A. Alaak’s memoir of walking through the deserts and the jungles across three continents in Africa to seek safety after his home was destroyed in the second Civil War between North and South Sudan. 

I interviewed Yuot during the 2021 Festival of Literature and Ideas in Perth and had the pleasure of spending time with him while he shared his story.

It is a remarkable testament to his grit and fortitude, but it is also an ode to his father, who as an educator and important community leader in South Sudan, was responsible for leading 20,000 boys and associated refugee groups from Ethiopia to Sudan and on to the safety of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

The group became known as ‘the lost boys of Sudan’ and for many years their story and suffering were unknown.  Yuot writes “we kept waiting for the United Nations to come and help us,. Often the boys were under attack from not only the North Sudanese but also from the military of South Sudan that wanted to recruit the boys as child soldiers. Yuot himself trained as a child soldier when he was nine years old.

The boys first became refugees when they reached Ethiopia. During this time Yuot’s father was imprisoned and tortured. They were told by radio that he was dead and believed this to be the case for many years. Thankfully, his father lived and managed to find his way to the family and the lost boys.  He took on a leadership role with the refugees. Yuot’s father always said, “the pen is mightier than the sword” and did all he could to keep the boys safe from various opposing forces.

Organising his charges into groups of 1,000 with a head teacher, several other teachers, head boys and a few soldiers, he marshalled the big groups of boys in a military like operation to criss-cross various countries.

One of the more gripping parts of this memoir is the crossing of the Gilo River by the group. Fighting a swollen river with strong currents, Yuot’s father obtained twelve canoes and in a mass exodus they shuttled as many boys as possible across the river in canoes all day and all night. Some of the boys swam across on their own and they feared for their lives. Some drowned and some were taken by crocodiles.   In the end not all escaped as they were fired upon by competing armies.

Yuot writes passionately about the rest of their trek and arrival at Kakuma where they were the first refugees in the camp. Now decades later the refugee camp houses 180,000 people. 

His pride in his father, who is truly a remarkable man, shines through.  Eventually all the family were reunited and Yuot explains how they escaped to Nairobi where they still feared for their lives.  They were finally accepted as refugees by Australia years later.  

This is a story of triumph. There is humour too, as Yuot describes settling into his new home and learning what it meant to become an Australian.

Yuot arrived in Australia at the age of 14 and spoke no English.  He went on to learn the language, finish Year 12, and be accepted to university where he obtained degrees in engineering and geoscience.  He now works for one of Australia’s largest mining companies and enjoys writing.

This is an inspiring read and the publisher Fremantle Press has provided some great book club notes.

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!

joy luck club

 

The “refugee woman” label

Refugees are not a homogenous collective of people.

As I have highlighted throughout my work over many years the word “refugee” often has negative connotations, despite the many achievements of people from a refugee background.  When we talk about “a woman refugee”, these assumptions grow.

Researchers Lenette and Cleland have demonstrated there are recurring themes in how women from a refugee background are portrayed in the media and by some NGOs. A detailed analysis of UNHCR publication images demonstrate that the common picture of a refugee has been reframed in the last 60 years from “the heroic, political – mainly male – individual to a nameless flood of poverty-stricken women and children”

Refugees are often depicted as vulnerable mothers with children or babies that echo the Christian image of the Madonna and child. This imagery supports the representation of a woman with no political agency or voice and is often used by NGOs and the media to elicit sympathy. In these circumstances, one can often underestimate the fact that people, even in stressful situations, are more robust and are capable of making decisions. This kind of image erases the refugee voice, and renders their stories unheard.

Given refugees often experience war, veteran war correspondent Kate Adie reminds us that “the history of the war has been almost entirely written by men…and many general histories have no female names in the index”.

Surely, we all must support Aide’s view that women should not be written out of history.

Oboz uchodzcow Jowle w Garowe , Somalia

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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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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The ever burning candle

The power of telling people’s stories never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

In association with the Centre for Stories, three established playwrights have been working with three local story tellers to bring a portion of their stories to the stage at The Blue Room Theatre. My good friend Fauzia Sufizada is one of those story tellers.

I’m thrilled that Fauzia’s story, which was adapted by Chris Isaacs, an award winning writer who has worked around the world, was primarily inspired by my book More to the Story: conversations with refugees. English is Fauzia’s fifth language and she was brilliant in a solo performance. She asks her audience to imagine her life as someone from a refugee background.

Fauzia Sufizada is lost on a bus to White Gum Valley.  She is in a room in Peshawar watching a Norwegian freighting ship on TV.  She is reading her father’s poetry in Kabul.  She is stepping off an airplane in Perth. She is in a chair in the theatre – and she’s talking to you.

The other two stories that were brought to the stage were equally as engaging.  Due to popular demand an extra show has been scheduled for Saturday 4 August. Click here to make a booking.

Fauzia's play
Fauzia Sufizada (third from left) with a few fans after the show

Woman2Drive

This month Manal al-Sharif was planning to return to Saudi Arabia, the country of her birth, to drive freely down the main streets on her own, when a ban on women driving is lifted.

However, as the historic date of 24 June drew closer Manal received death threats while six other prominent human rights activists have been detained in Saudi Arabian prisons.

She decided it is safer for her to stay in Australia where she now lives.  “I think I can be a stronger human rights advocate outside of Saudi Arabia where my voice can be heard around the world. They would lock me up again if I returned,” she said in a recent interview.

Manal has been part of a movement in the Saudi Kingdom advocating for women’s rights and the right to drive a car without a male chaperone. Her memoir Daring to Drive also gives us rare personal insights into everyday life for women in the country.

The book describes her strict commitment to Islam in her younger years and how that slowly changed.  Manal graduated from university with a Bachelor of Science focussed on computer science.  She then secured a position as an information security consultant, one of the few women to do so, at Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil company.  It was from this point in time that she sought fearless ways to break through taboos.  It was not easy, as the opening paragraph shows.Manal al Sharif

‘The secret police came for me at 2 in the morning. As soon as I heard the words Dhahran Police Station, I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started again.’

Manal spent a week in a cockroach infested prison for driving a car.  She did not commit a traffic offence, but the police told her she ‘broke orf’ – a tradition, custom or practice.

When I interviewed Manal at the recent Perth Writers Week, she still seemed a little surprised that her book has become a best seller around the world.  Manal has also been recognised with the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent Award at the Oslo Freedom Forum and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world.

‘I have always wanted to tell my story.  I am a Muslim girl born in Mecca and now I am an activist.  I did not know my story would be of interest,’ she told me.

I can assure you it is… I highly recommend her memoir.

#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.