Category Archives: Refugee stories

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.

Recommended reading

While I was on holidays recently I put together a list of some of the most interesting books about refugees that I have found, and added it the website. This reading list is not exhaustive, but it should have something for everyone. My recommended book list includes books about:

  • Personal stories,
  • The Australian situation,
  • The European situation,
  • Fiction, and
  • Other interesting reads.

Some of the books are very new and some were published a while ago. One published over 10 years ago is still a wonderful read – The rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif is likely to remain an Australian classic for many years to come. New publications such as The New Odyssey – the story of Europe’s refugee crisis are wonderfully researched, but give you a personal perspective on the current global situation.

I have also included some fiction, as book clubs contact me for recommendations. What is the what by Dave Eggers, for example, is heart breaking but rewarding at the same time. I’m not sure why some book clubs don’t feel comfortable taking on non-fiction – you couldn’t go wrong with Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit or City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence.

I’ll keep adding to the list and I would love to hear about other recommendations.

They Cannot Take the Sky

The sky is like a friend for a prisoner, because around you everything is metal fences, but the sky, they cannot take the sky.

These words are from a book of stories from people who have been detained by the Australian government for seeking asylum.  Each person reveals in their own words their journey, daily struggles, their fears, hopes and dreams.

The title of the book comes from Behrouz Boochani’s story.  Behrouz is a Kurdish They cannot take the sky coverjournalist and writer who fled from Iran. He has been in detention on Manus Island since August 2013. He writes and reports from inside the detention centre when he can and has over 4,000 followers on Facebook. A film he shot entirely on his mobile phone about the life and treatment of refugees detained offshore, premiered at the Sydney Film Festival recently.

As I read Behrouz’s story and others by people of refugee background, I moved between admiration for people’s resilience and optimism to despair and anger.

The editors have collated the testimonies of more than 20 refugees from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. Some have had their claims for asylum granted and have gone on to become outstanding members of the Australian community. Munjed is a surgeon who had to leave Iraq because he refused to mutilate army deserters. Now that our society has decided not to waste his gifts, he is working again and specialising in prosthetic limbs.

My friend Jamila from Afghanistan has also told her story. She was placed in detention as a five year old child with her mother and brother. Thankfully after some time her family were re-united and she now studies law at university in Perth. Others, unfortunately continue to languish in detention.

As Maxine Beneba Clarke writes: ‘This book will make Australians ask –again – of ourselves; what kind of people are we and how did we possibly let it come to this?

The not-for-profit group Behind the Wire is responsible for They Cannot Take the Sky. I suggest you take a look at their website – as well as information on the book they have a podcast, audio stories, videos and a series of portrait photographs. They are also currently running an outstanding exhibition at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne and I certainly hope it tours widely.  It was developed in collaboration with the Museum by Behind the Wire and a volunteer reference committee of individuals with lived experience of seeking asylum.

Singing the book

When a beautiful soprano sang the words Fauzia Sufizada said on her arrival in Australia I did not even try to stop my tears.

I stood still and turned my face up to the sky to let the raindrops fall on it… I will never forget how it felt on my skin and the smell of the wet soil. I looked at Farid and my boys and laughed out loud. I told them I needed a few minutes to just stand in the rain and feel freedom.

These words from More to the story – conversations with refugees were featured in ‘Uncertain Journeys’, a new work by composer Tom Henry and performed recently by the Australian Chamber Choir.

I had the opportunity to meet Tom and he says he drew inspiration for the work from contemporary accounts of separation from home, culture and family common to the refugee experience. He found a copy of More to the story at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne while doing research for his composition and used some words from both Fauzia and Farid’s stories.

The Sufizadas and I feel incredibly honoured to be part of Tom’s moving work, which also features the words of other refugees and extracts from the Ghazals (short sonnet-like poems) by the fourteenth century Persian poet known as Hafiz of Shiraz.

The Choir, under the direction of Douglas Lawrence, will be performing ‘Uncertain Journeys’ as part of a new program around the east coast of Australia before going on tour to Italy Austria and Germany.

The choir has made five CDs and given over 200 performances – many of which have been recorded for broadcast on ABC Classic FM.   We have our fingers crossed that one day we might hear ‘Uncertain journeys’ on the airwaves.

AusChamberChoir2017image

Ways of Being Here

Diverse voices matter in Australia more than ever. Ways of being here is pocket book-sized collection of four short stories that showcases the work of four tWays of Being Here coveralented African writers living in Australia – Raefeif Ismail, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, Tinashe Jakwa and Yout A Alaak.

Maxine Beneba Clarke writes in her introduction: “Black people of African descent – black diaspora settlers and migrants and descendants of such – have been living in Australia for over 200 years. Yet local African diaspora fiction has been markedly absent from Australian shelves”.

Ways of being here is a terrific read. You can read it slowly, dipping into it over time, or in a few hours on an afternoon or evening you might have free. Either way, I guarantee you will want to read it several times. These beautifully written stories will capture your imagination and your attention. The four write of love, loss, the challenge of living between cultures, intergenerational clashes, of being made welcome and of being isolated.

Rafeif Ismail’s moving story, ‘Light at the end’, about two young women has language that sings off the page with emotion.   He writes: “When did you become this desperate, desolate thing? When did the world’s colours dull and laughter have a price? Fear is the chain you wear, shackling you between walls of loneliness, shame, regret and, most terribly, hope.

Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes story, ‘When the sky looks like the belly of a donkey’, tackles the cultural challenges of starting a new life in Australia – a place so different from your home country. Yirga also captures what could be a group of typical Aussie blokes with insightful writing. The story about Ermi, usually mis-pronounced by many of his workmates as Army, is one I have heard from many migrants and people of refugee background. It is about starting at the bottom of the ladder, trying to fit in and always missing the people left behind. I laughed and I cringed but by the end of the story I smiled with hope.

All four short stories provide a valuable opportunity to reflect about the lives of others.

Ways of being here is published by Margaret River Press and the Centre for Stories, 2017

City of Thorns

“No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent,” Ben Rawlence writes in his haunting book City of Thorns. Ben visited the camp for the first time as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. The next year he City of Thornsreturned for what would be the first of seven separate visits to follow and write about the lives of nine inhabitants.

I highly recommend this book because it gives those of us from a privileged background real insight into everyday life in a refugee camp.

He captures the daily lives and stories of nine people caught in limbo at Dadaab. The camp was originally founded in 1992 to serve the 90,000 refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war. No one imagined that an entire generation of children would be raised there, or that so many more refugees would rush in, as the political chaos and famine in Somalia continued. “Neither the past, nor the present, nor the future is a safe place for a mind to linger for long,” he continues. “To live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically.”

I met Ben at the Perth Writers Festival and was fortunate enough to interview him on a panel with other writers. He is deep thinker who has witnessed the best and worst of humanity. He articulated what I have come to understand – thousands of people in many different refugee camps around the world have little hope of leaving. They are waiting for a new beginning that sadly may never come.

He mixes the portraits of the camp’s residents with big-picture accounts of the regional turmoil that drove them there (famine, the ascendance of Al Shabaab, corruption in the government and civil war). I was interested in his style of writing and the desire to personalise the stories of refugees and give context about countries and the situations they face because it is the way I wrote More to the story- conversations with refugees.

His stories about the people in Dadaab are brutally honest and insightful.   I found as a reader I became invested in their lives. What happened to Muna and Monday and the others? I worried about Guled, a former child soldier, and my heart ached for Kheyro and her determination to get an education. After many years in camp Muna and Monday were some of the lucky ones to be re-settled in Australia.   I breathed a sigh of relief but Ben explained at the Festival that while their lives were safe, unfortunately things had not gone well since they arrived. Sometimes that is the reality when people arrive in a new country and face other challenges on top of the trauma they may have already experienced.

The book demonstrates extraordinary human resilience and the choices people have to make to survive.

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is published by Portobello, 2016.

What’s it like to live in a refugee camp?

We’ve all seen the images. People desperately waiting for help outside in the blazing sun in front of rows of white tents. A child behind barbed wire, covered in dust, gazes into the lens of a news camera. This is true for many thousands of refugees.

But that’s just part of the story. Camp Domiz is a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq where many Kurdish-Syrian refugees have sought shelter.

As the number of refugees grew, the camp gradually transformed from a temporary refuge to a makeshift town, where people live and work, go to school, start a business, get married, argue and try to have fun….otherwise how would you get up each day and keep going?

This award winning interactive documentary allows you to scroll through hand-drawn maps, drawings, photographs, and short video impressions of life in a refugee camp.

As I moved around different parts of the map and listened to some of the stories I couldn’t help thinking about my very comfortable life and the fact that I was sitting in my very comfortable study with all I needed to hand.

It is a reminder that refugees don’t just spend months – they can spend years or even decades in a refugee camp hoping for re-settlement.

I recommend you take a look at this impressive documentary and imagine how different your life would be in a refugee camp.

Refugee-Republic-UNHCR